David Ochoa chased down the referee like he wanted a yellow card. He rolled around the ground as if he were in agony after a minor collision. He absorbed the heckles and jeers of 34,000 fans. He clapped and paced and screamed with every intention of annoying and distracting.
“I enjoy being the villain,” Ochoa said. “I love when people are talking smack to me. I feel like it makes me play better.”
And, in the end, he played the villain long enough to be Real Salt Lake’s hero.
After absorbing pressure for two hours on Tuesday night, somehow keeping the Seattle Sounders scoreless, the 20-year-old goalkeeper made the lone save in a 6-5 penalty shootout to help RSL beat Seattle in the opening round of the Major League Soccer playoffs.
Defender Justen Glad’s game-winning penalty ensured that RSL would advance to the Western Conference semifinals against Sporting Kansas City this weekend.
“These guys were mentality monsters tonight,” RSL interim head coach Pablo Mastroeni said. “We talk about mentality all of the time and people say, ‘Give me an example.’ I thought tonight was a perfect example of what mentality looks like. A tough game against a great team at their home, and we found a way to win.”
Ochoa’s mentality was certainly key in a game that could have been quite ugly for Real Salt Lake.
RSL was missing its captain, Albert Rusnák, who stayed home after testing positive for COVID-19. Whether it was the midfielder’s absence, Seattle’s talent, or simply the nature of postseason soccer, Real Salt Lake looked overmatched on Tuesday, as they fought to advance.
“The playoffs are a different beast,” Mastroeni said.
The team didn’t register a single shot on the night, while Seattle had 21. Seattle took 15 corners to RSL’s one. And Ochoa was forced to make three saves in regulation and extra time, all while doing anything he could to put the Sounders on tilt.
“With them being at home, you want to slow down their tempo and not let them get in a rhythm,” the goalkeeper said. “… I think I did that pretty well today.”
Ochoa saved three shots in a scoreless regulation and extra time. In the shootout, he dove to his left on five straight shots that beat him the other way. But when one-time RSL midfielder Kelyn Rowe stepped up, Ochoa flipped the script, diving right to save what would be Seattle’s last kick of the game.
A moment later, Real Salt Lake defender Justen Glad scored the game-winner, a shot that hit Seattle goalie Stefan Frei’s hands, banged off the post and then trickled across the line.
“The most important thing is that players are playing with confidence,” Mastroeni said. “Everyone has their own way of expressing that. David, from the start of the game, I knew he was going to be lights out. When he takes on that personality, that’s his way of staying dialed in and present. He was focused. He was dictating the pace of the game as he saw fit. I think he was a huge catalyst in the result tonight.”
He was, in the end, the villain RSL needed.
“I enjoy being the villain,” Ochoa said. “And I don’t think I’ll ever stop.”