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The Salt: Genuine excitement ahead of RSL vs. Portland

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I’ve got a new attitude.

MLS: Playoffs- Semifinals-Real Salt Lake at Sporting KC Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

I’m writing this as we’re on our way to Portland, and part of our drive has entailed some light podcasting — a travel log, of sorts. It’s been some time since I was on a road trip to see this team, and it’s been even longer since I felt genuinely excited about our prospects in a big match.

Why?

We’ve talked about it plenty over the last, say, seven years. The end of the 2013 season was a defeating one, and in some ways, it feels like this is Real Salt Lake finally waking up from a long, unfortunate slumber. (We call these years “the Dell Loy Hansen era.”)

That feeling of optimism is a strange one. I have expressed concerns throughout the season, and I went into the playoffs with a feeling of indifference. I was certain Seattle had our number. I was certain Sporting Kansas City had our number, too. But now? I’m feeling ready for Real Salt Lake to face Portland Timbers.

It is perhaps the combination with the Dell Loy Hansen exit that has given me an additional bolstering of hope. But while it’s fun to talk about the feeling of hope, it will be more meaningful to talk about the actual match.

The return to a four-man backline

We are not, of course, guaranteed to stick with a four-man backline in this match. Everton Luiz is out, and Albert Rusnak is back. Those two players may not play in the back, but they certainly have an impact on how the team sets out to play.

RSL’s return to such a defensive shape has made quite the impact on the team’s chances in our last two playoff matches. Our three-man backline was known for its leakier qualities, and come playoff time, no team wants to leak goals. Switching to a tactical setup that adds some priority to proper defending has come at the absolute latest moment it could, but you know what? I guess I can’t complain now that we’re here.

A team of miracles

We’ve spent a long time talking about the impact Anderson Julio has had on Real Salt Lake, and certainly, it has been substantial. We’ve also spent plenty of time talking about Damir Kreilach’s goal in the final minute of the regular season — the one that got us into the playoffs. Let’s talk through some of the matches with late outcomes that got us here, and let’s move backward in time.

  • Nov. 7, 2021 — Damir Kreilach scores at the death against Sporting Kansas City, propelling us into the Western Conference final.
  • Oct. 27, 2021 — Albert Rusnak scores in the 90th minute against FC Dallas, breaking a 1-1 deadlock for a 2-1 win.
  • Sept. 29, 2021 — Anderson Julio breaks the deadlock in 95th minute against LA Galaxy; a 2-1 win ensues.
  • Aug. 18, 2021 — Replace “LA Galaxy” with “Houston Dynamo” above, and you’ll have this exact goal. Oh, and “95th” with “88th.” Still!
  • June 7, 2021 — Erik Holt scores in the 92nd minute, then Damir Kreilach scores in the 95th as Real Salt Lake rescues a 3-1 victory over Vancouver Whitecaps.

And there you have it. Five matches decided late. Two different coaches. It’s been a remarkable season, and we’ve been a remarkable team. Sometimes that’s meant “remarkably bad,” and sometimes it’s meant “remarkably good.

A healthy rotation of wingers

The joke at the beginning of the season was that Real Salt Lake had more wingers than it had defenders, which wasn’t so much a joke but a statement of fact. That was a surprisingly smart piece of roster building, because it’s resulted in a rotation that’s benefited the team over time.

It’s not so simple as “Anderson Julio can be a super-sub,” but it is partly that, too. In former iterations of RSL, Julio would likely have been a starting player, and his skill is such that would be justified in expecting that. But what we’ve seen is a player that comes in with energy and focus — and we’ve actually seen the same thing from Justin Meram.

By both of those players being rotational options — and especially bench options — we’ve effectively reduced injury time and fatigue. Jony Menendez and Maikel Chang as starters is not necessarily what I thought we’d go into two playoff games doing, but it speaks well to our depth that we can make decisions like that. That’s been a driver of success for us, especially in a season that was a month shorter than usual but without a reduction in games played.