MLS Cup Playoffs preview: Real Salt Lake

Real Salt Lake were one of the most entertaining teams during the regular season.
Real Salt Lake were one of the most entertaining teams during the regular season. /

Though they're the outsiders, Real Salt Lake are arguably the most entertaining team in the MLS Cup Playoff field.

RSL simultaneously held the third-best attacking record and the second-worst defensive return in the Western Conference during the regular season, making them dangerous and wildly unpredictable.

Here's everything you need to know about Real Salt Lake ahead of the post season - from tactics to key players, and their chances of winning the big prize.

How did Real Salt Lake make it to the MLS Cup Playoffs?

Only the bottom three - Texas sides FC Dallas, Houston Dynamo and Austin FC - lost more games than Real Salt Lake in the Western Conference, but only the top four of Colorado Rapids, Seattle Sounders, Sporting Kansas City, and Portland Timbers won more.

In short, RSL were wildly inconsistent but ridiculously entertaining. You didn't know which team would turn up from one week to the next, and their commitment to attacking soccer makes them a great inclusion in the Playoffs.

In the end, it came down to the last kick of the season, with Damir Kreilach scoring a 95th-minute winner away at Sporting Kansas City that saw them leapfrog the LA Galaxy into seventh place.

Pablo Mastroeni: Tactics and style of play

Mastroeni took over from Freddy Juarez at the end of August.
Mastroeni took over from Freddy Juarez at the end of August. / Anne-Marie Sorvin-USA TODAY Sports

Since Pablo Mastroeni took over as interim boss on August 27th - following the shock departure of Freddy Juarez, who is now Seattle Sounders assistant coach - RSL's commitment to attacking soccer has only intensified.

During that period, Salt Lake are second in MLS for open-play goals (24) and fourth for expected goals.

Mastroeni has tried multiple systems, including 4-4-2, 4-3-3, and 3-4-1-2, settling on the latter most often. This allows Aaron Herrera to drive forward on the right, protected by three center-backs, while a solid midfield two do the dirty work while Damir Kreilach operates in the hole. His late runs have become an invaluable source of goals for RSL.

Salt Lake are fast on the break, create lots of width, and will almost always look to play forward as soon as they get the ball. There are some serious defensive issues that will hold them back from a deep post season run, but they're certainly armed enough to cause a scare or two.

Who are Real Salt Lake's key players?

Damir Kreilach: With 16 goals, Damir Kreilach was only three short of Taty Castellanos and Ola Kamara in the Golden Boot race, while he also chipped in with eight assists. He was RSL's chief attacking threat and a huge creative force, but also key to their direct style, winning 135 aerial duels - at least 73 more than any other teammate. Kreilach will use his height and strength to bully defenders and bring others into play, and if he gets the jump on you at the far post, you're finished. Kreilach's goal got RSL here, don't bet against him repeating the feat in a knockout setting.

Aaron Herrera: Of Kreilach's 16 goals, six were set up by Aaron Herrera, making them the joint-best assister-to-goalscorer partnership in MLS. The USA youth international - now considering a switch to Guatemala - has enjoyed the best year of his career so far, providing 10 assists in total, while ranking second at the club for successful dribbles (34). Sure, Herrera is primarily an attacking force and will leave gaps behind him, but that's only by design. And it's so damned effective. Under no circumstances must you give him the time to lift his head up and pick out a cross.

Albert Rusnak: Unlike a number of MLS teams, RSL have a number of players who can hurt you in front of goal. Albert Rusnak is next in line to Kreilach with 11 goals. Sure, three of them have been penalties, but eight have been from open play and none with his head, offering a completely different sort of threat than the Croatian. Rusnak is extremely versatile, able to play across the forward line or even in midfield, and his ability to drop in and link play is an important way for RSL to progress the ball quickly.

How far can Real Salt Lake go in the MLS Cup Playoffs?

Can RSL go all the way? | Matthew Burt
Can RSL go all the way? | Matthew Burt /

It's very hard to see RSL winning away at Lumen Field in the first round, despite their 1-0 victory over the Sounders at home earlier this season.

Still, they could give Brian Schmetzer's men one hell of a scare with their attacking intent, coming at the opposition like a sledgehammer. A Round One exit is the logical conclusion, but Salt Lake have enough to at least give an out-of-form Sounders side a real run for their money.

Prediction: Round One