With nine games remaining in the MLS regular season, Real Salt Lake is three points out of a playoff position. The deficit doesn't seem like a daunting challenge, and it isn't if the club strings together some wins ASAP.
Realistically, though, for a team that hasn't won back-to-back games since April, consecutive wins seem very unlikely. RSL will likely have to nickel and dime its way into the playoffs, where every point is precious.
Real Salt Lake general manager Garth Lagerwey believes the magic number to qualify for the eight-team MLS playoffs this year is 43 points. RSL is 16 points shy of the magic mark, and to get there needs an average of 1.7 points per game over the next nine games. For a team that has averaged 1.3 points per game this year, it obviously needs to pick up the pace.
RSL's players and coaches keep reiterating that there's still time to climb back into the playoff picture — which is true. That's assuming, of course, that the team starts winning more games — and particularly road games. As impressive as its 6-1-4 home record is, RSL's 1-7-2 road record is one of the worst in MLS.
RSL must improve on the road to have a mathematical hope of making the 2009 MLS playoffs.
Here's a game-by-game breakdown of two likely scenarios for RSL over the final nine games. The first is an optimistic scenario that should be good enough to secure a playoff berth. The second is a more realistic scenario in which season-long trends pinpoint a more realistic outcome.
Aug. 23 — at New England
Optimistic: RSL battles hard for 90 minutes without suspended defender Jamison Olave and earns a valuable road point. Draw.
Realistic: With just one road win all year and playing a home team just as desperate for points, RSL falls behind early again and never recovers. Loss.
Aug. 26 — vs. Chivas USA
Optimistic: RSL keeps its playoff hopes alive with an impressive offensive outburst against a struggling Chivas squad. Win.
Realistic: Even though RSL is 2-2-2 all-time at home against the Goats, its opponent has been a mess since June and RSL capitalizes with the full three points. Win.
Aug. 29 — at Kansas City
Optimistic: Playing its third game in seven days, RSL keeps compact defensively and escapes with a respectable tie. Draw.
Realistic: RSL's busy schedule takes its toll in the second half as fatigue kicks in and RSL leaves the Midwest with no points. Loss.
Sept. 12— vs. Chicago
Optimistic: The Fire defense is tough to break down, but eventually RSL gets it done on a piece of fantastic individual skill. Win.
Realistic: Chicago is by far the best road team in the league for a reason — it knows how to secure points on the road, and Rio Tinto Stadium doesn't intimidate their players in the slightest. Draw.
Sept. 19 — at Houston
Optimistic: RSL traditionally plays well at Houston, and it earns another point in Houston just like it did in June. Draw.
Realistic: Houston is in the midst of a busy schedule that includes the CONCACAF Champions League. With a playoff berth all but sewn up, it can afford to rest a few key starters and RSL capitalizes. Draw.
Sept. 26 — at FC Dallas
Optimistic: Based on its four-goal, second-half outburst against Dallas earlier this year, RSL throws numbers forward and exposes a weak defense again. Win.
Realistic: Just like its previous six visits to Dallas, RSL's attack will stall and it will fall to 0-7-0 in Big D. Loss.
Oct. 14 — vs. New York
Optimistic: After many frustrating losses and draws, RSL finally figures out a way to beat New York for the first time in franchise history. Win.
Realistic: Despite its bizarre struggles against New York, even RSL can't screw this one up against probably the worst team in league history. Win.
Oct. 17 — at Toronto FC
Optimistic: On a chilly night in Canada, RSL knows a tie is good enough and that's exactly how the match plays out. Draw.
Realistic: Capitalizing on a raucous home crowd eager to see Toronto secure its first playoff berth in franchise history, the home side puts RSL under pressure from the opening minute and rolls to victory. Loss.
Oct. 24 — vs. Colorado
Optimistic: Knowing it controls its own playoff fate with a draw or win, RSL comes out attacking from the opening whistle and sends the crowd home happy. Win.
Realistic: Having already been eliminated from playoff contention the week before, RSL successfully denies Colorado a playoff berth for the third straight year. Win.
End of Regular Season
Optimistic: RSL rides another late-season push to finish the season with 46 points and another playoff berth.
Realistic: RSL's inability to win on the road, not to mention a few wins slipping with late goals, finally catches up with the club as it finishes with 38 points and misses the playoffs.