Columbus, Ohio » When Real Salt Lake made its surprising playoff run last season, it validated management's roster renovation and created the reasonable expectation that the team would improve even more the longer it played together.
So, what now?
The team spent all season effectively disproving that theory, yet finds itself in the exact same place -- in position for another stunning postseason if it can merely tie with the defending champion Columbus Crew tonight in the second leg of its first round Major League Soccer playoff series at Crew Stadium.
That would be a huge accomplishment for the team -- dispatching the heavily favored defending champions, and on the road, no less. And that could change the way management approaches the offseason and views the future of its roster, the way it did last year.
"I'm not so sure, to be honest," coach Jason Kreis said. "You make judgments about the group and you learn a lot over a long season, and I think it's faulty thinking to put too much weight into a couple of games here at the end."
But what if those games include a run all the way to the MLS Cup title game? Or even just a dominating victory over the Crew tonight, in a stadium where RSL has scored in only one of its five previous games.
"That's definitely something that would count strongly in all their favors," general manager Garth Lagerwey acknowledged. But "I would never evaluate our season till it's over."
That might be a frightening prospect to disgruntled season-ticket holders, many of whom have been airing their concerns with team officials in a series of town-hall style meetings.
Though RSL set a franchise record by winning 11 regular-season games -- one more than last season -- it was miserable on the road again and frustrated fans and organization insiders with its inconsistent play. Several of the players who had been seen as emerging stars endured disappointing seasons, most notably midfielder Javier Morales.
"We have a lot of good players here, and I think the staff believes in our guys," defender Chris Wingert said. "But you're always going to look to improve and I think we need to, because the league is constantly improving and expanding. ... But at the same time, I think we have some good pieces to the puzzle that are already here, and I'm sure that management is going to do their best to keep those pieces around."
Tonight's result definitely could inform those efforts.
A draw or victory -- and a continued playoff run -- could promote the notion that while RSL might not flourish through the drudgery of the regular season, it's stocked with players who come up big when it really matters and just needs a little tinkering.
Another in a long series of road losses, though, could buttress the idea that RSL simply doesn't have what it takes to contend for a championship and portend more significant changes.
After all, the team really hasn't done anything yet.
It basically backed into the playoffs, and its victory over the Crew in the first leg of the series was simply a continuation of what it already had been able to do -- win at home. The Crew played without two of their best players, too, and Guillermo Barros Schelotto and Alejandro Moreno are expected to return to the lineup tonight.
However it shakes out, fans will get the first clues on management's thinking soon, when it has to decide later this month which players to protect in the expansion draft that will stock the new Philadelphia Union.
For now, though, the players have only tonight's game on their minds.
"We have a chance to do some damage," Wingert said.
At Crew Stadium, Columbus, Ohio
Kickoff » 6 p.m. MST
TV » ESPN2
Radio » 570 AM, 1600 AM
Records » RSL 12-12-7; Columbus 13-8-10
Series » Columbus leads, 6-4-1
Last meeting » RSL 1, Columbus 0 (Oct. 31)
About RSL » It has lost its last three road games, is 2-11-2 on the road overall, and has won only once in five games at Crew Stadium. ... Coaches and players said they probably will play defensively, to protect the lead they earned with a 1-0 victory in the first leg of the two-game series. ... Forward Robbie Findley has scored 13 goals, including the 88th-minute winner against the Crew last weekend. ... If he picks up a yellow card and the team advances, midfielder Kyle Beckerman will be suspended for the MLS Eastern Conference final. ... It's unbeaten at 9-0-3 when scoring first, but 0-10-1 when trailing after 75 minutes.
About the Crew » Midfielder Guillermo Barros Schelotto and forward Alejandro Moreno are expected to play, after controversially staying on the bench in the first leg of the series. ... They must win to advance to the MLS Eastern Conference final. ... They're 9-2-4 at home this season, but have scored only one goal in their last five games, four of them losses. ... They have won four of the five meetings with RSL at home, all of them decided by two goals or more.
» If RSL wins or draws tonight against the Crew, it will advance to the MLS Eastern Conference final against either Chicago or New England.
» If the Crew win by just one goal -- creating a tie in the combined scoring from the two games of the series -- the teams will play two 15-minute overtime halves to decide a winner. If the game remains tied after that, it will be decided on penalty kicks.
» The Crew will advance without an overtime or penalties, if they win by two goals or more.
Today, 6 p.m. MST TV » ESPN2