A couple months ago, we were flying, and everyone was confident. And now we have a little struggling. We lose in the (U.S. Open Cup) final ... a couple games. The confidence isn’t the best at this moment, but we have to be ready for the playoffs. —Javier Morales, RSL midfielder
SANDY — To help MLS fans weed through the various playoffs scenarios heading into the final week of the regular season, the league has published a complex breakdown of scenarios for every team still in the hunt.
Even though Real Salt Lake has already clinched a playoff spot heading into Wednesday’s regular-season finale against Chivas USA, buried at the very bottom of the list of scenarios is the following: “Real Salt Lake will clinch the Supporters’ Shield IF.”
That’s right, despite very long odds, RSL is still mathematically in the hunt to claim the prestigious Supporters’ Shield for the best record in Major League Soccer.
A lot must happen, though.
Real Salt Lake must first beat Chivas USA on Wednesday at 7 p.m., and then have Portland and Kansas City either lose or tie on Saturday. Then on Sunday, the team needs the New York Red Bulls to lose to visiting Chicago — without scoring three more goals than RSL did on Wednesday.
RSL coach Jason Kreis knows it’s a long shot, but he’s glad to still have a chance and happy to be playing first.
“Nice to be playing before everybody else. We can throw out a marker and see what everyone else does on the weekend and see if they can catch that marker,” said Kreis.
A win would get Real Salt Lake to 56 points — one shy of last year’s club record. New York already has 56 points, while Kansas City can get to 56 points with a tie. If all three tie with 56 points, MLS’ first tiebreaker is wins — all have 16 — and the second tiebreaker is goals scored. Kreis’ team has scored a league-best 55 goals compared to 53 for New York and 45 for Kansas City.
If all these scenarios seem too complex and unlikely, just remember Real Salt Lake raises a 2009 MLS Cup Champion flag above Rio Tinto Stadium on game day because a similar, impossible scenario actually unfolded four years ago.
Heading into the final day of the 2009 MLS regular season, Real Salt Lake’s slim playoff hopes hinged on a victory over Colorado and three other teams dropping points. Incredibly, that’s exactly what happened as Dallas and Toronto both lost, and then Kansas City converted a stoppage time penalty to earn a draw against D.C. United — a tie that stripped the final playoff berth from D.C. United and instead awarded it to Real Salt Lake.
A month later underdog Real Salt Lake lifted an MLS Cup.
Regardless of how the Supporters’ Shield race plays out, RSL can also finish anywhere between first and fourth in the Western Conference, based on results this week.
To finish near the top, RSL needs to rediscover some of the goal-scoring magic it paraded around in August when it scored 18 goals.
Javier Morales, who Kreis said should be healthy enough to play if called upon, said it’s all about momentum.
“A couple months ago, we were flying, and everyone was confident. And now we have a little struggling. We lose in the (U.S. Open Cup) final ... a couple games. The confidence isn’t the best at this moment, but we have to be ready for the playoffs,” said Morales.
The lack of production doesn’t concern Kreis as much, because he said that’s typical for most teams this time of year.
“At beginning of seasons you struggle to score goals because you’re fresh, you’re a new team. At the end of seasons, you struggle to score goals because opponents are worried much more about defending,” said Kreis. “Everybody is getting more tight, the games are getting more tight, you’re not seeing big lopsided scores, and if you are there are problems.”
Kreis was very encouraged to see his players grind out a 0-0 draw at Portland last week, and now he wants to see them build on that defensive organization with a bit more spunk in front of goal against Chivas.
“We need a player to take a risk at that point. Shoot the ball. Deflect it off a defender, put it through somebody’s legs, make the goalkeeper make a save, anything to say, ‘I’m going to take the last chance here, step forward and make a play for my team or at least take a risk for my team,’” said Kreis.