Sandy • Before they officially got started with training on Saturday, Real Salt Lake’s players engaged in a game of handball. They cheered. They laughed. They playfully jeered at teammates who made a mistake.
To the untrained eye, one would think these types of shenanigans would only be for teams with not a care in the world. But the moments of levity were by design for a team that starts a two-leg Western Conference semifinal round just three days after pulling an upset to advance in the first place.
“We can smell it. It’s obvious,” Sunday “Sunny” Stephen said. “The changing room right now is a lot of laughter, a lot of happiness, a lot of anxiety and a lot of energy right now.”
That nervous energy came from RSL’s stunning 3-2 road win over Los Angeles Football Club in the MLS Cup Knockout Round on Thursday. Now Salt Lake faces a Sporting Kansas City team with which it has a checkered past.
They met in a 2011 preseason game that ended in a brawl. They met in the MLS Cup final in 2013. They’ve met three times already this season.
Each time the two teams play, there always seems to be a little extra energy. A little extra physicality.
Case in point: In three games, there has been a combined 69 fouls, 11 yellow cards and two red cards.
“I think it’s just been two teams that have just been going at it and playing in games that mean something,” Kyle Beckerman said. “That usually turns up the intensity.”
RSL coach Mike Petke doesn’t seem to put much weight to the idea of a RSL-SKC rivalry. He expects his team to play hard regardless of the opponent, especially in a playoff setting.
“I don’t care if we’re playing the U-14 Sparta team from Utah tomorrow night,” Petke said. “We need to approach this the same way that we would approach any team — not just because it’s Kansas City. Because it’s the playoffs.”
RSL has the luxury of getting the first home game of the two legs. Real was 11-2-4 at Rio Tinto this season.
But Kansas City could have the antidote to Real’s home formula. SKC tied for the best road record in the West in the regular season.
One of the team’s main focuses against Kansas City is not to concede goals at home. With the aggregate scoring model in the MLS playoffs, a tie is broken by the team that scored more road goals in the two legs.
“We cannot leave ourselves vulnerable at home,” Petke said. “We cannot allow them to dictate the game, get a goal and be very stingy so we’re going back in to Kansas City not only having lost this game, but giving up a home goal. We can’t do that.”
Petke added that the same defensive mentality RSL showed against LAFC must carry over against Sporting KC.
Damir Kreilach knows about the history between Salt Lake and Kansas City. But he wants the team’s motivation to stem from the realities of the postseason, not the rivalry.
“Playoff time has to be extra motivation from every one of us,” Kreilach said. “Every one of us has one target and we have to go step by step to this target. The mood in the locker room cannot be better.”
Real has matched up well against Sporting KC this season. The two teams are 1-1-1 against each other in the three meetings.
And even with some bad blood attached, Petke thinks the game will ultimately be a continuation of that.
“I think that they’re a team that historically has brought (out) the best — since I’ve been here — in us,” Petke said of SKC. “Whether that means that we’ve won, lost or tied, the players and the style of play brings out the best in us because it forces us to work harder and it forces us to do things a little more cleaner.”
SPORTING KANSAS CITY AT REAL SALT LAKE
At Rio Tinto Stadium, Sandy, UT
Kickoff » Sunday, 8 p.m. MDT
TV » FS1
Radio » 700 AM
Regular Season Records » RSL 14-13-7, SKC 18-8-8
Last meeting » SKC 1, RSL 1 (Sept. 30)
About Sporting KC » Daniel Salloi leads the team with 11 goals and 78 shots, while Johnny Russell leads with 10 assists. … Finished atop the Western Conference, which gave it a bye in the playoffs. … Tied for the best road record in the West (8-6-3). … Will have six days of rest coming into Sunday. … Had a goal differential of 25 in the regular season.
About RSL » Coming off a 3-2 win over LAFC in the knockout round. … Damir Kreilach is up to 14 goals this season, including playoffs. … It’s possible Justen Glad starts after coming off the bench against LAFC. He has started all but two games this season. … Have won two of their last four home games. … Five different players will be suspended if they earn another yellow card. … Road win against LAFC was first road victory since Aug. 25, when RSL beat the Colorado Rapids 6-0.