LEHI — In a perfect world, Real Salt Lake would've spent the last month of the MLS season getting into a rhythm and fine-tuning the defensive details in anticipation of its playoff run.
Instead, the adversity just continued to pile on.
Right about the time Javier Morales returned from an injury, several key RSL starters went down with injuries, and captain Kyle Beckerman was suspended for what amounted to the final month of the season. RSL didn't handle the adversity well, either, limping toward the MLS finish line this year with an 0-4-2 record since Sept. 28.
Ironically enough, all of the struggles might be exactly what RSL needs heading into its Western Conference semifinal series against favored Seattle.
Historically, RSL has fared much better as an underdog.
"Given what we've been through the entire season, the ups and downs, the injuries, the adversities we've faced, we have a big chip on our shoulder leading into this series, and I think that's when we're at our best," said defender Nat Borchers. "We know what's on the line and our backs are against the wall."
Back in April during the Champions League final with Monterrey, nobody gave RSL a chance of getting a result in the first leg in Mexico. It used the doubt as motivation and earned a 2-2 draw. Coming home, the consensus was that RSL would take care of business and claim the continental championship. It struggled with the pressure and lost 1-0.
RSL's success and struggles in the playoffs the past three years is further evidence.
In 2008, Real Salt Lake was an underdog against Chivas USA in their two-game semifinal series, but advanced on aggregate 3-2. After New York upset Houston in the other West semifinal, RSL suddenly found itself hosting the Western Conference final in a brand new Rio Tinto Stadium — a game everyone though RSL would dominate. It lost 1-0.
In 2009, nobody gave RSL a chance in the playoff against MLS Supporters Shield winner Columbus, but RSL won on aggregate 4-2. In the next round, most figured Chicago would win, but RSL advanced on penalties. RSL faced the same sentiment in the 2009 MLS Cup final against Los Angeles, and once again it embraced the underdog role and prevailed on penalties.
"Unfortunately, it seems like our team loves to have its back against the wall. Whatever gets the job done," said defender Robbie Russell, who's played in all nine of RSL's playoff games over the past three seasons.
Last season, RSL ended the regular season on a 14-game MLS unbeaten streak and was the clear favorite heading into its Western Conference semifinal series against FC Dallas. It dropped the first game at FC Dallas and couldn't make up the difference in the second leg at Rio Tinto Stadium.
After the early exit, Beckerman said, "Sometimes the playoffs are a crapshoot and it wasn't our time this year."
That trend of performing better when an underdog continued throughout the 2011 regular season. RSL's record against playoff teams (8-6-4) was slightly better than against non-playoff teams (7-5-4).
"Sometimes we play up when we're playing against tougher opponents in the standings, and then maybe down sometimes when we play a lesser opponent in the standings. I can't really put my finger on it," said Beckerman.
RSL coach Jason Kreis is the first to admit Seattle is the favorite in their playoff encounter, saying "they have the points to prove it."
He's quick to point out that RSL shouldn't just be casually disregarded in the matchup, though.
"Along the way, Real Salt Lake has gotten a few points this season as well," Kreis said. "For all of our trials and tribulations, and suspensions and referees' decisions and international call-ups and injuries, here we are third place in the league, and you can believe me when I say this — we've earned every single point we got this year."
Western Conference semifinals
Seattle (18-7-9) at Real Salt Lake (15-11-8)
Saturday, 8 p.m. MT
Rio Tinto Stadium, Sandy
TV: Fox Soccer, TSN2
Radio: 1600 AM, 99.1 FM
Note: Second leg scheduled Wednesday, Nov. 2, at Seattle
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