Real Salt Lake (14-12-8, 50 pts., 5th West) kick off the Audi 2023 MLS Cup Playoffs with Leg One of the Best of Three series in South Texas, the Utah side returning to Shell Energy stadium this Sunday, October 29, with a 4:00 p.m. MT kickoff against Houston Dynamo (14-11-9, 51 pts., 4th West).
Back on August 23 in Houston, the Dynamo snapped its 11-game winless streak – one which dated back to 2017 – against Real Salt Lake with a 3-1 win over 120 minutes in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup Semifinal, as Anderson Julio’s 56th-minute equalizer was overcome by a pair of extra time goals after the 106th minute, the final stanza marred by DF Brayan Vera’s red card. All-time, RSL owns a 3W-11L-5T mark away at Houston, while boasting a 10W-3L-6T mark against the Dynamo on Utah soil.
MASTROENI MAGIC :: RSL boss Pablo Mastroeni has led the Utah side to the postseason for a third consecutive season, the Claret-and-Cobalt advancing to the MLS Cup Playoffs for the fifth time in the last six seasons (2020 Covid year the exception) and for the 13th occasion in the last 16 seasons since the Club’ initial playoff foray in 2008, its fourth season in existence.
The 2021 campaign saw RSL advance to the West Final, winning in Seattle and Kansas City prior to falling in Portland, the Cinderella story cemented by that year’s stunning “Decision Day” qualification thanks to the “Damiracle” – a 95th minute stunner at Kansas City. Last year, the 2022 season, also saw RSL leave its qualification to the final day of the season, a dominant “Decision Day” 3-1 home win over Portland. Goals from FW Jefferson Savarino, FW Rubio Rubin and HomeGrown MF Bode Hidalgo entertained the third-largest crowd in America First Field history, sending 21,333 home with elation following RSL’s must-win match.
RSL fell in the first round of last year’s playoffs via PK shootout tiebreaker after a 2-2 draw and 120 minutes at Austin, the 2-0 lead via a Sergio Cordova brace after 15 minutes conceded following a 53rd-minute Rubin red card and a penalty given in the 94+ minute as RSL ultimately ran out of steam after playing down a man for nearly 70 minutes prior to the shootout.
#HOUvRSL BROADCAST INFO :: The Western Conference 4v5 matchup sendsRSL to Houston as the Round One / Game One matchup kicks off at 4:00 p.m. MT via Apple TV+ / MLS Season Pass with Mark Rogondino and Heath Pearce on the call. Additional RSL coverage for that game will occur via KSL Radio (English) w/ David James and Jay Nolly, 102.3 La Gran D (Spanish) w/ the legend Nelson Moran and www.RSL.com.
NEW FORMAT FOR 2023 :: Major League Soccer has introduced a new “Best of Three” format for the 2023 Round One matchups, as RSL and Houston will play the return leg at RSL on Monday, Nov. 6 at 7:00p MT, in what will be RSL’s first home playoff game since 2019. IF NECESSARY, the decisive third leg of the series would occur on Sat., Nov. 11, tentatively slated for 2:00p MT in Houston. The winner of the HOU/RSL series advances to play whichever side emerges from the West 1/8 matchup between expansion St. Louis CITY – the Western Conference winners & Sporting Kansas City. While RSL would be away at St. Louis – where it won 3-1 in mid-June – it could host that Western Conference Semifinal single-game knockout match if it were to play rival Sporting KC. Following the November FIFA break, the Conference Semifinals (Nov. 26 weekend), Conference Finals (Dec. 2 weekend) and MLS Cup 2023 (Sat., Dec. 9) will determine this season’s MLS Cup Champion and any remaining 2024 CONCACAF Champions Cup berth.
If tied after 90 minutes, Round One matches will be decided by kicks from the penalty mark to determine the necessary winner, as we saw during this Summer’s Leagues Cup tourney. The Audi 2023 MLS Cup Playoffs knockout matches, however, will not be decided by the PK shootout tiebreaker unless the teams remain deadlocked after 120 minutes of play, including the two 15-minute overtime periods.
