Real Salt Lake’s magical postseason run ends in Portland

RSL gave up two goals on deflections, falling a game short of the club’s third trip to the MLS final

(Amanda Loman | AP) Real Salt Lake goalkeeper David Ochoa chases the ball during the first half of the team's MLS soccer Western Conference final against the Portland Timbers on Saturday, Dec. 4, 2021, in Portland, Ore.

Real Salt Lake’s magic run is over.

RSL, a win away from its third-ever MLS Cup final in club history, conceded two goals off of deflections in a 2-0 loss to the Portland Timbers Saturday night.

RSL’s month-long run, one that involved three-consecutive upset victories, all on the road, reached its conclusion on a windy and rainy Saturday night at Providence Park. Felipe Mora and Santiago Moreno scored the goals for Portland and RSL couldn’t muster a match-changing moment in the two-goal defeat.

“Tonight wasn’t our night,” interim head coach Pablo Mastroeni said. “But I couldn’t be more proud of this group for the commitment and the work they put forth in this run in the playoffs.”

Margins are slim in MLS and the most tangible difference between the two sides, at least on the scoresheet, were deflections: one off a back and another off a shin.

The afternoon began with disaster for RSL, which conceded a goal in the fifth minute off a poor clearance deep in its own box. Instead of punting the ball downfield, defender Aaron Herrera’s attempted clearance ricocheted off the shin of Portland striker Felipe Mora and past goalkeeper David Ochoa.

Then, down 1-0 in the 61st minute, RSL’s defense allowed Portland winger Santiago Moreno too much time and space on the ball as his low-driven shot from outside the box hit the left post and then Ochoa before bouncing in.

“I think both [Portland’s] goals were a bit fortuitous,” Mastroeni said. “I think if we get the one back where [Steve] Clark makes the save on [Damir Kreilach] that breathes life into the group and the outcome could have been different.”

The save Mastroeni mentioned came in the 33rd minute on Salt Lake’s first shot on goal. Shortly after it nearly conceded a second goal, Kreilach found himself open in the box and connected on a powerful header that forced Timbers goalkeeper Steve Clark into a point-blank reaction save. While it conceded seven shots through the first 45 minutes, RSL entered halftime down just 1-0.

“We knew that we were going to stay in the game, that we needed one goal to change the game,” Kreilach said. “Unfortunately we didn’t use a couple of chances and good shots. Then it was a second unlucky goal that we conceded.”

RSL’s season could have ended before this playoff run began, back on Decision Day. Instead, a late goal over Sporting Kansas City sent RSL on an unexpected postseason run.

RSL entered the playoffs as the West’s seventh seed and upset both the Seattle Sounders and Sporting Kansas City on the road to advance to the conference final. In the club’s first playoff game, it didn’t attempt a single shot, yet still defeated the Sounders in penalty kicks at Lumen Field. On Nov. 28, second-half substitute, Bobby Wood, scored a stoppage-time game-winning goal as Salt Lake outshot Sporting Kansas City 11-5 in the 2-1 victory.

In the win against Kansas City, Mastroeni’s substitutions of Justin Meram, Julio and Wood changed the course of the match. Both Julio and Wood scored goals late in the second half to help RSL advance. On Saturday afternoon, Mastroeni decided to start Julio instead of bringing him in as more of a change-of-pace option in the second half, something that RSL ultimately needed.

Midfielder Albert Rusnak, who missed RSL’s two playoff games due to a positive COVID-19 test, also started against the Timbers, but he couldn’t provide any sort of spark that RSL needed in his 90 minutes. On Saturday night, Meram replaced Julio and Bobby Wood came in for Rubio Rubin early in the second half, but they couldn’t make the same impact they did against Kansas City.

While it threw numbers forward late in the game to find a late lifeline, RSL struggled to generate much in attack after Moreno’s goal. In the 79th minute, Salt Lake went down to ten men after Herrera picked up his second yellow card.

When RSL lost at home to the Timbers 3-1 on Nov. 3, its final home game of 2021, nobody predicted the club to go on the type of run it has over the past few weeks. Until Saturday afternoon, that defeat over a month ago was the club’s last. Since then, they went on to win three-consecutive games on the road.

“Nobody gave us a shot when the season started and nobody gave us a shot when the playoffs started either,” Mastroeni said. “To have the mental toughness to overcome the perception of who we are is fantastic.”

Calling RSL’s 2021 season bizarre would be an understatement. On Aug. 27, Mastroeni took on the interim coach role after former coach Freddy Juarez left for an assistant coaching position in Seattle midway through the season. It needed a last-second goal on Decision Day to clinch a spot in the postseason. After the game, Kreilach discussed what the team learned about itself since its 2-1 win against Minnesota United on April 24.

“We are a really good defensive team and if everyone is on the same page and fights for every inch on the field, then it’s so hard to score on us,” Kreilach said. “We proved that in the last game of the season against KC, in Seattle and then against KC again. Unfortunately, we didn’t tonight, but we have to take this part of the game to next season.”

Just like that, RSL’s season is over after its magical playoff run came up short in the Conference Final. Mastroeni’s side opens its 2022 season in Houston against the Dynamo on Feb. 27, 2022.

“Every one of us can see ourselves in the mirror and say ‘OK, we gave everything,’” Kreilach said. “Even with the ten guys, we gave everything, and this is why all of us have to be proud.”