Brad Rock: Now is the time for Real Salt Lake to get interested
SALT LAKE CITY — Do you get bored and drowsy at work? Does it seem as though a numbing sameness surrounds you?
You could be a professional soccer player.
Those people have dog days, too.
For Real Salt Lake, the slump came when the club went 0-4-2 down the stretch. What a way to approach the MLS playoffs. Said midfielder Kyle Beckerman: "I think that slump we went through at the end of the season, we were sick of the regular season, ready to get going — let's do this!"
As famed ring announcer Michael Buffer would say: "Let's get rrready to rumbuuuuuule!"
And they did. The slump was followed by Saturday's shockingly easy 3-0 win over Seattle in Leg 1 of the Western Conference semifinals. Now they're on the verge of making the conference finals. With that large lead — winner of the series is determined by aggregate scoring — they'd have to completely wilt in Seattle tonight in order to fail.
Although many experts are picking RSL to lose to Los Angeles in the next round, RSL is also a rakish choice to win it all. Don't laugh. It could be 2009 all over again. That year, RSL was a heavy underdog to Columbus, yet won its first-round series on aggregate. Next round against Chicago, another upset. Finally, a surprise win over the L.A. Galaxy.
But coach Jason Kreis isn't about to ease up, saying he wants to approach tonight's game as though his team had just a 1-0 lead. To do otherwise, he said, "would be a complete disaster."
"We're not going to go up there just to defend; we're going to try to win the game," added Beckerman.
Real Salt Lake players headed north on Monday, flying out at midday, relaxed and confident. They trickled into the boarding area one at a time, checking in at the Delta VIP counter as though headed for a casual/business trip, focused but calm. Small wonder. Last Saturday, star players Javier Morales and Beckerman were on the field together for the first time since May. Before that, Morales had a horrific ankle injury and Beckerman was suspended a month for head-butting another player.
RSL lost five of six matches in late July and early August, went on a five-game winning streak August-September and in a September-October swoon, lost four straight and tied twice to end the regular season.
That was followed by the 3-0 playoff rout.
Real has its problems. It grabbed third place in the West by taking a draw against Portland on Oct. 22 but got helped with a San Jose win over Dallas. So the finish was anything but grand.
Still, big turnarounds are a way of life for RSL, which is why it is a dangerous opponent in the playoffs. Over the years, it has won in clumps and lost in clusters. For three years (2005-07), it finished with the second-fewest points in the league. Two years later, it won the MLS Cup.
This season conspired against Real, thanks to the Morales injury, along with several others. Midfielder Ned Grabavoy was limited to three substitute appearances over the final 15 games, and defender Tony Beltran missed seven consecutive matches because of a groin injury. Two players are listed as questionable for tonight's game: defenders Nat Borchers and reigning MLS Defender of the Year Jamison Olave, both battling quad strains.
But RSL remains nothing if not persistent.
"We have a lot of passion on our team, a lot of veterans who have been around," goalkeeper Nick Rimando said. "I think they know what it takes to win and it means a lot to them. We don't know how long it might take to get back to the playoffs again.
"I think everybody in this locker room knows what we can do and how good we can play, and that when it's really bad, it's really not that bad, and when it's really good, we're really not that good."
So the not-really-bad, not-all-that-good Salt Lakers are moving ahead, trying to stay humble but confident. That whopping 3-0 lead? Mist on the hillside, frost in the morning, they say. It could all disappear by the end of the day.
At least they can't say its boring.
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