Three familiar clubs are clustered atop Major League Soccer’s Western Conference standings, as Seattle Sounders FC, the Los Angeles Galaxy and Real Salt Lake stand first, second and third, respectively, and are all within five points of each other.
Those are the only teams that have made the MLS playoffs for each of the past five seasons, and all are on pace to increase that to six straight — in RSL’s case, a league-high seven.
Yet their order of finish remains hotly contested as the season moves into its final weeks. And much will be determined by head-to-head play, as the Sounders still face home and away games with the Galaxy, and on Friday night will conclude their regular-season series with Salt Lake.
“The guys know what the game means,” coach Sigi Schmid said Thursday. “You don’t have to tell them what’s at stake in this one. Salt Lake games with us, they’re always highly competitive. We’ll be prepared.”
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The teams have split their two previous meetings this season, each winning at home.
Another win by RSL would move them to within two points of Seattle, while a Sounders win would knock Salt Lake eight points back with six regular-season games remaining.
However, even with a loss RSL would remain 11 points ahead of Portland, which is in sixth place and therefore the top team currently out of playoff position.
That puts RSL in line for a seventh consecutive playoff berth, one short of New England’s league-record run.
“Consistency is the important thing,” Schmid said. “I think Salt Lake makes good player decision. I think L.A. makes good player decisions, and I think we’ve made pretty good player decisions to maintain that consistency.”
All three clubs are in good form. The Galaxy is unbeaten over its last six matches (5-0-1), but must have had some ambivalence about its Wednesday result, falling two goals behind last-place Montreal before rallying for a draw.
“L.A. came back, showing the quality team they are,” Schmid said. “It’s just a matter of us continuing to do what we do. We’re in control of our own destiny. As long as we get the points that we need in the games that we need them in, we’ll be OK.”
The Sounders are unbeaten over four games, including a three-game winning streak.
Salt Lake has just one loss (5-1-3) over its past nine matches.
RSL also is nearing full strength for the stretch run. Goals leader Joao Plata (Ecuador) and Carlos Salcedo (Mexico U-21) are back from international duty, and Alvaro Saborio is back after a 118-day absence due to a broken foot.
Seattle’s only known key absences are midfielder Marco Pappa (Guatemala), due to international duty, and central defender Djimi Traore, believed to be about a week away with a quadriceps injury.
The Sounders also should be fresh, as Schmid gave them several days off during the break since their last MLS match, a 4-2 win at Chivas USA on Sept. 3.
“I think it was good for us to get this break, because come Friday we’re all going to be dying to play again,” right back DeAndre Yedlin said. “… I think everybody was a little bit mentally drained, but we’re back; that’s no excuse, you’ve got to work through that.”