Aaron Herrera didn’t know what to expect going into last season’s MLS Cup playoffs. It was first postseason rodeo, so to speak, after an up-and-down start to the year for the then-rookie eventually turned into a regular starting role at right back for Real Salt Lake.
But this year feels different. He’s more confident. Calmer.
It’s not just Herrera, though. It seems that for many of the players who experienced their first MLS playoff run last year — featuring an unlikely win at LAFC followed by being eliminated by Sporting Kansas City after two legs — there’s a much more even-keel feeling going into Saturday’s matchup against the Portland Timbers.
“It’ll definitely give those guys a bit more comfort going into this,” captain Kyle Beckerman said Friday. “They know what to expect, especially last year going into LAFC — an away game — and having to deal with that and coming out on top feeling, ‘OK we can do this.’”
Of the 11 players that started against LAFC last November, only three had MLS playoff experience: Beckerman, Nick Rimando and Luke Mulholland. The other eight were either first-year players in the league or international players brought in to an RSL team that didn’t make the playoffs in 2017.
Another one of those players who was a rookie last season was Corey Baird, who won MLS Rookie of the Year. But his first postseason experience was a little different.
In college, Baird won three national championships at Stanford. And while he acknowledged the MLS game is different than college, he thinks having played in plenty of knockout games before his professional career has helped.
“I think it just gives you some experience in games that were high-pressure for you at the time, where it’s you win or your season’s over,” Baird said Thursday. “It’s just getting used to winning those games, getting used to close games where there’s not much in it that that little five, 10 percent extra you can do is going to be a big difference.”
Over the last two weeks, RSL interim coach Freddy Juarez has repeatedly stressed the importance of last season’s playoff run with regards to how much it helped player development. He has also said throughout the season that the younger players simply having more games under their belts significantly impacts their demeanors.
“That’s the only way of growing. You have to experience it yourself. We did,” Juarez said. “And now I think that’s why we see the vibes of the team just a little more relaxed. They know what they’re getting into. They know what’s coming. And we’re anticipating a good game from ourselves.”
Midfielder Damir Kreilach said the lack of roster turnover this year is also a contributing factor to how the team feels heading into Saturday.
“This year we didn’t change the team so much and it has to be one big advantage for us,” Kreilach said.
Herrera said the team is aware of the stakes the game against Portland brings. But at the same time, RSL has the business-as-usual mentality.
“We just try to treat it like another game,” Herrera said. “Obviously we know theres’ a lot more on the line going in, so we’re definitely going to have more intensity going into the game than any other regular season game. But, no, it’s just another game. It’s what we’ve done 34 other times this year.”
RSL VS PORTLAND TIMBERS
At Rio Tinto Stadium
Kickoff » Saturday, 8 p.m.
TV » ESPNews
Radio » 700 AM
Last meeting » Portland 1, RSL 0 (Aug. 31)
Records » RSL 16-13-5 (3rd in West), Portland 14-13-7 (6th in West)
About Portland » Diego Valeri is expected to be available after missing final two games of regular season with calf injury. … Plays well historically at Rio Tinto Stadium. … Lost in the MLS Cup final last year to Atlanta United. … Won second-most road games among West playoff teams. … Jeremy Ebobisse leads team with 11 goals, while Valeri leads with 16 assists. … Currently on four-game undefeated streak.
About RSL » Lost previous four games to Portland by a total score of 10-2. … Enters second consecutive season as playoff team. … No players are listed as out or questionable with injuries. … Albert Rusnák leads team with 10 goals, while four different players have five assists. … Team has a two-game win streak heading into the game.