HERRIMAN — When Real Salt Lake goalkeeper Nick Rimando waved an emotional goodbye to the standing-ovation crowd in his final regular-season home game at Rio Tinto Stadium a few weeks ago, he did so with tears and a swelling in his throat for a fanbase that has meant so much to him over the past decade of his career.
But he also said goodbye with a promise, one that he’s now fulfilled: we’re not done yet.
RSL is coming back to the RioT.
Sandy’s Major League Soccer club will host the Portland Timbers in the first round of the MLS Cup playoffs Saturday (8 p.m. MDT, ESPNNews), and they’ll do it in front of the RSL faithful who have driven Rimando to rank among the best of the best goalkeepers in league history.
“It’s awesome to get another home game,” Rimando said after training Tuesday at the RSL Academy in Herriman. “We have to handle business Saturday, but maybe another one after that. But to be in front of our fans and where we are most comfortable playing is huge for us. The support from our family and friends on a field we are accustomed to — we worked all year long to get to this point and to host this game. I’m glad it worked out.”
The home-turf advantage has third-seeded RSL (16-13-15) confident against the sixth-seeded Timbers, even if Portland (14-13-7) swept the regular-season series with Real — first 2-1 at Rio Tinto Stadium back on May 4, then 1-0 at Providence Park on Aug. 31.
But the postseason is a new season, the players and coaches argue — and they’d rather face the new season at home than anywhere else.
RSL was 12-4-1 at home in 2019, more wins than anyone in the league other than top-seeded Los Angeles FC.
“We’re at home. I think what is going to tip the scales is our support,” RSL interim head coach Freddy Juarez said. “We need our fanbase there, the emotional game to give us that extra push. We want that excitement from the fans to really push us.”
There are a lot of advantages RSL can draw on as it prepares for Saturday. The club is as healthy as its been all year, with strikers Sam Johnson and Jefferson Savarino returning from the international break with Liberia and Venezuela, respectively, with a clean bill of health; and Corey Baird expected to likewise join them by Thursday (following the United States' match Tuesday with regional rival Canada).
Another advantage might be the league’s new postseason playoff structure. Gone are the home-and-home rounds of postseason play, replaced with one single-elimination match all the way to the MLS Cup final on Nov. 10.
A year ago, RSL squeezed into the playoffs at the last moment and went on the road to stun highly-favored expansion side LAFC in a winner-take-all knockout round game.
Those will be the stakes this year, beginning with the Timbers.
“It can be an advantage and, in the end, it may not be an advantage,” RSL midfielder Damir Kreilach said of the winner-take-all format. “In the end, this is a one-game playoff. You want to put 100% into this game; it’s exactly what you want to do. It’s what we’ll try to do on Saturday.”
Leave it all on the field; it’s what Rimando will try to do. Because “win-or-go-home” has a new meaning for the soon-to-be-retired MLS goalkeeper dubbed “greatest of all time” by his own peers in the league.
Portland is a trendy pick to upset RSL, based largely on past experience. That’s all best guesses by league reporters, analysts, coaches, and the rest up until Saturday night, of course.
The hosts are just fine with that pick.
“We like flying underneath the radar,” Rimando said. “I’ve been on teams where you aren’t the highlight team, but we handle our business undercover. There’s no reason why we can’t make it to MLS Cup; that’s the attitude we have to have going into this game.
“Take it one game at a time, and the goal is to make it there. There’s no reason we can’t.”