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3 takeaways from Real Salt Lake’s loss in its final home game of the season

RSL lost to Portland 3-1 and will now need help from outside circumstances in order to find its way into the postseason. 

Real Salt Lake forward Bobby Wood (7) battles Portland Timbers defender Dario Zuparic (13) and midfielder Ismaila Jome (15) for the ball in front to the Timbers’ goal as Real Salt Lake and the Timbers play at Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy Wednesday, Nov. 3, 2021. Portland won 3-1.
Real Salt Lake forward Bobby Wood (7) battles Portland Timbers defender Dario Zuparic (13) and midfielder Ismaila Jome (15) for the ball in front to the Timbers’ goal as Real Salt Lake and the Timbers play at Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy Wednesday, Nov. 3, 2021. Portland won 3-1.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

As the MLS season entered its closing stages, with the final push for the playoffs in full swing, the narrative was quite simple for Real Salt Lake’s matchup with Portland Wednesday night at Rio Tinto Stadium: win and they’re in.

In its most critical point of the season, RSL dropped its third game of the season against the Timbers with a 3-1 defeat that took away The Claret and Cobalt’s ability to punch their own ticket into the MLS playoffs. With only one game left to play, RSL will now need help from outside circumstances in order to find its way into the postseason.

Real Salt Lake came out of the gates energized and appeared to be playing with a sense of urgency that illustrated the club’s need for a win, but after 15 minutes that energy seemed to fade away as Portland took control of the match.

The Timbers scored all three of their goals in the final 30 minutes of the first half, making RSL fight against a potential blowout rather than a potential playoff-clinching three-point result.

RSL was able to pull a goal back late in the second half from a penalty kick by Albert Rusnák after Portland committed a hand ball violation in the box—but the defeat seemed inevitable despite the goal, as RSL saw its ability to control its own destiny painfully slip away.

The possibility of playoffs are still alive—although much lower after Wednesday night’s result—as RSL closes its season out this Sunday at 4 p.m. on the road against Sporting Kansas City.

Here are three takeaways from the loss:

Player execution lacking in new formation once again

There have certainly been a fair share of both highs and lows as interim head coach Pablo Mastroeni has attempted to implement variations of a three-center back formation that prompts a greater attacking presence up the field. At times the formation adjustments have looked like a seamless fit for RSL’s players and at times—Wednesday night included—the execution of the formation has been poor.

Cheap giveaways in the midfield by RSL have resulted in opposition counter-attacks that leave the back line scrambling to make a play to prevent a goal and this was once again an issue for an RSL squad that conceded six goals to Portland back in September.

“We just have to be more aware of where we are on the field in the decisions that we’re making,” Mastroeni said. “There’s no magic fix, it’s about understanding where you are on the field, the players that are around you and making the best decision. I thought 95% of the time I thought we did a really good job of that, but in that 5% we conceded some dangerous chances and goals.”

Deficit too steep for late game magic

Rusnák’s goal in the 88th minute gave RSL its 15th goal of the season scored in the 88th minute or beyond (most in MLS), but RSL’s propensity for late, result-shifting goals wouldn’t be enough to overcome a three-goal deficit.

“It was always going to be difficult in the second half,” Rusnák said of the team’s 3-0 halftime deficit. “I mean, did we believe we could score four goals? Yes, but in reality that’s something that happens once in a few hundred games...We won the second half 1-0, but that counts for nothing. But we didn’t put our heads down in the second half and accept the loss, we kept going.”

Though the goal made the result easier on the eyes of RSL supporters and gave The Claret and Cobalt a goal back in the goal-differential category, it was hardly a worthy consolation prize for what ended up being a frustrating evening.

Playoff hopes are still alive, but they’re gasping for air

With the result RSL finds itself two points behind the final playoff spot—held by the LA Galaxy—with the final game of the regular season approaching this weekend. To get into the playoffs, Real Salt Lake will need to win in Kansas City this Sunday, but will also need one or all of the teams positioned immediately ahead and behind them to lose their respective matches as well if it wants to play in the postseason.

While Rusnák acknowledged the chances of getting into the playoffs aren’t nearly as great as they were just minutes before Wednesday night’s match kicked off, he said that he and his team plan to put up a fight as long as the playoffs are a possibility despite the squad’s current lack of momentum.

“We’ve missed two huge opportunities at home to clinch playoffs so it’s on us and we’re going to have to do it the hardest way possible, which is the last game of the season on the road against a good Kansas City team,” Rusnák said. “It ain’t gonna be easy, but as long as there’s a 1% chance we still have to believe and take advantage of that chance on Sunday.”