SANDY — For two reasons, Real Salt Lake’s season continues, following Sunday’s 1-1 draw with Sporting Kansas City.
First, there’s no other option. Having surprised the experts by winning its knockout match with Los Angeles FC on Thursday, Real is now in a two-game aggregate semifinal series. Second, despite not winning at home, this has been Real’s modus operandi.
Every few years it pops up to remind a mostly big-market league that this is a big-idea organization. Otherwise, it would have skipped town before ever putting down roots.
From the looks of things on Sunday at Rio Tinto, people have missed the playoff vibe.
From the looks of Real, there are more improbable things to do.
So Real goes to Children’s Mercy Park for Leg 2. Whether RSL should have even been playing now is immaterial. Real could have used a win Sunday, but it’s still doing what Real does.
It turns unlikely occasions into big occasions.
So winning next week wouldn’t be the biggest obstacle RSL has ever faced. In 2009, it was the fifth-place team in the Western Conference, finishing up the regular season with a losing record (11-12-7). No problem. It reached the MLS Cup Final, matched against a glamorous L.A. Galaxy, famous for Landon Donovan, David Beckham and the 100 million squealing teenage fans.
RSL’s Robbie Russell scored on the seventh round of a shootout to win the MLS championship.
Los Angeles went back to living in Los Angeles and Real got on with punching above its weight class.
Four years later, it was a more mature Salt Lake franchise. RSL was no mystery team by then. It finished second in the conference, just a point out of first. The Galaxy fell to Salt Lake in the conference semifinals, as did Portland in the conference final.
Cue the “Jaws” music. Real advanced to the MLS Cup Final in Kansas City. Most previous finals had been held at neutral sites. Not this time. The stadium was ice blue from top to bottom. No one could tell if that was SKC’s colors, or the sub-freezing temperatures that made it so.
The match was played on an ice-encased field with temperatures in the teens.
RSL lost, but not until the 10th round of a penalty shootout.
So Real knows playoffs and playoff challenges, even though it hasn’t hosted a home match since 2014. Improbable as it was for RSL to be in the conference semifinals this year, things happen. Two weeks ago the team looked dead in the water, with the Galaxy hosting Houston on the final day of the season. Salt Lake needed underdog Houston to win, and it did — though not before falling behind 2-0 and scaring the tattoos off Nick Rimando’s forearms.
Next, Real had to defeat Los Angeles Football Club last Thursday in L.A. The win came on an own goal.
“You gotta love sports,” coach Mike Petke said.
The coach said his team deserves the playoffs. No argument there. Damir Kreilach scored two goals against LAFC, one on a karate kick that would make Chuck Norris faint. It nearly overcame Petke, who kissed Kreilach’s cheek during postgame interviews.
Three days later, Real was back at work in the first match of the series with Kansas City, a team RSL beat once and tied once this season. It wasn’t a chummy affair. The teams have been chippy with one another for almost a decade. Few of the originals remain, but there were some — primarily Nick Rimando and Kyle Beckerman from Real and Graham Zusi from SKC.
“Remember 2013!” might have been Sunday’s war cry. Too bad only Rimando and Beckerman would.
Real controlled possession but not the scoring. That was up to the Fates. Kansas City doubled RSL’s shots on target. One diving save and one leaping save by Rimando kept SKC from jumping ahead in the first half.
Albert Rusnak tallied in the 54th minute, but K.C.’s Diego Rubio answered seven minutes later.Comment on this story
A draw was the best Real could do.
A respectable crowd showed up (14,045), especially considering it was a Sunday night in November, and because playoff tickets were a la carte. If not the madhouse Real would have dreamed, it was loud enough and long enough to make its point.
The game was stopped several times for injuries. There was plenty of tumbling and flopping, arm waving and pointing, and a lot of entanglements. That’s how the match went. It’s also how life goes when you’re Real Salt Lake.