Columbus, Ohio » Forget the lousy road record. Forget the maddening regular season. Heck, it might be time to forget everything you thought you knew about Real Salt Lake.
These guys know how to rise to the occasion.
For the second season in a row, lightly regarded RSL engineered a stunning first-round upset in the Major League Soccer playoffs, this time upending the defending champion Columbus Crew by scoring three unanswered goals to claim a remarkable 3-2 comeback victory in front of 10,109 fans at Crew Stadium on Thursday night.
"We've been here before," defender Robbie Russell said. "We know what it takes to get farther in the tournament."
The victory gave RSL a 4-2 victory in the two-game series determined by total goals, and earned it a place in the MLS Eastern Conference final next weekend, on the road against either Chicago or New England.
And though the players insisted they have not become the championship favorites after knocking off the best team in the league in its own stadium, they also maintained that they have the talent and confidence to go all the way to the MLS Cup.
"It says that in our locker room -- as I've said all along -- we believe," coach Jason Kreis said. "We believe a lot more than anybody outside our locker room, and that's been pretty obvious this week from all we've read and heard. ... It will be interesting to see this week if all those people who were saying, 'They got no chance' are starting to say, 'They've got a chance.' "
Certainly, this is not a team to bet against in the playoffs.
Though it carried a one-goal lead into the second leg of the series after beating the Crew 1-0 at home last weekend, RSL figured to be cooked after the Crew's Guillermo Barros Schelotto scored twice in the first 35 minutes -- once on a nearly 50-yard free kick that bounded into the net without touching anybody in the penalty area, and again off a defensive lapse by Russell.
After all, the team had been 0-11 in road games in which the opponent scored first, and 2-11-2 overall away from home. Even Kreis acknowledged his team would have "packed it in ... game, set, match" had it faced the same situation earlier in the season.
But midfielder Javier Morales put RSL on the board off a nice through ball from teammate Kyle Beckerman just two minutes after Schelotto's second strike, giving the team a confidence boost when it needed it most.
"Huge," Kreis said.
That evened the series again, and gave RSL the confidence to wrest control of the game after absorbing torrents of Columbus pressure through most of the first half.
By the time forward Robbie Findley calmly fired home a penalty kick in stoppage time of the first half -- the Crew's Frankie Hejduk had dragged down RSL's Fabian Espindola on a free kick -- RSL had the game by the neck. Midfielder Andy Williams added the winning goal in the 74th minute when his cross off a short corner bounced past everybody in the area and into the goal -- same as Schelotto's strike -- and RSL fought off the Crew's desperate onslaught in the final 20 minutes.
"That's just heart, and staying positive," goalkeeper Nick Rimando said. "It's been stressed all year long, just to keep playing ... and I think today is actually the first time we've done that."
RSL knocks off top-seeded Columbus and will face the winner of the New England-Chicago series in the Eastern Conference final starting Thursday.
» RSL scores the final three goals to come all the way back from a 3-2 deficit.
» Javier Morales, Robbie Findley and Andy Williams score for RSL.