Sandy • Last week, forward Justin Meram summed up the moment Real Salt Lake had Sunday in a do-or-die scenario against the Portland Timbers.
“I love pressure and I think a lot of these guys do as well,” Meram said. “You don’t become a professional by not loving these moments or not taking advantage of these opportunities. They don’t come very often.”
RSL personified those comments in a big way with its 3-1 win over the Timbers at America First Field that secured the seventh and final playoff spot in the Western Conference. RSL will play Austin FC on the road in the first round.
The team has had its ups and downs all season after finishing third in 2021 and making it to the Western Conference finals. Losing Damir Kreilach and Bobby Wood to injury most of the season didn’t help either, but the club has maintained that despite some results, the players have the requisite grit and deserve to be in the playoffs.
“We didn’t let the nerves get to us and we showed that we’re capable of showing up in big games,” said Bode Hidalgo, who scored his first-ever RSL goal late in the game.
Coach Pablo Mastroeni said that in the week leading up to the game against Portland, one training session lacked the requisite energy it would take to come away with a win. He addressed the team afterward and reminded them that the opportunity RSL had isn’t guaranteed every season.
The sessions on Friday and Saturday went how Mastroeni wanted, and they translated into Sunday’s haymaker.
“This performance wasn’t a surprise,” Mastroeni said. “I think this has been brewing. But putting together a complete performance on offense and defense, given that it was a high-pressure game and the most pressure we’ve had all year long, I think it says a lot about the commitment that everyone has to give to the group.”
RSL celebrated its playoff berth after the game the way championship teams often do — loud singing, player lockers covered in plastic, plenty of Bud Light flowing.
Jefferson Savarino scored in the 19th minute with an impressive curler to the back post. Rubio Rubin then found the back of the net for the first time in 27 games in the 48th minute. Bryan Oviedo assisted on both goals.
Hidalgo killed any chance of a Portland surge, scoring in the 82nd in a gorgeous one-two sequence with Jasper Löffelsend. Portland’s Dairon Asprilla scored the team’s only goal in the 87th.
RSL now has a date with Austin FC next Sunday (1 p.m. MDT, Ch. 4), which finished second in the Western Conference. The two teams split the season series with Real beating Austin at home in May, and losing badly on the road less than a month ago.
Mastroeni called the first-round matchup “a great opportunity” for his team, adding that the feeling within the locker room is similar to when RSL beat Sporting Kansas City on the road in the final game of last season to sneak into the playoff picture.
“I think we’re peaking at the right time,” Mastroeni said. “I think the game against L.A. [Galaxy] was a fantastic road performance where I thought we could have come away with a result. And tonight I think our quality was on full display. So I think going to Austin is going to be difficult match, but I like the matchup.”
In beating the Timbers, RSL put together a complete performance that hasn’t been seen in months. But at least goalkeeper Zac MacMath thinks it can be replicated.
“It’s going to give us a ton of confidence,” MacMath said of the win. “I think we could have had more than three goals this game. If we can play the same way, with the same energy, the same discipline, and continue to put goals in the back of the net, or we’ll have a chance down in Austin.”