HERRIMAN, Utah (ABC4 Sports) – The circumstances are very similar.
Last season, Real Salt Lake qualified for the MLS playoffs on the final day of the regular season, and got in as the seventh seed. They pulled off a couple of upsets and advanced all the way to the Western Conference Final.
This season, RSL beat Portland on the final day to earn the seventh seed again, and faces heavily favored Austin FC in the first round Sunday on ABC4.
“Anytime you can make it into the postseason, you always give yourself a chance to do something special,” said forward Justin Meram. “Our first objective has been fulfilled by making the playoffs. Now it’s about us getting a result on the road.”
Real Salt Lake is coming off maybe it’s most complete performance of the year, a 3-1 win over the Timbers. They could be peaking at just the right time.
“I just feel like taking some of the momentum from the last couple of games, and then taking some momentum from last year’s playoffs,” said head coach Pablo Mastroeni. “We’re going to a place where it’s going to be extremely difficult, but this is what we talked about last year. In order to win the Cup, you’ve got to beat the best teams in the league.”
In just its second season in MLS, Austin FC earned the second seed in the West. Their first playoff game ever sold out in minutes, so they’re going to have roughly 25,000 raucous fans at the game on Sunday. A month ago, RSL played Austin to a scoreless draw for the first 60 minutes, before Moussa Djitte scored three goals in a 14-minute span to give Austin a 3-0 victory.
“I think we’ve made strides from that game,” Mastroeni said. “I think the first 60 minutes is the team we want to be.”
“Having played there a couple weeks ago gives us a huge boost,” said goalkeeper Zac MacMath. “We know what to expect with their stadium being full. It’s going to be loud, it’s a different atmosphere in the playoffs. I’m sure there’s a lot of excitement for their fans and their fan base, but there’s more pressure on them at home.”
RSL defeated Austin FC in Utah back in May, 2-1.
If this game goes to penalty kicks, RSL may have the advantage with MacMath in goal. He’s second in the league in PK saves with three this season, and he’s the first RSL keeper to play every minute of every game this season.
“It was a long season,” MacMath said. “I had a lot of knocks and bruises, and a lot of credit goes to the medical staff who helped me get through those bumps in the road. But it’s something I’m very proud of. I put a lot of work in.”
And as if this game needed any more excitement, it’s on ABC4. That’s huge, right?
“Not really,” said Meram. “I don’t really care about that. All the games are on TV regardless of what network.”
After being prodded by one particular reporter, Meram said, “I’m so excited to play on ABC, it’s crazy. It’s going to be the greatest moment of my life. I’m so ecstatic.”
That’s more like it. Real Salt Lake and Austin FC will square off Sunday at 1:00 p.m. on ABC4.