When Real Salt Lake’s patchwork defense was leaking goals at an alarming rate earlier this season, rumblings around MLS were that age had finally caught up with the club.
Now, with the MLS playoffs getting under way Friday in Seattle at 8 p.m. MDT, RSL features one of the stingiest defenses in MLS, and it could be poised for another deep playoff run.
Over its past 11 matches in all competitions, Real Salt Lake has surrendered just three goals in posting a 6-1-4 record. In the playoffs, where scoring opportunities decrease significantly, RSL is built for success.
“The first game is always tentative, it doesn’t seem like there are a lot of opportunities to score based on how well teams are defending. That first goal is usually huge,” said defender Nat Borchers. “Getting that first goal for either side is going to be big, 'cause it can really change the momentum of the game and could change the outcome of the series.”
In fact, in Real Salt Lake’s four previous appearances in the two-game Western Conference semifinals, the team that scored first advanced each time.
That includes last year’s semifinal series with Seattle. RSL dominated Game 1 at home with a 3-0 win and narrowly held on for the 3-2 aggregate win after Seattle prevailed 2-0 in Game 2.
The roles are reversed this year. The Sounders host Game 1 at Century Link Field, with the return leg being held at Rio Tinto Stadium next Thursday.
Jason Kreis joked that another 3-0 victory in the opener would be fantastic, but he’s not really getting caught up in what an acceptable result is for the first leg.
“It’s no time now because it’s playoffs to start saying, ‘OK we’re just going to focus on results,’ because we know we can’t get results unless we focus on the performance and all the details that go into performances,” said Kreis.
Attention to detail the final third of the season was a big contributor to the team’s defensive rejuvenation — including a shutout against Seattle just over two weeks ago. That 0-0 game at Seattle on Oct. 17 had a playoff intensity to it as the teams jockeyed for playoff position.
Borchers said it’s important RSL doesn’t get too high or low based on Friday's result.
“We’d like to come home with a win, that would be fantastic. If we get a draw, OK. If we go down a goal, go down two goals, we’re still going to be OK. We’re coming back home, we’re going to play in Rio Tinto, which is our home stadium, and we always play well there, so I don’t think we’re going to be very concerned either way,” said Borchers.
Rio Tinto Stadium hasn’t been quite that kind lately. After losing one MLS match at home in 2009 and 2010 combined, Real Salt Lake has dropped seven combined league games the past two years.
Before the club worries about taking care of business at home, it will try and revive a stagnant attack in Seattle. RSL has been shut out in three straight games and hasn’t scored a goal in 333 consecutive minutes.
Seattle, meanwhile, has scored nine goals in posting a 3-1-1 record over all competitions since Oct. 7.
Both teams have question marks going into the game. Seattle striker Eddie Johnson and defender Leo Gonzalez are both listed as questionable. RSL defenders Borchers and Jamison Olave are listed as probable after resting their respective leg injuries the regular season finale last weekend.
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