So now that the playoffs are a hopeless cause, what can Real Salt Lake fans expect from their club in the last five games of the season, and particularly tonight's game with Columbus?
"From our viewpoint, today was the first day of next season, and that's kind of how we're moving forward," said RSL coach John Ellinger following Friday's practice. "We don't want to be on the outside looking in this time next year."
With five games remaining, RSL (5-18-4) trails Colorado by 15 points for the Western Conference's final playoff spot. Salt Lake would need to go 5-0, while Colorado would need to end the season on a five-game losing streak for expansion Salt Lake to sneak into the playoffs.
Real's players and coaches know it just isn't realistic any longer.
"They were bummed the playoff picture kind of ended, but they're professionals and they know we're going to get better next year," said Ellinger.
The 2006 season realistically begins at 7:30 tonight at Rice-Eccles Stadium — for both teams.
Columbus (9-14-4) would need a miracle of its own to make the playoffs. The Crew trails fourth-place Kansas City by 12 points with five games remaining, but a win over an RSL team that is 5-5-3 at home would definitely buoy those fading hopes.
Salt Lake's playoff life eroded rapidly in the past two months. Ever since beating Chivas USA 2-1 on Aug. 6, RSL has been marred in a seven-game losing streak, which included a 2-0 loss at Colorado on Wednesday. The ironic thing is, the team has played some of its best soccer during four of its last five games, but Real just doesn't have anything to show for it.
"We need to go out with a bang," said RSL keeper D.J. Countess. "We hopefully can prove to our fans and ourselves that we're a better team than what we've shown so far, and hopefully we can go out with a positive impact."
After tonight's game, RSL will have a week off before returning to Colorado for their third meeting in three weeks.
In Wednesday's loss at Colorado, Ellinger had his team utilize a 3-4-3 formation and he's planning on sticking with those tactics against Columbus. With three forwards, Salt Lake is able to put a little more pressure on opposing defenders, which in turn eases the pressure off its own backline. From a goal-scoring standpoint, Ellinger believes three forwards make his team more dangerous, "but we just need to take more shots, and when we do take it, not at the goalkeeper."
Ellinger is referring specifically to Melvin Tarley's 51st-minute scoring opportunity on a corner kick in which he headed a ball powerfully on frame, but directly at the keeper.
If Tarley finishes that opportunity, suddenly the game is tied 1-1 and maybe Salt Lake rallies for the victory, creating a realistic hope for the playoffs. There have been a lot of "what ifs" for RSL this year, but none of them have helped the team escape the reality that its 25 goals scored are the lowest in the league this year.
"At the end of the day, we haven't been a consistent team and it shows," said Countess.
Neither has Columbus, which makes tonight's game a good opportunity to build some momentum heading into next year.
RSL on the air
Colorado at Real Salt Lake
At Rice-Eccles Stadium
Tonight, 7:30 p.m.
Radio: AM-1280 (English), AM-1600 (Spanish)