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RSL's three-game Houston playoff series saw drama, tension build

Real Salt Lake dropped in the first round of the 2023 MLS playoffs — but not without a substantial fight.

RSL's three-game Houston playoff series saw drama, tension build
Lucas Muller | Wasatch Soccer Sentinel

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As the sun rises on a new offseason for RSL, I think it worth taking a look back on the unusual roller coaster known as the last three weeks. Unlike a typical first round exit from the MLS Cup Playoffs, the postseason run provided three games to mull over instead of a short and sweet ejection. While it didn’t have any impact on the result, it did provide a few moments worthy of reflection, and some performances to take note of.

Game 1 – Tactical Changes

This match already feels like an eternity ago, which sometimes is the same thing as two weeks. The defining trait of this contest was RSL rolling into the game sporting a three center back formation, something that had been dabbled with towards the end of the campaign.

What unfolded from that was perhaps the most dominant 30 minute stretch of the entire series for one side, as Houston banged in a goal and applied endless pressure on the RSL defense. At the first half hydration break the team swapped back into the familiar 4-4-2 and the match stabilized shortly thereafter.

The conclusion? The 3-4-3 didn’t offer enough pressure. Which when you break it down does make some good sense, given that the central midfield was always at a numbers disadvantage for RSL, and thus any pressure the forwards applied had an easy outlet – into the most direct and attacking part of the pitch nonetheless. The next 60 minutes played out to a 1-1 draw, just like the next two games did.

Game 2 – Game 2 (part 1)

Over the course of 90 minutes, this was an extremely close match, with Houston running away with the first half, and RSL taking control in the second. It’s important to keep in mind that while the home side dominated near the end and looked like a deserving team to win, the first half was equally as bad and lucky not to allow more than one goal.

In the end, it took a great individual moment from Savarino to take this game into PKs and give it the 1-1 scoreline it deserved. Thanks to MLS, RSL got to win this game anyway, giving the fans and Diego Luna a picture frame moment to look back fondly on. While I’m extremely critical of this year’s MLS playoff format and think it’s an abomination that lacks any real logic or competitive integrity, it did at least give us one of the best home game moments in recent history. Oddly enough, had the series been best of one, two, or three, RSL loses in all three cases. Strange.

Game 3 – Game 2 (part 2)

Maybe it’s just me — or the scoreline — but this game felt extremely similar to the first, with minor differences. On paper, Houston played basically as well as RSL did in game 2, and like that game, RSL only really offered attacking chances in the second half. Towards the end of this match Houston was pressing quite hard to win, and probably would’ve been the more deserving side to pull out a win in the end.

Just as the PK shootout in game 2 gave RSL a hero to rally around, this match provided a villain of sorts with the Musovski miss. Mind you, had Moose kicked third and Diego (who also didn’t score) went fifth, I feel the fan base would’ve been far more forgiving – just a hunch. The massive, bold question mark here is to why Musovski was the late sub to shoot a PK, when Damir Kreilach watched on from the bench. It’s even more curious given after game 2, where in the post game press conference Pablo literally mentioned that Damir was among the three best PK takers on the team.

Closing thoughts

Over a three game series, it’s hard to find a real argument that RSL was unlucky to have not advanced. Given you have three chances to win over 90 minutes, if you’re the better team, you should probably just win two of those. However, it’s also hard to say that Houston is really any more deserving, having also failed to win two of the three matches.

Perhaps for such a coin flip series it’s pretty fitting that it took two PK shootouts to decide a winner. Maybe more than most fans, I’m pretty encouraged by the result, as I think Houston was certainly one of the best teams in the West this year, and their US Open Cup trophy shows that their 4th place seeding is hardly a fluke. Basically, it feels like RSL was deserving of their place on the table, and while some supporters may feel like the club should be getting top 2 or 3 every season, 5th place is sure better than 6th, or 7th, or 8th, and so on. Strangely I do get the feeling the team wasn’t far at all from being a real threat, but if anything, that’s just more encouragement looking ahead to 2024.**

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