RSL’s 120-MINUTE PLAYOFF HISTORY :: On six occasions in RSL’s 31-game MLS Cup Playoff résumé, the team has been forced to go 120 minutes to determine advancement. In those matches, RSL has won four times – three via PK shootout – and lost 2, including last year in Austin – although each of the shootout results are officially considered draws.
In 2009, RSL rode shootout heroics from legendary MLS ‘keeper Nick Rimando to win both the Eastern Conference Final at Chicago – 0-0 after 120 minutes – and MLS Cup 2009 against the LA Galaxy – 1-1 after 120 minutes – to capture the Cup in a season which saw the team finish BELOW .500 in the regular season.
In 2013, RSL needed 120 minutes in the 2nd leg of the West Semifinal against the Galaxy to determine the series winner, provided by DF Chris Schuler in the 102nd minute to put the Claret-and-Cobalt through 2-1 on aggregate.
The first “AET” (after extra time) loss for RSL in its now 5-game, 120-minute MLS postseason history came in legendary fashion on the frozen field at Kansas City in MLS Cup 2013, as a 20-round shootout rife with storylines, drama, conspiracy theories and massive momentum swings denied RSL its second title in a five-season span.
Two years ago, RSL emerged after 120 minutes at Seattle, improbably ousting prohibitive favorite without registering a shot on goal. RSL won the shootout tiebreaker, 6-5, with DF Justen Glad burying the decisive kick, banging it off both posts and in past Stefan Frei.
Last October, RSL took the 2-0 lead at Austin after 15 minutes, with both a sublime Sergio Cordova finish in the run of play and a PK conversion staking the RSL lead. The home side pulled one back at the half-hour mark, saw RSL fall to 10 men with the 53’ red card to Rubio Rubin, leveled the score at 2-2 with a PK of their own at 94+ and ultimately win the shootout tiebreaker.
In this year’s Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup Semifinal, RSL fell to the Dynamo, 3-1, in Houston, a game that saw the home side at Shell Energy Stadium take an early first half lead, only for RSL to even the score, 1-1, with Anderson Julio’s header off a Jefferson Savarino assist in the 56th minute, somewhat against the run of play. The sides got to the 105th minute still tied at 1-1, but two late Houston goals wrapped around a Brayan Vera red card doomed RSL, which could have hosted Messi & Miami in the LHUSOC Final had RSL found a way to advance.
RECORD-SETTING ROAD WARRIOR MENTALITY SERVES RSL WELL :: Real Salt Lake’s 2023 MLS road record of 8-5-4 (28 pts.) is the best in the West, the eight MLS wins – as well as its 11 road wins across all competitions – establishing new Club records for road wins in a single-season. A decade ago, during the Club’s competitive heyday under Jason Kreis, RSL never was able to best the six MLS wins logged in 2012 and 2013, with 6W-7L-4T marks in League play. In five seasons of the last decade, RSL was victim to 10 or more road reg. season losses (2015-18, 2021), further amplifying the recent turnaround.
MASTROENI MENTALITY = ROAD SUCCESS :: Since Pablo Mastroeni arrived at RSL for the 2021 season, first as an assistant coach and later as interim and then permanent head coach, the historically bad road performances that dogged the Club during its first 16 years have seemed to dissipate. While there have been the periodic flameouts – an 0-5 at Portland in 2021, the 0-6 Easter massacre at Yankee Stadium last year, and the 0-4 at Columbus earlier in 2023 – RSL has simply never been more competitive or expected road points more frequently than it has in the last 30 months under Pablo’s culture-building and leadership, evident with this year’s Open Cup road run, featuring its first three away USOC wins in Club history, as well as its first two against MLS opponents in the competition.
Since Pablo’s arrival, RSL is now 16W-24L-13T (61 points) in MLS reg. season road matches following the June wins in Austin, D.C. and St. Louis, along with a 1W-1L-2T (5 points) in MLS Cup Playoff matches on the road. And now in 2023, RSL was 3W-1L-0L away in U.S. Open Cup (9 points), giving RSL a total of 75 road points (1.23 points per game) earned in the 2021-2023 trio of campaigns. You’d have to go back to the 2012-14 seasons (62 total road points) to find a period with similar road results (1.22 points per game). With a potential of critical road playoff games this year, the current group has a chance to put the 2012-14 success far away in the rear-view mirror.
