SANDY — Sometimes even a win can feel like a loss.
Real Salt Lake’s season ended with a 2-0 win over Sporting Kansas City, but also just outside of the Western Conference playoff picture behind FC Dallas and San Jose Earthquakes. The West duo finished 6th and 7th after beating the Los Angeles Galaxy and Minnesota United FC, respectively, with the Earthquakes clinching the west's final playoff bid.
Entering "Decision Day" with a six percent chance of making the playoffs, according to americansocceranalysis.com, RSL’s unlikely path to the postseason required a win over SKC and ties or losses from both FC Dallas and San Jose, which sat one point ahead in the standings before Sunday’s games. Unfortunately for RSL (13-15-6), only one of those three outcomes manifested Sunday.
“Coming out with a win today is what we needed,” midfielder Brooks Lennon said. “But obviously we put ourselves in a tough position. So yeah, it’s a shame we can’t make the playoffs because I think we have a team that can go far.
"The form we’ve shown in the second half of the season, I think any team in the MLS is worried with us. There’s so many good players on the team — veterans, youth players that are stepping up. It’s tough to not make it, but I know that we did everything we can today.”
Despite missing the playoffs, Sunday’s win capped an incredible second-half-surge for the Claret and Cobalt, which lost just three of the last 15 games after starting the season with 5-12-2 record.
For many observers of RSL during that stretch, the team was considered to be playing perhaps the best soccer in the MLS, an assessment not lost on head coach Mike Petke.
“For them to go on the tear that they have since late June, early July, to be what I feel is the best team in the league throughout that span,” Petke said. “I feel that if I would have managed a couple of those games in the dog days of summer a bit better, maybe we would have pulled out two or three ties instead of losses.
“I’m extremely proud of these guys because they’ve earned the right to be in the playoffs, and we’re not.”
From the beginning of Sunday’s game, RSL played like a team fighting for its playoff life. RSL obtained the early lead as Luis Silva scored his seventh goal of the season on a right-footed shot from the center of the box in the third minute. The score held until the 41st minute, when Lennon rebounded his own shot attempt and scored from the right side of the box to put RSL ahead at halftime 2-0.
“It came from the left-hand side with Plata, and then Luis ended up with it in the middle of the field,” Lennon said of his scoring play. “And kind of everyone swarmed him and he made a great pass to me, and I shot it, and kind of got a lucky deflection back to me and then just buried it.”
RSL’s defensive prowess, particularly in its back four, was on display early and often on Sunday. After pitching a shutout in the first half, goalkeeper Nick Rimando made a number of spectacular saves in the second half to maintain his team’s two-goal lead, including one in which the veteran captured the ball between his knees to prevent a potential SKC goal. Kansas City's scoreless output held until the 89th minute when Ike Opara headed in the team’s lone goal to bring the team back within one.
Ultimately, the fate of RSL was decided long before then as simultaneous games featuring FC Dallas and San Jose painted a grim picture for RSL's playoff hopes.
With nothing at stake, Petke started subbing out his key players, beginning with Chris Wingert in the 79th minute and continuing with Silva in the 87th.
In unpacking the finality of a roller-coaster season, regret permeated the RSL roster. While most were pleased with the unlikely turnaround this season, disappointment from the day's proceedings underlined the team's general feelings.
“One point goes a long way at the end of the season,” Rimando said.