SANDY — Despite earning only one league victory in the past month, Real Salt Lake continues to sit atop the table in Major League Soccer — and that won’t change regardless of what happens Wednesday night in a difficult game at Portland.
If RSL expects to remain in the Supporters' Shield driver’s seat, however, it needs a bounce-back result in a big, big way after the debacle in Los Angeles last weekend.
Ned Grabavoy believes RSL's 4-2 drubbing by L.A. was a month in the making, and might be the exact wake-up call the players need heading into the stretch run of the regular season.
“Some of those things have been happening to us the past week or so and we’ve gotten away with it. You don’t get away with it against Robbie Keane and Landon Donovan. They’re going to punish you, and we were punished the other night without question,” said Grabavoy. “We need to swallow our pride a little bit and work back to getting into that right form that we want to.”
Wednesday’s 9 p.m. (MDT) match is the first of three regular-season meetings between RSL and Portland over the final two months of the season, a playoff-type series that will likely determine who wins the West — with apologizes to the overachieving Colorado Rapids.
With two of three games at Jeld-Wen Field, the Timbers would seem to have a slight edge. They’ve also proved themselves to be the better team in big games this season.
When comparing cumulative head-to-head records of the top eight teams in the MLS standings currently, Real Salt Lake’s record is a dismal 1-6-3 while Portland is 3-1-4.
RSL’s only win against current top eight teams was a 3-1 triumph at Los Angeles back in June, with draws against Colorado twice and Philadelphia once.
The six losses for coach Jason Kreis’ team were against the Galaxy twice, in addition to Colorado, Montreal, New York and Kansas City.
Portland, meanwhile, has victories over Kansas City, Colorado and Los Angeles this year, along with ties against New York, Philadelphia and L.A. The Timbers’ only loss was to Montreal in the second game of the season.
Heading into such a big match against Portland, Kreis shrugged off any concerns he might have about Real Salt Lake’s performance in big games.
“For me the difference between the good teams and the poor teams is miniscule,” said Kreis. “It’s an interesting question, and maybe an interesting thought that I’ll think about after the season if we’re not successful. But right now we have everything to play for, so I don’t see any reason to try to pull ourselves down.”
General manager Garth Lagerwey admits from a data perspective it’s a bummer Real Salt Lake hasn’t been more successful in those matches, but said in a broader sense those results have no bearing on the home stretch. Of the current top eight, Portland is the only team remaining on RSL’s schedule.
Lagerwey doesn’t expect anyone in the West to pull away with so many Western Conference clashes among elite teams dotting the final two months of the calendar.
He believes if RSL bounces back quickly from the Los Angeles loss, it’s still in great shape heading down the home stretch.
“As long as things point in the same direction and you have an overall positive trend, that’s what it’s going to take to make playoffs and potentially win the Supporters' Shield,” said Lagerwey.
To have any hope against a Portland team with one home loss this season, Real Salt Lake needs to be much better on the ball than it was against L.A.
“We feel a bit disappointed with the way we’ve been as of late, but we’re still in a good spot,” said defender Chris Wingert.
RSL captain Kyle Beckerman and Portland captain Will Johnson will both miss Wednesday’s match. Beckerman is suspended because of yellow card accumulation while Johnson is nursing an injured shoulder suffered in a U.S. Open Cup match against RSL at Rio Tinto Stadium on Aug. 7.
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