HOME COOKING LUKEWARM ON THE WASATCH :: While RSL has been a historically elite home team during its 15 years here in Sandy, averaging nearly 2.00 points per game and a .700 win percentage, it has taken a five-win, two-draw, one-loss aggregate performance elevation during the Summer to even out dismal 2023 start/finish on Utah soil. RSL started the season with back-to-back home losses in March, including a visit from St. Louis that saw the 4-0 scoreline emanate from four second-half goals for the second-worst home loss EVER. Between the league loss to LA Galaxy on May 31 and the 0-3 setback to Monterrey on July 26, RSL dominated visitors by a 15-5 scoreline in that 4W-0L-2T run, including the 10-1 suffocation three wins against U.S. sides ORL, NYRB and SEA. The second 45 minutes of the 3-1 win over León recalibrated the recent success at home, despite the 0-3 setback on August 26 against Houston.
The 2-0 home win over Colorado on Sept. 2 provided a ray of light, with late Sept. matches against Dallas and Vancouver split, RSL going down 0-1 in each; coming back to win against the Whitecaps after allowing 3 in second half to Dallas. The Oct. 7 loss in the 2023 reg. season finale against Sporting Kansas City dropped RSL to 6W-7L-4T at home this year, RSL’s worst home campaign since 2007 and its second-worst ever (expansion 2005 season), somewhat counteracting the Club’s historically-elite road form, with RSL finishing just 3 points out of 2nd in the West and 6 points from STL atop the Conference.
FORMER DOMINANCE ON THE WASATCH FRONT :: Despite this season’s stumbles, RSL’s overall performance in Sandy remains dominant over its history, with a 140-45-64 W-L-T mark in MLS action since moving into the suburban Salt Lake venue 15 years ago. Across all competitions, RSL is now 167-61-75 (W-L-T) at the place now known as America First Field and affectionately housing the “RioT” fan clubs, with a 6-2-3 mark in the MLS Cup Playoffs, 8-1-2 in CONCACAF Champions League, 9-5-2 in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup, and 2-3-0 in various Leagues Cup competitions. In international exhibition play, RSL is only 13-8-9 (W-L-T).
That perennially-consistent excellence on Utah soil provides RSL fans an incredible value proposition in North American major-league sports, with 2024 season tickets starting at approximately $16 / match for a club that has proven to win nearly 68% of its home games over 15 seasons.
Visit www.RSL.com for season tickets and more information on the Club’s 2024 Major League Soccer campaign, as the Utah side looks to build upon the last two years’ 24 MLS sellouts and the 2022 Club-record average attendance of 20,470, RSL’s new standard after 19 MLS seasons.
TACTICAL SHAKE-UP FOR END-OF-SEASON LINEUPS :: RSL boss Pablo Mastroeni switched the RSL setup to a 3-5-2 on Decision Day at Colorado, after the team had used a double-pivot 4-4-2 nearly the entire season, 43 games across all competitions. Lethal RSL striker Chicho Arango injured his hamstring in the Oct. 7 home game against Kansas City and was held out of the final two reg. season matches, while DF Justen Glad – who missed most of the Oct. 7 and 14 matches due to his early red card – left the Colorado match with 20 minutes remaining due to an adductor strain. Centerback Marcelo Silva flew to Denver with the team and was slated to start, but a death in the family necessitated his trip to Uruguay early last Saturday morning, with his status questionable for Leg One in Houston. At halftime of the Oct. 14 match, yet another centerback – DF Brayan Vera – was pulled from the match due to an ankle injury that kept him out of Decision Day at Colorado, a match that also saw Venezuelan international Jefferson Savarino – the team’s 2023 Golden Boot winner in both MLS-only and all competition tabulations – miss the Oct. 21 contest due to a family situation.
The 3-5-2 saw Luna occupy the 10 spot in midfield, with 2023 newcomer Kevon Lambert and homegrown Bode Hidalgo finish the match as centerbacks along with Oviedo. Rookie Emeka Eneli – who has played most of the season at right back – occupied one of the midfield pivot spots for a second straight week, while both Maikel Changand Anderson Julio each started. Andrew Brody was inserted on the wing, with both Damir Kreilach and Danny Musovski splitting time up top alongside Julio in the final two matches.
