Real Salt Lake: Can this team make another run at the MLS Cup?
Real Salt Lake was a heavy underdog against defending Major League Soccer champion Columbus in 2009, but shocked the Crew in the two-leg Eastern Conference semifinals to spark a run that took RSL all the way to the MLS championship.
Can it happen again?
Once again this past week, Real opened a semifinal series against a favored opponent, and again beat the odds, toppling Seattle by an aggregate 3-2 score in the two games. The Sounders were arguably MLS's hottest team going into the postseason and RSL had slumped down the stretch, going winless in its past six games.
But it didn't matter. At full strength for the first time since early in the season, Real dominated in Saturday's series opener 3-0 at Rio Tinto Stadium, then held off a furious Seattle rally on Wednesday in a 2-0 loss at CenturyLink Field, winning the series on total goals.
Looming ahead: A Sunday meeting with the L.A. Galaxy at the Home Depot Center for the Western Conference championship and an MLS Cup berth. Yes, the same favored Galaxy team that RSL defeated in a memorable shootout to win the Cup in '09.
A few weeks back, RSL midfielder Kyle Beckerman put RSL's outrageous 2009 run the club had a losing record that year and slipped in to the playoffs on the final weekend of the regular season into perspective.
"I think we underachieved," he said.
And he may have a point.
A group now considered RSL's core Beckerman, Javier Morales, Jamison Olave, Robbie Russell, Nick Rimando, Nat Borchers and FabiÃ¡n EspÃndola dominated the league for much of the 2010 season, nearly capturing the Supporters' Shield that goes to the best team in MLS.
Earlier this season, this same nucleus pushed RSL to the brink of becoming the first U.S. team to win the CONCACAF champions league, before a rash of injuries, call-ups and suspensions set in and dulled the rest of the regular season. Now that the team is fully intact once again, RSL coach Jason Kreis sees no reason why Real can't unleash another championship push.
"For me, it is time," Kreis said just before the start of the playoffs.
There was plenty of evidence on display in the Seattle series that RSL is capable.
Real possessed and attacked in swarms in the series opener against the Sounders, then took Seattle's best shot in the second leg and survived behind a back line anchored by Rimando in goal. Considering RSL was without both Borchers and Olave, both sidelined with quad injuries, the effort was nothing less than stellar.
"I thought our defenders did great," Rimando said Wednesday. "Having [Chris] Wingert go inside where he doesn't normally play and to come into a place like this and to fight and to battle and to play against [Seattle forward Fredy] Montero â¦ I thought we handled them great."
RSL will need more of the same against the Galaxy, who closed out the New York Red Bulls 2-1 Thursday night at the Home Depot Center.
"It was an unbelievable battle from everybody the whole game, but especially the first half," RSL defender Chris Wingert said. "And then for [the Sounders] to get two early ones in the second half, it's just like, 'Oh, man. We're going to have to outlast this for whatever it was, 25 or 30 minutes.' "
Wingert, like everybody else, is looking forward to what's next. Even if next includes Landon Donovan and David Beckham.
"I'm just excited to go back to being in a game where hopefully we can possess the ball and play and it'll be a lot more fun," he said.
RSL's playoff history
2008 • Defeated Chivas USA in Western Conference semifinals; lost to New York Red Bulls in Western Conference Finals.
2009 • Defeated Columbus in Eastern Conference semifinals; defeated Chicago Fire in Eastern Conference Finals; defeated L.A. Galaxy for MLS Cup.
2010 • Lost to Dallas in Western Conference semifinals.
2011 • Defeated Seattle to advance to Western Conference Finals. Will face L.A. Galaxy for the conference title.