FEATURE: No coach, no owner, no chance? RSL both the underdogs and villains of MLS Playoffs
Global Football|December 03, 2021
The world is so often painted in black and white: heroes against villains. And, in the grand scheme of things, Real Salt Lake has all the makings of a team that every neutral could get behind.
However, as they sit one step away from a spot in MLS Cup, this season's biggest underdogs have also been led by a player that has cast himself as 2021's main villain, a role that this postseason's breakout star has embraced amid a tumultuous season that has seen the team overcome seemingly insurmountable odds to reach this point.
RSL are, in many ways, the little team that could. Always one of the lowest-spending teams in MLS, Real Salt Lake find themselves in the Conference finals this weekend, having beaten two of the league's best-run clubs in the run-up.
And they did so amid one of the most tumultuous seasons in recent memory.
The club remains without an actual owner, just over a year removed from Dell Loy Hansen's ousting amid accusations of racism and a toxic workplace. MLS has since taken over the running of the club, leaving RSL in a limbo while awaiting new ownership.
The club also lost its head coach Freddy Juarez midseason, as he departed for Seattle Sounders. And not for a job as a head coach, but as an assistant at another MLS club.
He was replaced by MLS legend Pablo Mastroeni, who remains employed on an interim basis given the ownership situation.
Yet in spite of all of this drama, here Real Salt Lake are, in the Western Conference final with the 20th-ranked payroll in the league.
They took down the aforementioned Sounders, with Juarez on the bench, in the first round of the MLS playoffs without registering a shot.
They then went into Kansas City and beat Sporting KC on a late winner from Bobby Wood, a former U.S. men's national team star that came off the bench to create a moment of magic.
Having already beaten SKC to even get into the playoffs, RSL pulled it off again, actually taking the game to Sporting KC after grinding out a result in Seattle.
And did so without their star player Albert Rusnak, who looks set to return for the Western Conference final after missing the start of the playoffs due to a positive Covid-19 test.
It all begs the question: how the hell have they gotten this far?
"I think the group has really taken on this persona of 'Why not us?'" Mastroeni said. "We were picked to finish bottom of the West, bottom of the league at the beginning of the season.
"I think initially you surprise yourself as the season goes on but at some point you get to this realization that you can compete with the best teams in this league and the difference is showing up on the day and having the right mentality, sticking to the game plan and most importantly, as a group, believing in each other, believing in yourself."
One player who has little issue with believing in himself is goalkeeper David Ochoa, who has emerged as the star of the show in the postseason.
We don’t think he’s the villain 😈 pic.twitter.com/yAcyxiZgn3
His performance against the Sounders in round one? Legendary, for several reasons. One is, of course, the shutout and the penalty shootout win in one of MLS' most hostile stadiums. The other is the way they got there.
Ochoa is no stranger to controversy, having punted a ball into the supporters’ section at Allianz Field after a win over Minnesota United earlier this year. But he cast himself as Public Enemy No. 1 in Seattle with his mastery of the Dark Arts.
It was a masterclass of time-wasting, from milking the clock to "losing the ball" while attempting skills prior to a goalkick. He ran at the referee to protest a yellow, faked an injury or two, delayed shots during the shootout.
It was also a masterclass in angering a crowd as Ochoa repeatedly trash-talked Seattle's players and fans.
“I enjoy being the villain, I love when people are talking smack to me,” Ochoa said after leading RSL past Seattle.
“I feel like it makes me play better. Today, I tried playing the villain a little bit and making sure that Seattle wasn't getting in a rhythm.
“With that, I had to slow time a little and with that I also got a yellow card. But after the yellow card I was a little smarter just in case I didn't get the red card. But I enjoy being the villain and I don't think I'll ever stop.”
Added Mastroeni: "I knew he was going to be lights out because I think when he takes on that persona he's dialed in and that's his way of staying present, staying focused and coming up with big plays.”
Ochoa's persona doesn't limit him to stopping on-field shots either. He's perfectly comfortable taking them as well.
Following the win over Seattle, Ochoa referred to Sounders boss Brian Schmetzer, a two-time MLS Cup winner as " Brian whatever his last name is" before calling out the coach's comments about mentality. Schmetzer had said that he believed his Sounders had a better mentality, having held RSL to zero shots, but Ochoa fired back.
This is art. Put David Ochoa in the Louvre. pic.twitter.com/E5oqEba4zW
"We think that there's no better mentally than having zero shots on goal and still winning the game," said Ochoa. "I think that's the biggest mentality that there is. "
And after leading RSL past Sporting KC, Ochoa took to Instagram Live to call out MLS Young Player of the Year Ricardo Pepi, a player he calls a friend, saying should give back his award.
“I thought that was a little disrespectful, just knowing my quality and the guys that were named above me,” Ochoa told ESPN. “I would say at least top five.
"But like I said, that stuff makes me work harder and makes me better. That's just the way I go about things and yeah, I did say that about Pepi. Me and Pepi have a good relationship so it wasn't too serious. It was more of a little humor between friends.”
Real Salt Lake now face their most serious challenge yet in the Portland Timbers, but the door is open for this fairy tale to continue.
When the two teams collide this weekend, the Timbers will likely be without their star player Sebastian Blanco due to injury. They'll definitely be without a key starter in Dairon Asprilla after he was sent off in the Timbers' win over the Colorado Rapids.
So, when does this Cinderella story come to an end and, when and if it does, how will it be remembered? Will 2021 be the year the underdog, the year of the villain or both? Can RSL really pull this thing off?
“We’re just shutting a couple mouths up as we go and we’re loving it man,” Ochoa told ESPNFC.