There is certainly a “next man up” mentality for this group through the 43 games this season, with 31 players seeing time in MLS reg. season, the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup drive to the Semifinals, and the Leagues Cup Round of 16 foray. Everyone on the roster is engaged and seasoned for the most important time of year.
MASTROENI BACK IN PLAYOFFS AGAIN IN THIRD SEASON AT HELM :: RSL boss Pablo Mastroeni returned in 2023 for his third season at the RSL helm, with 2023 marking the former USA World Cup star and long-time MLS veteran’s second full campaign with the Utah side. Mastroeni – an icon as a player with RSL’s Rocky Mountain Cup rival Colorado Rapids – arrived on the Wasatch Front as an assistant coach prior to the 2021 season, prior to being elevated to the interim head role that August. Under Mastroeni’s guiding hand, RSL advanced into the playoffs each of his previous two seasons with dramatic Decision Day wins – the 2021 “Damiracle” at Kansas City before shocking both Seattle and Kansas City again with road wins en route to a Western Conference Final loss at Portland.
During Mastroeni’s 96 games at the RSL helm across all competitions, the Claret-and-Cobalt own 40W-35L-21T mark, RSL outscored 133-149 in MLS, playoffs, Open Cup, Leagues Cup and exhibition play over the last 21 months. Only Jeff Cassar (2014-16) reached 100 career reg. season points in the same number of League games (70) in RSL history than Mastroeni, after inheriting the Jason Kreis powerhouse side a decade ago.
After one season as Tab Ramos’ assistant in Houston, Mastroeni matriculated to Utah, where he has changed the mindset and culture of the locker room, growing a culture that has seen his side lose back-to-back games just once in each of the 2021 and 2022 seasons, as his team has returned to dominance at home (18W-7L-9T record in MLS reg. season play in 2021/22), raised the Club’s competitive bar on the road (see note above) and displayed resilience and tenacity admired across North America for its collective “xDAWG” persona.
The RSL job is Mastroeni’s second head coaching stint, as the Arizona native amassed a 40W-55L-37T record with the Colorado from 2014-17, a period which includes the Rapids’ all-time best reg. season in 2016, which also saw Mastroeni’s side go 15W-6L-13T and allow just 32 goals in 34 games, finishing 2nd in the West behind Dallas before falling in the West Final to eventual champion Seattle.
PERENNIAL POSTSEASON APPEARANCES :: For a third consecutive season under the guidance of Head Coach Pablo Mastroeni, RSL advances to the postseason yet again. As a Club, RSL is playoff-bound for the fifth time in six seasons – missing only the Covid-affected 2020 campaign – and for the sixth time in the last nine seasons (2015 / 2017). Mastroeni and staff have used 31 players across 43 games in all competitions during 2023, as RSL advanced to the final four of the annual Open Cup tourney and to the Round of 16 in the inaugural Leagues Cup.
Overall, RSL has qualified for the postseason in 13 of its 16 seasons played since first advancing to the postseason in 2008, RSL’s fourth season in existence. RSL won MLS Cup in 2009, defeating the star-studded LA Galaxy via penalty-kick shootout. Four years later, RSL fell via the same tiebreaker in MLS Cup 2013 at Kansas City. Overall, RSL has advanced in 11 of its 22 previous postseason series, with this year’s first-ever playoff meeting with Houston marking RSL’s 12th different opponent in 16 campaigns.
Again, Real Salt Lake is one of three Western Conference teams and just five overall to have qualified for the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs in at least five of the last six seasons, overcoming both internal and external volatility in the last six years through three different ownership situations and three different head coaches, as well as soon-to-be four different MLS Cup Playoff formats during this period.
Two perennial postseason obstacles for RSL – LAFC and Seattle – join the Claret-and-Cobalt with the 5-out-of-6 qualification distinction; however, defending MLS Cup champions LAFC has only progressed within the postseason twice, compared to RSL’s three advancements in the previous four years.
In the Eastern Conference, two teams – Philadelphia and Red Bull New York – have qualified for the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs in six consecutive years from 2018-23. However, only Philadelphia have won in the playoffs and advanced three times in the previous five campaigns.
