SANDY The weight on Real Salt Lake to make the playoffs this year was undeniably high. From owner Dave Checketts all the way down to the players, everyone knew just how important ending the three-year playoff drought was for the franchise.
Mentally, the pressure of trying to get to the MLS postseason clearly took its toll during the final month of the season, even though the club posted a respectable 2-0-3 record in those five games.
"Getting into the playoffs for us was the most difficult thing," said RSL coach Jason Kreis. "Really, those last couple of games there was so much pressure on the players and they wanted it so badly that it meant we were too uptight. We weren't comfortable enough to play the ball and do the things that we can do." The team truly believed if it got to the playoffs, a fresh mentality would make the club very, very dangerous and a legitimate threat to compete for the MLS Cup.
It turns out it wasn't a pipe dream.
From minute one on Saturday, RSL was the better team in Game 1 of its playoff series with Chivas USA, displaying a confident swagger throughout the match that had been missing for a while.
"Now that we've gotten into this new season, I think the guys have a fresh mentality and are very confident," said Kreis. "Getting that win against Colorado in the fashion that we did makes our team even more confident."
That confidence has put Real Salt Lake in great position in its Western Conference semifinal with Chivas. By securing the late winner on Saturday, RSL only needs a tie on the road next weekend to advance in the two-game, total goals series.
There's even an outside shot RSL might host the conference final if it successfully finishes off Chivas and New York were to upset Houston in the other semifinal.
Kreis knows his team can't control what happens in the other series, but he's pleased his players once again resemble the team that occupied first place in the West earlier this summer.
"Now that we're in the playoffs, the guys have taken the shackles off a little bit. There's no more nerves about wanting to be a part of the first team in Real Salt Lake history to make the playoffs," said Kreis. "It's just go out there and believe in ourselves and play the game, and when we do that we're pretty good."Chivas hosts the second leg of the series at the Home Depot Center in Southern California on Saturday at 8:30 p.m. (MDT), a match that will be televised on Fox Soccer Channel.
Real on the air
RSL at Chivas USA
Home Depot Center
Saturday, 8:30 p.m.
TV: FSC; Radio: 700 AM