'Big game' experience gives Real Salt Lake a big advantage
SALT LAKE CITY — A lot went right for Real Salt Lake in Saturday's playoff opener against Seattle, and experience is probably the biggest reason why.
There's no better evidence of that than a quick snap shot of two of the strikers. Seattle's Sammy Ochoa was making his first career MLS start and seemed in way over his head at times. Conversely, Alvaro Saborio was making his 66th start in a Real Salt Lake uniform.
The two goals he scored against Seattle raised his career total with RSL to 33. On top of the 133 career professional goals he scored prior to joining RSL, not to mention the 24 with the Costa Rican National Team, it's easy to see why he felt so calm and Ochoa didn't.
"We've been in some major competitions, some big massive games, and we have experience here, you can't teach experience. You can't buy it from anywhere, you have to do it. So hopefully that will continue to pay off for us," said RSL midfielder Will Johnson.
That vast experience wasn't just limited to Saborio either.
All 11 starters for RSL have been with the club for at least two years. All 11 played extended minutes in the Champions League final in Monterrey. All 11 played at least four games in the Champions League knockout stages, and all but Saborio played in RSL's MLS Cup triumph over Los Angeles in 2009.
RSL's experience in big games certainly seemed to make a difference in the opener of the Western Conference semifinal.
Many of Seattle's starters have played in playoff and CONCACAF matches as well, but their track record isn't nearly as impressive.
Saturday night was the 10th MLS playoff game in RSL history, and its current core of players have been a part of most of them. The club has advanced out of two of three first round series, one of two conference finals and won the MLS Cup in its only appearance.
Seattle, meanwhile, is 0-2 in its previous two playoff series with just one goal scored.
Experience is one of the only ways to explain how an RSL team that hadn't won in six matches could so thoroughly dominate a Seattle team that had won four of its last five regular season games.
"It's such a weird thing. You go into the playoffs, and obviously we haven't been playing our best stuff, but we kept telling ourselves if we keep playing and working through it the soccer's gonna show through," said RSL midfielder Ned Grabavoy. "It doesn't necessarily surprise me. This is a very veteran group, and I thought the light would turn on."
Heading into the second game at Seattle on Wednesday, the Sounders must triple their five-game playoff scoring output in one 90-minute performance if they hope to pull even with RSL.
For a group of players who saw a two-goal lead at Cruz Azul evaporate in minutes last summer, they know anything is possible.
"There's still a lot of work to be done. Nobody's kidding themselves that this series is over by any stretch. They're going to throw everything they have at us, and it's going to take a heroic effort from our team to withhold everything they've got up there, the big crowd, the quality of their players," said Johnson.
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