Austin FC want strong playoff debut vs. Real Salt Lake

Austin FC have been one of MLS’s most surprising teams this year but will need to shrug off a late-season swoon to beat visiting Real Salt Lake on Sunday afternoon in their first-round Western Conference playoff match.

The winner of Sunday’s elimination match will face the winner of third seed FC Dallas and sixth seed Minnesota United in one of the two conference semifinals.

Sunday marks Austin’s debut in the MLS postseason after a campaign in which it tied a league mark for best season-to-season improvement and used a dominant first two-thirds of the year to capture the second seed in the West.

Austin, in just its second year in MLS, had 25 more points in 2021 than in its inaugural campaign but has struggled down the stretch, winning only four times in its last 14 matches and just once in its final seven games.

“We qualified for the playoffs so early, but we weren’t good enough in (the final stretch),” Austin midfielder and team captain Alexander Ring said. “Everyone has to admit to that. But the playoffs are here — this is what we’ve been working so hard for. I’m not worried for the team not being ready.”

Austin’s lone victory during its slump was a 3-0 triumph at home over Real Salt Lake on Sept. 14, continuing a trend that’s seen the home side capture all four matches between the teams all-time. Austin has never even trailed in a home match against RSL.

Austin is led by Sebastian Driussi, who finished tied for second in the league in goals this season with 22 and was named a finalist for the Landon Donovan 2022 MLS MVP award.

Real Salt Lake earned the seventh seed and final berth in the West bracket with a 3-1 home win over Portland on the final day of the season. RSL went five straight matches without a victory prior to their clutch do-or-die win on Decision Day. They are in the playoffs for the second straight year and 12th in its past 15 seasons.

Sergio Cordova led RSL with nine goals this season while Justin Meram paced the team with seven assists.

Real Salt Lake is familiar with win-or-go-home scenarios. The victory over Portland on Oct. 9 marked the second straight year RSL had to win its final regular season game to advance to the postseason.

“I think we’re peaking at the right time,” Real Salt Lake coach Pablo Mastroeni said. “In (our win over Portland) our quality was on full display. Going to Austin is going to be difficult match, but I like the matchup.”

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