Kragthorpe: RSL's wacky season ends the right way
Really, what other way could Real Salt Lake's wild regular season end?
After all of the injuries, red cards, suspensions and streaks that framed this season, the goals kept coming like crazy Saturday night even during the postgame news conference.
While coach Jason Kreis and his players were processing their disappointing 1-1 tie with Portland at Rio Tinto Stadium, San Jose's scoring spree against FC Dallas was securing third place in the Western Conference for RSL.
That position clearly was Real's goal when the night began, so the news from California was slowly brightening a locker room made gloomy by a defensive lapse that enabled Portland to score a tying goal in stoppage time.
"You cannot fall asleep for one second," Kreis said.
"We have to be mature enough to win this game," said goalkeeper Nick Rimando.
The emotional swings of the night drove home the point that RSL wanted to win the game, in case you were wondering. Right until Futty Danso scored for Portland, the scoreboard read: Integrity 1, Shenanigans 0.
RSL did the right thing, amid the presented alternatives. By losing (and having FC Dallas win or tie in San Jose), Real could have played its way out of the loaded Western Conference playoffs and into the East as a wild card, theoretically offering less resistance to the MLS Cup.
This certainly was not a case of Real trying to avoid winning, in front of another sellout crowd that deserved a full effort. RSL wanted to secure the West's No. 3 seed on its own, and obviously tried to make it happen.
RSL (16-11-7) dominated the early stages of the game, barely missing several scoring chances before going through a lull. The breakthrough came just before halftime when RSL's Alvaro Saborio beat Portland goalkeeper Troy Perkins to a bouncing ball in front of the net and somehow flipped it over Perkins' head for a goal.
Early in the second half, RSL got a break when Jack Jewsbury's penalty kick skipped off the crossbar and over the net. Even so, Real could not quite finish off the Timbers. This game just as easily could have ended 2-0, the way RSL pressured for a second goal at the end, only to have the defense allow what Rimando disgustedly described as "an easy goal."
San Jose, meanwhile, did its part to help RSL with four first-half goals against FC Dallas. So Real will prepare for a playoff matchup against No. 2 seed Seattle, with the first leg booked for Rio Tinto Stadium next Saturday. A meeting with the Los Angeles Galaxy likely would follow in the Western Conference finals. That's biting off a lot, but advancing to the MLS Cup via that route would be a lot more satisfying than sneaking through the East.
So after everything RSL has gone through this season, third place qualifies as an achievement. Citing the "ton of difficulties" confronting his team, Kreis said, "I'm hoping that all of this will mean something come playoff time."
Real enters the postseason with a six-game winless streak but feeling somewhat encouraged by two ties, disregarding the way Saturday's game ended. Ultimately, the regular season was acceptable to RSL. "Right now," Rimando said, "we're almost where we want to be."
He was speaking about the team's level of play, not the standings, but that also was applicable. RSL deserved to finish third, even if that required some assistance and even if the competition in the Western Conference playoffs may make such placement seem more like punishment than a reward.