SANDY, Utah -- Much has been made of Real Salt Lake's snakebitten ways throughout the 2011 season. Real has not fielded its first-choice lineup since the CONCACAF Champion's League final way back in May.
So when head coach Jason Kreis was finally able to trot out his best team to kick off the playoffs, the eyes of MLS wondered how things would look.
Pretty well, as it turns out.
A first-choice Real XI promptly took control of a Western Conference semifinal against Seattle on the way to a 3-0 rout of the Sounders.
"It's pleasing to be able to put that group out there," said Kreis. "And they seem to have picked up where they left off." Goalkeeper Nick Rimando called the match "an example of how good we can be."
RSL's margin of victory was the largest ever in league history for the first game of a playoff series, and it will carry that three-goal advantage into Seattle Wednesday night.
"For me, that was a complete match, and we haven't had a complete match for a very long time," said Kreis.
One of the bright spots for Salt Lake was the return of the central midfield pairing of Kyle Beckerman and Javier Morales. While the two have both played since Morales' return from injury, they had not actually played together since May. The difference for RSL's midfield was night and day with its playmaker and defensive stopper operating side by side. Beckerman's presence created space for Morales, who played his best match since his return.
"Javi found a little bit of his swagger," said Kreis.
"To me, he makes things look really easy," noted defender Chris Wingert, who teamed up with Morales to set up RSL's first goal. "The guy is so classy he can slow the game down in his mind when everybody's all hectic. Great players are capable of doing that, and he's one of them."
If there was a downside to this match for RSL, it's that the first-choice lineup was only together for a half hour before the injury bug bit again. Reigning MLS Defender of the Year Jamison Olave was forced out of the match with a thigh injury, and his center back partner Nat Borchers suffered a knee strain and had to come out in the 84th minute.
Both players' statuses for Wednesday's match are unknown pending medical evaluations.
"I looked at Will [Johnson] when Olave left the game and I said, 'Well, it was fun while it lasted'," joked Wingert. "But let's credit Chris Schuler. Do you know how hard that is . . . after a half hour to get out there in the middle of an intense playoff game? But that's part of what comes. You play a physical game, sometimes guys get injured. Hopefully we'll get healthy for Wednesday, but if certain guys are out, other guys are going to step up."
On the surface, it may seem like Real has already punched its ticket into the next round with Saturday night's result, but Kreis is taking a more cautious approach. He knows that Seattle has an offense capable of putting points on the board quickly, and the possibility of not having his two starting center backs could complicate matters.
"I think if we spend too much time patting ourselves on the back tonight, if we spend too much time watching the highlights, if we spend too much time reading about how good we are, then we're going to put ourselves in a bad place," said Kreis.
"It's halftime," said Rimando. "We know how good Seattle is, and we know how hard it is to go there and play. We're going to expect a tough game. It's 3-0 at halftime and we've got a long road ahead of us. We can't look past this game at all."
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