MLS’ Real Salt Lake, without owner, manager or star player, have become playoffs’ team of destiny

There were the losing teams in the 2021 MLS Cup qualifiers, and then there’s Real Salt Lake. You’d be forgiven if you didn’t expect them to come this far – please forgive us, Utahans.

To call RSL’s track to the MLS Western Conference final on Saturday, one of the bumpy ones would be an understatement. Salt Lake had no permanent manager after Freddy Juarez abruptly left in August to accept an assistant job with the Seattle Sounders – a demotion seen as a step up should illustrate just how messy the club is. RSL also has no owner; Dell Loy Hansen was forced to put the club up for sale last year amid accusations of racism and the promotion of a toxic culture. MLS later took over the sale, but no deal was finalized.

“Last year felt like five years,” said RSL interim president John Kimball after the club crossed the one-year mark of being sold.

The lack of certainty within the organization resulted in a product in the field that seemed far from convincing. So unconvincing, in fact, that before the playoffs started, FiveThirtyEight predicted a massive 9% chance of reaching the Western Conference Final on Saturday against the Portland Timbers.

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“We just shut each other’s mouths and we go and we love it, man,” RSL goalkeeper David Ochoa said on a broadcast on ESPN Futbol Americas. “We are in a good position now. We feel confident. I think we will get another result again on Saturday against Portland.”

RSL may prove critics and projection models wrong, but it’s easy to see where all the doubt comes from. Salt Lake barely made its way to the playoffs in first place, needing a 95th-minute goal from Damir Krelac on decision day just to take the last western spot. Oh, and in that match, the referee missed a clear penalty against RSL which would likely leave them below the playoff streak.

Then, in the first round of the playoffs, RSL held his life and didn’t score a single shot against Seattle — not a shot on target, just a shot, period. They even barely smelled a shot, took a corner kick and only crossed the ball seven times in the entire game, which took extra time. The match ended 0-0 and somehow, RSL took the lead on penalty kicks. The Sounders were heavily criticized for injuries and were playing their worst football of the year at the wrong time, but it seems that RSL had no work going on in the playoffs after such an ugly display not trying to lose.

“We believe there is no better mentality than not taking shots and continuing to win,” said Ochoa, one of the league’s main opponents, afterward, beaming at the absurdity of it.

But then something wonderful happened. Maybe it was just a “fake until you make it”, or maybe RSL, after their unorthodox trajectory during the post-season, are starting to believe they’re destined for an even bigger reward at the end of this year. Whatever the case, in the Western Conference semifinals on the road against Sporting Kansas City and in front of the famous Cauldron of fans, RSL played as a team that believed in itself.

Against a SKC team that had to be player-to-player and dollar-for-dollar the best, RSL played to win. They had more possession, more passes, more touches, more hits, more passes, more shots, more expected goals – more of everything you’d expect in a team that dominated. RSL came back from being on the back with a goal to win 2-1.

All the while, Salt Lake has missed one of its best attacking players, Albert Rusnak, due to a positive COVID-19 test. Take Rusnak, the club’s most expensive player, out of the equation, and RSL has the lowest total cost in all of the MLS, according to the MLS Players Association salary information. Meanwhile, Sporting KC ranks first in the list of the most valuable players in the league.

“The culmination of all the things that happened during the season set us up mentally and tactically for moments like tonight,” interim coach Pablo Mastroini said of the win over SKC. “The players scored, and away from home it’s easy to lose the goal and chase us. But we kept the track.”

Some credit goes to Mastroini, who took over after Juarez’s departure. As the playoffs approached, Mastrowini abandoned his fanciful ideas and became more practical to avoid the lopsided blasts that had become so common in the regular season extension. He moved away from the open 3-5-2 formation into something more defensive which made the RSL difficult to beat.

But the star player in the knockout rounds so far has been their goalkeeper, Ochoa, with central defenders Justin Glad and Marcelo Silva also playing key roles. He says something about the RSL series that defensive players were the team’s heroes, despite scoring game-winning striker Bobby Wood off the bench against Sporting. The bench players, including Wood and Justin Meram, deserve credit for keeping RSL in games, and that could show up in Saturday’s game in Portland.

Now, the long-awaited question is how long RSL can take. If they beat the Timbers – still big – they’ll be in the MLS Cup (December 11 at 3 p.m. ET, live on ABC)And maybe they can take a little inspiration from NWSL’s Washington Spirit.

No team has dealt with more public mayhem than spirit this year – an abusive coach the league had to ban because Spirit’s CEO refused to fire him, a public ownership battle in which majority players demanded a sale, and a multiple game loss due to the COVID-19 outbreak. During this mayhem, the Spirit won the NFL Final, becoming the most unexpected champion anyone could imagine.

RSL now has a chance to introduce an unexpected champion, and dysfunction may become the new winning formula.

Salt Lake’s path to chaos began last year when Hansen made a bizarre protest against racial injustice around him, outraging fans and players alike. Then came allegations that Hansen had been making racist and degrading comments for years and fostered the club’s toxic atmosphere for ethnic minorities and women.

While the Houston Dynamo and Orlando City were both sold to new owners this year, the RSL remains in limbo, and their future is unclear. It’s been 15 months since it was announced that Hansen would sell the team. MLS engages in the strange practice of handing out trophies to team owners when they win championships, and if RSL does the unthinkable and wins it all, it is unclear who will give it to MLS commissioner Don Garber. Perhaps it could go directly to the players – after all, they would have earned it.

RSL’s lead after the Timbers is still the longest of the long shots. There are only four teams left in the MLS qualifiers, and FiveThirtyEight still gives RSL only an 8% chance of winning the title, with the other three teams sharing the rest of the odds equally. But Salt Lake has already defied the odds twice – what time or twice?

As Mastrowini once said, “You lose stats to the human spirit every day of the week.” Whether it’s the spirit or grace of the football gods controlling their destiny, there’s something with this RSL team that, on paper, shouldn’t stand still – and it was pretty cool.

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