SANDY Real Salt Lake and Chivas USA were absolutely awful in their expansion years back in 2005. They combined for a 9-44-11 record, but it's only five wins when you eliminate the four times they capitalized on their own awfulness and beat each other.
The following year, the expansion brethren began to go their separate ways.
They each made drastic changes from their freshman to sophomore seasons, but it was Chivas that got it right. The Goats made the playoffs in 2006 and 2007 including winning the West last year whereas Real Salt Lake finished last in the Western Conference both years.
The former laughingstocks of the league are one again on level terms, but no one's laughing any more. RSL and Chivas have been reunited this year in the playoffs, a two-game series that begins today at Rio Tinto Stadium at 4 p.m. The second leg of the Western Conference semifinal is next Saturday at Chivas USA, and whichever team scores the most total goals in the two games advances.
"There will be a tendency now for the team, all of our supporters and the media to think, 'OK, we've gotten here, our work is done.' That is not the case at all," said RSL coach Jason Kreis. "We have felt within our locker room that probably the most difficult task for us this year would be to make the playoffs. Now that we're in there, we feel in our hearts that we can go all the way, and that's what we plan on doing."
It won't be easy against a Chivas team that's dominated the series since their joint expansion year. In the 10 matches since 2005, Real Salt Lake is 1-6-3 against Chivas. That lone RSL victory occurred this year, and it came at the Home Depot Center one of just two RSL road wins all year. Conversely, and a reality that makes this series so intriguing, RSL's only home loss this year was against Chivas on Sept. 20, its last game in Rice-Eccles Stadium.
So what does it all mean? No one knows, but it's probably safe to expect the unexpected. Either way, one of these two franchises will advance to the conference finals for the first time in franchise history.
"These home-away series are always like playing a whole game, but two halves," said RSL defender Nat Borchers. "Anything can happen between those two games. I've seen it in all the years I've been a professional."
Real Salt Lake enters the playoffs on a five-game unbeaten streak (2-0-3), whereas Chivas USA ended the season with a win and a loss. It's a very deceiving final two games for Chivas. Back on Oct. 11, the Goats won their fourth straight game with a 1-0 win at San Jose, a triumph that officially clinched them the No. 2 seed in the West with two games remaining. The coaching staff wisely juggled their lineups the rest of the way to make sure guys stayed sharp and fresh for the playoffs.
As many as three former RSL players could be in the starting lineup for Chivas today. Atiba Harris, Alecko Eskandarian and Carey Talley were all members of RSL last year, and Talley was even with RSL this year before being traded away on May 9.
Real Salt Lake defender Chris Wingert says their relationship with the club should have no bearing on how either team approaches the match.
"It gets talked about more after the game. A guy like Alecko scores on us last game and it gets discussed, but before the game it's not so much of an issue," said Wingert.
Eskandarian's winning goal against RSL back in September was the direct result of a complete mental lapse by Borchers, something neither team can afford in a short series. Defenses clamp down in the postseason, and scoring opportunities are even rarer. Last year, Chivas was bounced from the playoffs in the first round, 1-0, despite playing 180 minutes of soccer.
Despite being the underdog, and barely squeaking into the playoffs, RSL isn't just happy to be here.
RSL on the air
Chivas USA (12-11-7) at Real Salt Lake (10-10-10)
Today, 4 p.m.
Rio Tinto Stadium
TV: FOX Soccer Channel
Radio: 1600 AM