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Real Salt Lake kicks off lengthy home stretch against Timbers

Real Salt Lake forward Juan Manuel Martinez (7) is congratulated by his team after scoring a penalty kick during a U.S. Open Cup game at Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy, Utah, Tuesday, June 14, 2016.
Real Salt Lake forward Juan Manuel Martinez (7) is congratulated by his team after scoring a penalty kick during a U.S. Open Cup game at Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy, Utah, Tuesday, June 14, 2016.
Weston Kenney,

SANDY — Real Salt Lake dives back into league play this Saturday after a two-week Copa America hiatus, and the dominos have lined up for a potentially monstrous summer.

With six of its next eight games at home — where RSL is perfect this season — the congested next five weeks will go a long way in determining if the club has the quality to compete for the Supporters Shield.

After a ninth-place finish in the Western Conference a year ago, the mere mention of that possibility speaks to how well 2016 has unfolded thus far.

Despite a daunting schedule thus far that featured nine of 13 games away, RSL survived and is now tied for the third-best record in MLS. If it continues piling up the wins at Rio Tinto Stadium, the club could find itself atop the league standings heading into August.

It all hinges on taking care of business at home, and that stretch begins this Saturday (8 p.m., KMYU) against Portland, which won both meetings at Rio Tinto Stadium last season.

“We don’t like being beat here on this field in front of our fans. We want to get as many points as we can, especially here at home,” said Nick Rimando after Friday’s practice.

Portland’s two wins at Rio Tinto Stadium last year came late in the season when RSL desperately needed points to keep its playoff hopes alive.

Even though there’s a ton of soccer to be played over the next five months, defender Tony Beltran said Saturday’s visit from Portland is equally as important as those matches last year.

"I think last year they came in here twice and got two wins and you know against these Western Conference opponents, we have to win these matchups. We have to come out of this three-game series the victors. It’ll be a really important game come Saturday,” said Beltran.

Reflecting on last year’s two 1-0 losses, coach Jeff Cassar said the focus throughout Saturday’s match will be key to keep Portland a safe distance behind in the standings

“If you look back on some of those games, I do believe we’ve had the lion’s share of the play, we just didn’t put it in the back of the net or we gave up a silly goal either in extra time or with a set play,” said Cassar. “I think we’re doing a better job since the beginning of the year on defending set plays, concentrating on closing out games, and that’s leading to the three points we want, rather than a point or losing points.”

Incredibly, the defending MLS Cup champion Timbers are a dismal 0-4-3 away from home this season and sit in seventh place in the West with 19 points. RSL has played two fewer matches and has 23 points through 13 matches.

After RSL was forced to play 120 minutes on Tuesday in a U.S. Open Cup victory over lower-division Wilmington, Cassar wants to see a better effort from his team early on Saturday.

“Collectively, we just have to make sure we’re starting games better and having the same urgency in the last 45 (minutes) as we did in the first 45. I think it’s correctable, but it’s going to have to happen as a group, not just individually.”

After Portland, four straight Eastern Conference teams — New York, D.C. United, Montreal and New England — visit Rio Tinto, followed by San Jose to cap the stretch of six of eight at home.

James Edward is the Deseret News prep editor and Real Salt Lake beat writer. EMAIL: jedward@deseretnews.com