As Austin FC takes on Real Salt Lake on Sunday at Q2 Stadium, one of the Cinderella stories of the 2022 MLS regular season will face a team that made an unlikely run in the 2021 playoffs.
The Claret and Cobalt are hoping to advance a few steps further than they did the previous year, when they were eliminated in the Western Conference Final, while the Verde and Black are making their postseason debut this weekend.
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Austin FC vs Real Salt Lake Tips and Prediction
With 56 points this season, Austin finished second in the Western Conference, a 25-point gain over their initial season, demonstrating how much they have improved since then.
That equals the previous mark set by Chivas USA from 2005–2006 for the biggest turnaround for a rookie team from year one to year two in the MLS.
It is quite perplexing that manager Josh Wolff was not included on the shortlist for the Sigi Schmid Award for Coach of the Year given his rapid improvement.
On the other hand, given Wolff and his team’s attitude of “us against the world” this season, perhaps this rejection will serve as the inspiration they require to make a strong playoff run.
Austin shocked many with their play this season, looking to have discovered the missing pieces in the 2021 attack, scoring the second-most goals in the Western Conference in 2022 after being the lowest-scoring team in the league in 2021. (65).
The Verde and Black had not lost at Q2 Stadium since the end of August, scoring three or more goals on nine occasions at home in 2022, despite their offensive lull near the close of the year, when they only managed to score one goal or less in their final three regular season games.
After having their hopes of reaching the MLS Cup Final shattered by the same team in 2021, Pablo Mastroeni’s men finally delivered when it mattered the most on Decision Day, terminating the Portland Timbers’ season with a victory last Sunday. This season’s final match was not quite as dramatic as their previous regular season finale.
Since doing so in 2018 and 2019, Claret and Cobalt haven’t qualified for the postseason in back-to-back seasons.
RSL won just three games away from home in 2022, but they were successful in two away playoff games the previous year, including a victory against the Seattle Sounders on penalties in a game in which they did not attempt a single shot throughout the entire 120-minute period of play.
Salt Lake has a difficult time coping with those conditions and the Austin onslaught, losing both of their previous visits to Q2 Stadium by a combined score of 4-1, like many teams who have to play in that oppressive Texas heat.
In seven away games this season, Claret and Cobalt have failed to score, including a 3-0 loss against the Verde and Black in mid-September.
Throughout the course of the season, Austin was what RSL would develop become in the postseason in 2021—an underdog tale that continually astounded everyone.
The bottom line is that we do not think the visitors have the strength or quality to compete with a team that has as many weapons as the Verde and Black, let alone that kind of intense heat that we are likely to see, which should favor the home team.