[MLS PLAYOFF PREVIEW]For the past two years, former expansion doormat Chivas USA has reached the playoffs and both times it failed to advance out of the first round.
To break that drought, it must get past the other 2005 MLS debutant, Real Salt Lake, which opened its new Rio Tinto stadium just three weeks ago and on Saturday baptizes its faithful fans with playoff soccer for the first time. Chivas USA is the team with a storied tradition, albeit the legacy of its parent club Guadalajara, but the crowd edge will probably belong to RSL.
Getting into the postseason is something RSL coach Jason Kreis routinely accomplished as a player with FC Dallas. Before taking over the coaching job last year he fueled a late-season push that nearly edged RSL into the 2006 playoffs.
Out of that failure and disappointment rose a greater fervor to succeed, for Kreis, since the day he arrived in Utah, has consistently praised RSL's fans as among the most loyal and most vocal in MLS.
"I remember the feeling, the excitement, when we almost made it that year," he recalls. "These fans have been very loyal and we haven't always given them a lot of good reasons to feel that way, but I know that in the new stadium, we'll be tough to beat in the playoffs no matter who we play."
RSL dominated at home this season, winning nine and tying five of 15 matches, and at Rio Tinto in October it tied New York, 1-1, and thumped Dallas, 3-1. It also beat Chivas USA at Home Depot Center, 1-0, in June, with the Goats reversing the favor by the same score at Rice-Eccles Stadium Sept. 20.
To contain RSL's attack is to multi-task. Up front, Yura Movsisyan (seven goals) is a power forward but is also fast, Robbie Findley (six goals) relies on speed. The 15 assists registered by midfielder Javier Morales ranked second best in MLS, but Kyle Beckerman, Will Johnson and veteran Clint Mathis can set up goals and score them. Outside backs Ian Joy and Chris Wingert are willing to go forward, and there's a rugged, experienced option named Dema Kovalenko.
As has been the case all season, Chivas USA is undermanned.
Forward Maykel Galindo, who missed all but 10 games with injuries and scored just one goal, was sidelined to undergo sports hernia surgery. His preferred partner, Ante Razov, has also been in and out of the lineup, but with 11 goals in 33 playoff games can be counted on to produce under pressure.
Sacha Kljestan (five goals, seven assists) put up decent numbers and his skill is unquestioned. Yet he's still plagued by a tendency to drift out of games, and head coach Preki has tried him in different spots to get the right midfield mix.
Midfielder Jesse Marsch has recovered from a broken jaw but defender Lawson Vaughn needed left ankle surgery and is out for the season. A knee injury has sidelined Sasha Victorine yet he might make it back in time for the second leg. And so it goes.
"We just keep going," said Preki, "and sometimes we are finding ways to play attractive soccer, and sometimes smart soccer."
For Preki and his players, winning soccer will do this time around.
MLS WESTERN CONFERENCE SEMIFINAL
Game 1 Saturday, 6 p.m. ET ( Fox Soccer Channel)
REAL SALT LAKE(10-10-10, 3rd West) vs.CHIVAS USA (12-11-7, 2nd West)