SANDY — The MLS playoffs don't officially get underway until next week, but unofficially the push for the MLS Cup begins Saturday night at Rio Tinto Stadium.
Real Salt Lake clinched a playoff berth more than a month ago, but seeding is still up for grabs heading into the regular-season finale against visiting Portland Saturday night.
With a victory over the Timbers — who were eliminated from playoff contention when New York beat Philadelphia on Thursday — RSL clinches the No. 3 seed and opens the playoffs against Seattle at home on Saturday, Oct. 29.
With a loss or tie, FC Dallas could overtake RSL for the No. 3 seed. The two teams are tied at 52 points, but RSL owns the tiebreaker after winning the season series.
"I think it's good incentive for us to have a game in front of us that we have to win to achieve one of our goals, which is to bypass the wild card round and get third place in the league," said RSL midfielder Will Johnson, who's questionable with an ankle sprain.
The incentive to bypass the wild card round is massive.
If Real Salt Lake drops to fourth in the Western Conference on the last day of the season, it will be forced to host the No. 10 seed in a one-game wild card game on Wednesday. If RSL wins that game, it would advance to a two-leg series with the East No. 1 seed, with the first game being held at Rio Tinto Stadium next Saturday.
The quick turnaround for a team dealing with injuries is definitely less than ideal. Defender Robbie Russell said the team can't really worry about that right now.
"We're going into this weekend worried about this weekend and we'll see where it goes from there," said Russell.
Prior to last weekend's 0-0 draw at Colorado, Real Salt Lake had lost four straight, having conceded 12 combined goals in those setbacks. Shoring up that leaky defense has been RSL's top priority the past two weeks, and last week's shutout was a step in the right direction.
"It was a huge boost for us defensively, but it's baby steps. You go from getting shutouts to getting results, that's the next step for us," said Russell. "Unfortunately, it seems like our team loves to have its back against the wall. Whatever gets the job done."
Kyle Beckerman serves the last of his three-game suspension Saturday night, while fellow midfielders Ned Grabavoy and Johnson are both questionable. Dealing with the absences in such an important match is less than ideal, but it's the type of adversity RSL has dealt with all year.
"The adversity we've had to face has been unprecedented. From what I've seen in my career. It's been a unique season, it's been a challenging one. The one positive is we've had a lot of guys play a lot of minutes throughout the season, a lot of young guys have played in a lot of important games," said Johnson. "Given everything that went on, a third-place finish at this point would be respectable with a good chance at an MLS run."
This is the first meeting between RSL and Portland since April 30, when the Timbers prevailed 1-0 just three days after RSL lost to Monterrey in the Champions League final.