SANDY — Real Salt Lake, with 10 games remaining, is set to make a late-season push to try and secure a spot in the MLS Cup Playoffs.
Sitting in eighth place in the Western Conference with a 7-5-12 record (26 pts), RSL will have to jump at least two teams to earn a top-six spot in the conference. San Jose holds the sixth spot at this point with a 9-5-9 record (32 pts). Just a point behind them sits Vancouver with a 9-4-8 record (31 pts).
"There’s nobody worrying, nobody panicking. It’s all about the next game and how we can get points," coach Mike Petke said after training Monday.
Should they start to worry a little bit, though?
Each MLS victory is worth three points in the standings, and a draw is worth one which means that RSL likely will have to win at least two more games than either team to overtake them. At the end of the season, if two teams are tied in their number of standings points, MLS playoff rules mandate that the tiebreaker goes to the team first with the most wins, then the team with the better goal-differential.
Having suffered a number of embarrassing losses earlier in the year, RSL has allowed 14 more goals than it has scored at this point, second worst in the West, and far worse than any of the other realistic playoff contenders. This means that, in order to obtain a spot in the top-six, RSL will have to not only win but win big to break a potential tie.
At the end of the 2016 regular season with a 12-10-12 record (46 pts), just two points ahead of Portland (44 pts). In 2015, the 4-6 seeds each had 51 points, and in 2014 Portland took the sixth spot with 49 points.
If the last three years are any indication, RSL likely needs to earn somewhere between 45-50 points by season's end to have a realistic chance at the postseason. To reach last year's total, they would need to win seven of their last 10 matches, or win six and draw two, and that would only put them in the running.
However, doubling their win total by the end of the regular season may prove even more difficult than expected, as other teams jockeying for their own playoff spots could play more defensively, and not open up the game.
As the season nears a close, teams ahead of the claret-and-cobalt in the standings may be content to sit back on defense and play for a draw, to keep RSL at bay.
"Teams are in a better position than us for a playoff spot, so obviously for them, a draw is enough — and a point — and we’re not in that position. We need to get as many points as a win, so we need to play every game for three points. It’s a little bit more difficult to be pushing 90 minutes for a win," midfielder Albert Rusnak said.
The remainder of the MLS schedule is relatively favorable, however, for a team that should be desperate for wins.
With 10 games remaining, five are home at Rio Tinto, while five are on the road. Each of RSL's five road matches is against teams currently sitting outside the playoff race in their respective conferences.
Out of ten, only four matches are against teams sitting in playoff spots, meaning the teams below RSL could play more of an attacking style to try and position themselves for the postseason as well. RSL could utilize more open play to counterattack and get out in transition as they have done so well of late.
With upcoming games at D.C. United (Saturday), which has just 19 points, worst in the MLS, and Montreal, in ninth-place in the Eastern Conference, it will be vastly important for RSL to capitalize on weaker competition and get two wins. A win and a draw would normally be satisfactory to a team playing on the road, but at this point, RSL needs to win against teams outside the playoff race.
RSL also gets a chance to play San Jose at home and Vancouver on the road, which could serve as significant jumping points. Though no single game can realistically be labeled must-win, even a draw against either of these teams would be a negative for RSL. A draw would only serve to decrease the number of remaining games without inching closer to a playoff spot.
It will also be extremely important for RSL to get its wins early, as the last match of the season will be at home against Sporting Kansas City, the top team in the Western Conference with 37 points. Though it proved it could handle playing against Kansas City in a 1-1 draw on July 29, RSL should want to do whatever it can to avoid being dependent on a win against the best defense in MLS. At this point, Sporting K.C. has allowed just 18 goals the entire 2017 campaign.
Following three disappointing home draws, RSL has put itself in a difficult spot, but with some spectacular play, and possibly a bit of luck, the team could put itself in playoff position and avoid postseason elimination.