Sandy » Coach Jason Kreis knows from agonizing personal experience how tight the Major League Soccer standings turned out this season, so he expects to see some upsets in the first round of the playoffs.
Now, if only his team can be responsible for one of them.
Real Salt Lake opens its unexpected playoff run today against the defending champion Columbus Crew at Rio Tinto Stadium, where it hopes it can pull off a convincing victory over the top seed and give itself a far better chance of surviving the return leg of the two-game series on the road.
"Now that we're here, we need to pick up our level and make a run at going to the championship," defender Chris Wingert said. "We're not going to be satisfied with losing in the first round."
Easier said than done, no doubt.
While RSL strained all season to make up for an early seven-game winless streak and needed all kinds of help to defy even its own projections and sneak into the playoffs on the final day of the regular season, the Crew was one of the most consistent teams in the league, featuring one of the best players.
Midfielder Guillermo Barros Schelotto is the reigning league Most Valuable Player, and coach Robert Warzycha has steadied the team while replacing legendary former boss Sigi Schmid, who left to take over the expansion Seattle Sounders after leading the Crew to last season's title.
The Crew enjoyed a 24-game home unbeaten streak, at one point, and talented players such as wingers Eddie Gaven and Robbie Rogers and defenders Chad Marshall and Frankie Hejduk have made them the envy of their rivals.
Since starting the season with a six-game winless streak, the Crew have gone 13-5-6 and allowed just 20 goals in their last 24 games.
"They really are a team, in every sense of the word," Kreis said. "It's all about believing in each other and playing for each other."
That's what RSL hopes to do, just like last season.
It made an unexpected run to the MLS Western Conference final, and believes it can put things together for an encore.
Midfielder Andy Williams said the team would like to emulate the New York Red Bulls, who came out of nowhere as the eighth seed and beat RSL to reach the MLS Cup title game last season, and Kreis noted that RSL has enjoyed good results from three of its last four games, counting an exhibition draw against Mexico's Chivas de Guadalajara.
"We feel good about where the team is right now," he said, "and I think we should collectively -- as players, coaches, staff, fans -- feel confident about what we've got here this year."
The RSL players and coaches have said the key to slowing the "tough," "compact" and "workmanlike" Crew is containing Schelotto, and dominating possession to keep them under pressure.
The Crew won only once in their last four regular-season games, but Warzycha and Kreis agreed that was because they already had clinched a playoff spot and were juggling the lineup because of injuries and a crucial CONCACAF Champions League game in Puerto Rico jammed into the schedule.
Meanwhile, RSL was the best home team in the league this season, tying a league record with a plus-23 goal differential, and it knows it must keep that up because it was almost equally bad on the road. And with the series determined by aggregate scoring, it can't expect to win if it heads back to Columbus for the second leg next week already behind.
But there's a sense a renewed hope around RSL, after it figured it was going to be eliminated from the playoffs following a loss at Toronto two weeks ago, and Kreis has proclaimed that he believes his team "can go the whole way" to a championship. That would be a massive achievement for a team that stumbled at so many crucial points during the regular season.
"We've played great many times this season," Williams said. "We're glad we're in this position right now. It's an uphill battle, but I think this team is pretty solid all the way around, and I think we can pull it off."
At Rio Tinto Stadium, Sandy
Kickoff » Today, 4 p.m.
TV » KUTV 2.2 / Comcast 111
Radio » 700 AM, 1600 AM
Records » RSL 11-12-7; Columbus 13-7-10
Series » Columbus, 6-3-1
Last meeting » Columbus 3, RSL 1 (July 18, 2009)
About RSL » Riding a 10-game unbeaten streak at home, it has won its last two home games by a combined 5-0 score. ... Forward Robbie Findley leads the team with 12 goals -- including four of the five that RSL has scored against the Crew. ... It's 9-1-5 at home this season, with seven victories by two goals or more. ... It led the league in shots and shots on goal. ... It split the season series with the Crew, winning 4-1 at home during the Crew's six-game winless streak to start the season, and losing 3-1 on the road to a team missing many of its top players.
About the Crew » The defending champions and top seed, they have allowed only 20 goals in their last 24 games. ... Midfielder Guillermo Barros Schelotto leads the team with 12 goals and three assists, while winger Eddie Gaven has scored six goals. ... They scored only once while going 1-3 in their last four games. ... Defender Chad Marshall -- whom RSL's Jason Kreis regards as the best defensive player in the league -- will be available after missing six games with a strained knee ligament.
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