This is usually the time of year when Real Salt Lake is trying to add points for a run at the Supporters’ Shield or a higher finish in the MLS Western Conference.
This season is different. For the first time in eight seasons, the question for RSL isn’t playoff seeding, but playoff qualification.
“We’re not where we want to be,” midfielder Kyle Beckerman said Friday. “Where we’ve been in the past seven years or so — building that foundation to be an elite team in this league — it took a lot of hard work. Now our fans have those expectations. That’s where we want to be. We don’t want to make this familiar — being where we are on the table. And we want to try to get out of it as possible. (Saturday) getting a win would help that out big time.”
That 7 p.m. Saturday match is all the more important because the opponent is Seattle Sounders FC, which holds the sixth and final playoff spot in the West.
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“They’re all big right now,” RSL coach Jeff Cassar said. “We’re trying to shorten the distance between us and them, and they’re trying to create a bigger gap. Obviously this is huge, we all know it is. But what we really have to concentrate on is just how we play and the results will come.”
Results have come with unprecedented consistency for RSL in recent seasons.
In 2004, MLS picked Salt Lake over Seattle and other expansion candidates. The new club missed the playoffs its first three seasons. However, RSL broke through in 2008 and hasn’t missed the postseason since — an MLS record of seven straight seasons.
Now that seems imperiled, as RSL is ninth in a 10-team conference in which the top six finishers go through to the postseason.
“It is difficult,” said RSL assistant coach Tyrone Marshall, who played in Seattle during the 2009 and 2010 seasons. “In a salary-cap league, it’s very competitive. … It’s been a difficult season for us with our injury situation and just having to field players with all these different competitions. So with that being said, we’re obviously going to need the help of (newcomer Juan) Martinez, and — cross our fingers — we can get into the playoffs again. But overall, it’s become a real competitive (league) now and obviously we have to step up our game.”
Sounders FC has a playoff streak of its own to protect, having qualified for the postseason every year since joining MLS in 2009. That’s six straight appearances — tied with Los Angeles for second-longest behind RSL.
Seattle goes into this weekend three points behind fifth-place FC Dallas and three points clear of seventh-place San Jose. However, while a graph of Salt Lake’s season would show a relatively flat line — their current three-game losing streak is their deepest dip of the season — the Sounders’ is more like an inverted “V,” with a quick climb to the top at the league followed by a sharp drop of eight losses over nine games.
The Sounders hope they began reversing course again last weekend with a 4-0 win over Orlando City, marked by the return of goals leader Obafemi Martins and the debuts of designated player Nelson Valdez and central defender Roman Torres.
“I feel that the losing streak that they went through is not a true identity of Seattle,” Beckerman said. “I think they’re a real good team. They’ve been able to help themselves with early wins. When you get those early wins, going into a streak like they did losing, it’s not a big a deal. They’re still right in the thick of things. I think they all are feeling that they got a good one last week, and if they can find their form again that they’ll be just fine. Hopefully we can stop them for at least another week and get on a streak of our own.”
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REAL SALT LAKE (7-10-8; 29 POINTS) VS. SEATTLE SOUNDERS FC (11-12-2; 35 POINTS)
7 p.m. Saturday, Rio Tinto Stadium; Sandy, Utah
TV: Channel 13 RADIO: 97.3 FM
HEAD TO HEAD: RSL leads 6-5-4 overall and 4-1-2 at Rio Tinto. Seattle took two of three last season, with the home teams sweeping. The teams will meet in Seattle on Oct. 25, the final day of the regular season.
NOTES: RSL opens the weekend ninth in the Western Conference and struggling to extend its MLS-record run of seven consecutive playoff appearances. Seattle holds the sixth and final playoff position and is looking to add a seventh straight playoff appearance. … Salt Lake has lost three straight games, the latest 1-0 at home on a stoppage-time goal by Portland. Seattle ended a five-game losing streak last weekend with a 4-0 home win against Orlando City. … Seattle took a 2-1 win over CD Olimpia on Wednesday in the CONCACAF Champions League. However, the Sounders used a primarily second-team lineup, and most usual starters should be available for RSL. … Clint Dempsey and Osvaldo Alonso are expected to be held out again with hamstring injuries. The debut of midfielder Andreas Ivanschitz is expected to be delayed again due to a tight quadriceps. … RSL is reported as healthy as it has been all season, with only defender Chris Schuler (ankle) expected out. … Midfielder Javier Morales leads RSL with five goals and nine assists. Obafemi Martins leads Seattle with nine goals. Dempsey is the assists leader with six. …, RSL is 5-2-7 at home; the Sounders are 3-8-1 away. … Seattle general manager Garth Lagerwey severed in the RSL front office from 2007-14. RSL assistant coach Tyrone Marshall was a Sounders defender from 2009 to 2010. … The local forecast calls for temperatures in the mid-80s at game time. There also is a haze over the Salt Lake area attributed to the wildfires of Eastern Washington and Oregon. … The referee is Silviu Petrescu.
QUOTE: “It’s coming down to the wire. Usually during the season you say away games it’s really nice to pick up points. But I think we have to look a little bit above that and say even away games we have to play our game and we have to go for three points. We want to keep them behind us and keep advancing up the table again.” — Seattle goalkeeper Stefan Frei.
NEXT: The Sounders return to CONCACAF Champions League group play at 7 p.m. Wednesday, meeting CD Olimpia at Tegucigalpa, Honduras. Their next MLS match is 2 p.m. Aug. 30 against the Portland Timbers at CenturyLink Field.