FRISCO, Texas — Real Salt Lake players have taken pride all season in wearing the MLS Cup champions patch on their jerseys and having a similar flag soar above Rio Tinto Stadium on game night.
Along the way, the club has developed a reputation of playing the best soccer in MLS, and most experts are picking the champs to repeat.
That title quest kicks off today in Texas at 3 p.m. in Game 1 of their two-game aggregate Western Conference semifinal.
"We think we've done all the right things this season to defend our MLS title," said RSL midfielder Ned Grabavoy.
A year ago heading into the playoffs, almost everybody laughed at No. 8-seed RSL as it won the title in a shootout. But a year later, everyone is on the bandwagon.
Even though his team is no longer the underdog, coach Jason Kreis doesn't think the mindset of the team is that different heading into the playoffs this year.
"Last year inside of our locker room, regardless of what everybody was saying outside of our locker room, we had very strong feelings about we felt we were very capable of winning the championship," said Kreis. "We weren't going to make a big deal out of that publicly because quite frankly, it was nice to just have everybody not believe in us, and it created a little more bonding in our group.
Defender Robbie Russell admits there's a different vibe around the team. A year ago, he said his family and friends were just happy to see him in the playoffs, whereas this year those same people are already looking ahead to the MLS Cup in Toronto next month.
Russell's family may be peaking ahead, but he certainly isn't.
"You can't get to the finals without getting through all the rounds before it," he said.
Two weeks ago, an RSL-Dallas playoff match-up had the makings of an epic series. Now it's up in the air.
Dallas enjoyed a 19-game unbeaten streak heading into its match at Rio Tinto Stadium two weeks ago. It lost 2-0 and followed it up with another loss at Los Angeles last weekend. On top of that, Kevin Hartman, Ugo Ihemelu and Heath Pearce all missed the L.A. game with injuries, but all are expected to play today.
Considering its 0-8-0 all-time record at FC Dallas, Real Salt Lake can't take anything for granted.
Realistically, this may be RSL's best chance at a breakthrough in Big D. The club finished the regular season on a 14-game unbeaten streak, with its last loss a 2-0 setback at Pizza Hut Park in Frisco, Texas. It allowed the fewest goals in MLS history this year, and RSL has proven itself to be a playoff savvy team the past two years with just one loss in seven matches.
Conventional wisdom says RSL will play conservatively in Game 1, and Kreis agrees.
"This may be one case where I'm conventional," he said.
A tie would be a great result for his team with the second leg at Rio Tinto Stadium next Saturday at 8 p.m. RSL hasn't lost at home since May of 2009, and its 25-game regular season home unbeaten streak is an MLS record. In all competitions, RSL hasn't lost at home in 32 straight.
Those lofty records won't matter if Real Salt Lake doesn't put up a good fight in Dallas. Even a one-goal loss isn't the end of the world with Game 2 at home.
"We played them a couple weeks ago, and we kind of felt them out, so we basically know how they play. We just have to go down there and limit their chances and hopefully get a shutout down there," said midfielder Andy Williams.
RSL shut out 15 opponents and only conceded 20 goals all season.
RSL at FC Dallas
Today, 3 p.m.
TV: Fox Soccer
Radio: 570 AM, 1600 AM
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