"It's all about belief."
RSL Midfielder and acting Captain Damir Kreilach shared this thought when he sat down for his postgame media availability Sunday in Kansas City following yet another dramatic win in the Audi 2021 MLS Cup Playoffs.
It’s a mantra that has been synonymous with the Utah Club for years, thanks to the work of Branden Steineckert in 2009, but one that has been adapted with new life by every coach, player and staff member in the Real Salt Lake organization — no one else may believe, but we do.
Interim Head Coach Pablo Mastroeni began publicly preaching about mentality and the power of belief just over a month ago, when the RSL season was hanging in the balance. In order to qualify for the postseason, RSL would need to go into the “Blue Hell” and defeat vicious rival Sporting Kansas City, a perennial Western Conference power, a task many thought to be impossible.
And in the fifth minute of MLS “Decision Day” stoppage time, the improbable, unthinkable and borderline impossible occurred, when veteran winger Justin Meram bicycle-kicked a shot into the path of Kreilach, who volleyed it past goalkeeper Tim Melia to steal the win at the death, on the final kick of the regular season, sneaking RSL into the playoffs, and eliminating another rival, LA Galaxy.
“It was a complete effort from everyone, but the key word is belief,” Mastroeni shared after the dramatic win. “These guys have been warriors all year long, so credit goes to the guys for believing in themselves, believing in the project, believing in the work and reaping this wonderful moment.
However, qualification for the MLS Cup Playoffs was still met with criticism and skepticism, as a controversial non-call sullied the victory in Kansas City for some pundits and soccer fans. But back in Salt Lake City, Utah the Claret-and-Cobalt set sights on the next task.
Once again, RSL would be plagued with the David and Goliath storyline as the team was slated to face Seattle Sounders FC in Round One of the 2021 playoffs, doing so at Lumen Field, a venue the Club has historically struggled at.
Beneath the watchful eyes of 34,012 of the Sounders’ faithful, RSL withstood the waves of Seattle’s pressure for 120 minutes, putting the fate in the hands of homegrown goalkeeper David Ochoa in a tension-filled penalty shootout.
As Aaron Herrera, Pablo Ruiz, Damir Kreilach, Bobby Wood and Marcelo Silva all put away their shots, the shootout moved to sudden-death.
In the sixth round, Ochoa dove right on a shot from former RSL man Kelyn Rowe and pushed the Seattle shot wide of goal, to shift the momentum in Real Salt Lake’s favor.
Another homegrown, defender Justen Glad, the team’s 24-year old centerback, with 170 games under his belt, made his way to the penalty spot. With his right foot , Glad - who had been benched come playoff time by former bosses Mike Petke and Freddy Juarez, despite 30 regular season games in both 2018 and 2019 - sent the ball inside the left post, where it ping-ponged its way across the line, glancing off the right post as Seattle and the world realized RSL had advanced to the Conference Semifinals for the 10th time since 2008.
RSL had done it again, overcome insurmountable odds, taking down one of the best in the West, all on will and power of the team’s belief.
“To borrow a phrase that I often hear across the pond, these guys were mentality monsters tonight. We talk about mentality all the time and tonight was a perfect example of what that mentality looks like,” Mastroeni shared after the game.
But once again the advancement was criticized, as RSL had failed to tally a single shot during regulation, or extra time, only squeaking their way into the next round by “parking the bus” - but Mastroeni’s team knew better.
The penalty-kick shootout win in Seattle secured a place in the Western Conference Semifinals, and a chance to advance to the Club’s fourth Western Conference Final. To do so, RSL would travel back to Kansas City and face a team with a chip on their shoulder, precisely three weeks after they had lost in such a dramatic fashion, losing out on the No.1 West seed, a CONCACAF Champions League spot, and a first-round postseason bye.
The three days between the Seattle victory and a trip to Kansas City saw RSL speak about the ever-present confidence, despite the odds stacked against them.
"People talk about us having zero shots on goal or whatever, but they had 20 shots and the only three they had on target were right to my hands, so to me it doesn't really count,” goalkeeper David Ochoa said prior to Kansas City. “The same people who are talking smack right now are the same people who doubted us this whole season. So we're fully confident and we have a good mentality going to Sporting KC and I think we'll come out on top.”
And that they did.
RSL came out as the firm aggressors, maintaining more than 65% of the possession through the first half hour. And unlike in Seattle, the team created several chances on target, forcing Sporting Kansas City onto their back heels. But an unfortunate foul in the box led to a penalty kick goal and RSL once again found themselves contemplating the end of their season.
In the 57th minute at KC, Mastroeni brought on super-subs Anderson Julio and Justin Meram to spark into the team’s attack. Twenty minutes later, that spark ignited as Julio found the end of a cross from another homegrown, defender Andrew Brody, for a dramatic equalizer.
In storybook fashion, the feeling of deja vu emerged as minutes on the clock began to dwindle, with RSL pestering Sporting’s back line. As the clock rolled over into stoppage time, Meram turned the jets on, zooming past the KC defense, cutting back towards goal, where another substitute, forward Bobby Wood, deftly used an angled run and the outside of his foot to one-time the Meram cross inside the far post. RSL’s eighth stoppage-time goal, and its 20th in the final 15 minutes of games, delivered yet another win in the midst of Sporting KC’s “Blue Hell” in the final moments of the match.
“It’s all about belief. At halftime we talked to each other, if we could score one we were going to score a second one and win the game and that’s exactly how it was at the end,” Kreilach said. “As I said before, it’s all about the group and the confidence we have right now is unbelievable so we keep going. It’s another tough away game against Portland, but we are going to go there to win again.”
No one else may believe, but time and time again this team has proven that all it takes is belief in oneself to find the will to win.
And on Saturday in Portland, I’m the Western Conference Final, Real Salt Lake has yet another chance to prove the doubters wrong, heading into the belly of the beast to face Portland Timbers FC and the raucous “Timbers Army” fan base.
Confidence is high, as it always is, for RSL to return to Providence Park, where it punched its ticket to MLS Cup 2013, riding the immaculate vibes of the 2021 locker room, and find a way to its third MLS Cup.