The perennial nature of RSL’s 13 postseason appearances in 16 years is remarkable when considering the League’s growth, volatility and various changes dating back to 2008. Since RSL’s first postseason appearance in 2008, the Utah side has advanced to 10 Conference Semifinal rounds and 5 Conference Finals – only SEA has reached more (12 Semis, 6 Finals). LA Galaxy also with 5 Conference Final appearances to match RSL.
GOALS BY COMMITTEE :: RSL has seen 43 goals scored by 10 players during the last 21 games, seeing goals from Chicho Arango, Justen Glad, Jefferson Savarino, Diego Luna, Anderson Julio, Rubio Rubin and now Brayan Vera. The 4-0 over Orlando on July 8 provided RSL’s largest margin of victory in two years, dating back to a July, 2021 win over Vancouver. That particular 4-0 win has the unique circumstance of RSL as the visitors at what is now America First Field, due to the Whitecaps tenancy during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Across all competitions, Savarino leads RSL with 10 goals in 2023, a milestone just one ahead of Danny Musovskiwith his brace August 4 against León. Recovering Captain Damir Kreilach follows that up with eight goals (including three braces) in MLS and Open Cup play. Arango already has eight goals in 15 games across three competitions in just two months with his goals, including goals in five of six games with the game-winner at LAFC. RSL DF Justen Glad’s game-winner against Vancouver on Sept. 23 was his fifth of the season, matching FW Anderson Julio’s five, that group joined on Decision Day by newly-minted “22 under 22” No. 10 selection MF Diego Luna bagging the quintet in recent months, including 2 in the last 2 weeks.
MF Pablo Ruiz, who had four goals this abbreviated season, saw his 2023 total outlast a late-season surge by DF Brayan Vera – including the Oct. 7 “Thunderbastard” against KC and a pair of lefty free kicks – to give him three on the season, matching Rubio Rubin’s trio of goals. Both Maikel Chang and Andrés Gómez each have two goals scored, while, MF Jasper Löffelsend adds one goal this year to complete the output in 43 MLS, Open Cup and Leagues Cup matches to this point.
DIEGO LUNA MAN OF THE HOUR :: In each of RSL’s final two games of the season – both on the road – 20-year old starlet Diego Luna pulled the strings and provided the difference in the final 15 minutes of each match. Back on October 14 at LA Galaxy, Luna found the equalizer with a quarter-hour remaining to rescue a point for RSL, which clawed back from an early 0-2 deficit to finish with a 2-2 draw. On this year’s Decision Day in Colorado, it was Luna who tracked down a long ball from Bryan Oviedo on the near touchline and beat the Rapids defender, then went in alone on Colorado’s keeper, slamming home the game-winning goal for the full three points.
Luna ended up with five goals in his first full season with RSL, the USA U-20 playmaker starting 19 of the Club’s last 24 games across all competitions since returning from the FIFA Youth World Cup in Argentina.
The USA U-20 playmaker acquired a year ago from USL Championship side El Paso Locomotive was named the MLS Player of the Matchday for Matchday 26, courtesy of his brace in the 3-1 home RSL win over New York Red Bulls on July 15. Luna’s 2nd-minute goal off a Jefferson Savarino assist marked RSL’s quickest goal since March 2022 (Bobby Wood), while his eventual game-winner off an intricate give-and-go with Danny Musovski made him the youngest player (19 years, 311 days) in RSL history to register a multi-goal goal (Olmes Garcia, June 2013 v LA Galaxy, 20 years, 282 days).
Luna has now started 19 of the 24 RSL matches since returning from the U-20 World Cup in Argentina. On June 21 in St. Louis, he became the 98th player in RSL’s 19-year history to find the back of the net in MLS reg. season action for the Claret-and-Cobalt, scoring in the 15th minute and assisting on goals in the 48th and 66th minutes. While he is only the 6th-youngest player to score for RSL, he did become the absolute youngest in Club annals to score and assist in the same game, No. 599 all-time for the Club. Luna followed up his exquisite St. Louis performance with the game-tying assist at the death on the Glad goal June 24 v MIN, and started and played the first 83 min. July 1 in Toronto prior to 69 minutes v ORL on July 8.