RSL feels prepared to tackle new MLS playoff format

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Real Salt Lake goalkeeper Nick Rimando (18) reacts as Real Salt Lake defeats the Houston Dynamo 2-1 in his last regular season home game, in MLS soccer action, at Rio Tinto Stadium, Sunday, Sept. 29, 2019.

Herriman • Prior to the 2019 Major League Soccer season, the playoff format for four years featured a mixture of one-game knockout rounds, and two-leg rounds decided by an aggregate scoring model that gave more weight to goals scored by the road team.

But MLS changed that rule last December, going to an all-knockout-round format that more closely mirrors international soccer tournaments. The league also shortened the season at the time. RSL players and officials said in January that they welcomed the changes despite drawbacks associated with them.

Now RSL, along with the rest of the league, will finally have the opportunity to experience the new format. Goalkeeper Nick Rimando said the way the team ended the 2019 regular season likely primed them for the change in format.

“I think the end of the year was preparation for this situation,” Rimando said Tuesday after training. "Every game meant something — the points, the value of every game. I think the last four or five games, we put ourselves in these positions and know that it’s do or die now. These are the games that mean the most, and I think we’re clicking at the right time.”

In the final few weeks of the season, the Western Conference standings were such that only a handful of points separated the second-place team from the eighth-place team. Every week, a team could possibly move up or down two or three spots. It created an exciting and stressful playoff-type feeling before the the regular season was over.

That could be part of the reason RSL managed to climb to the third seed in the West largely unnoticed. RSL finished with 53 points, just five more than FC Dallas, which ended in seventh place.

But regardless of seeding or recent run of form, Rimando likes his team being the underdog.

“We like flying underneath the radar,” Rimando said. “I’ve been on teams before where you’re not the highlight team. But we handle our business under cover.”

RSL’s fortuitous position could give it a viable path to the MLS Cup, especially because it will start its run at home this season as opposed to last, when Real had to beat LAFC on the road to advance to the conference semifinals.

Interim coach Freddy Juarez twice stressed the importance the crowd at Rio Tinto Stadium will have when Salt Lake faces Portland on Saturday.

“I think what’s going to tip the scales is our support,” Juarez said. “We need our fan base there. We need just an emotional game to give us that extra push. Toward the end of the season, our job is just to work the tactics here, keep them. But we want that excitement from the fans to really push us.”

Midfielder Damir Kreilach couldn’t seem to decide if the new knockout-only playoff format was a good thing. But he said RSL will give its all nonetheless.

“It can be an advantage and at the end, cannot be an advantage,” Kreilach said. “This is a one-game playoff, and for sure you want to put 100 percent and concentrate yourself for this game. This is exactly what we want to do and what we want to try to do on Saturday.”

The common aphorism for winner-take-all situations is, “Anything can happen.” For Rimando, that includes the possibility of winning a title.

“There’s no reason why we can’t make it to MLS Cup,” Rimando said. “That’s the attitude we have to have going into this first game and take it one game at a time.”

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