Fortune has favored Real Salt Lake in Portland the past two years, magic RSL hopes to tap into again this Saturday with the Western Conference title up for grabs.
All but dead in 2012, Kyle Beckerman and Johnny Steele each scored in the final few minutes for a stunning 3-2 victory at Jeld-Wen Field. Similar heroics played out two months ago as 10-man RSL rallied for a 3-3 draw as little-used Cole Grossman buried a stoppage-time equalizer.
The stakes this time around are exponentially higher.
With two weekends remaining in the regular season, Portland leads Real Salt Lake by a single point in the Western Conference standings. Incredibly though, in the tightly bunched West, neither has clinched one of five playoff spots yet.
“Things are really tight. In just the last month or so things have played out to make it even tighter,” said midfielder Ned Grabavoy.
Real Salt Lake can tie a league record with its sixth straight MLS playoff appearance by winning on Saturday at 8:30 p.m., but the club could also clinch if favorable results play out in the Colorado-Vancouver and San Jose-Los Angeles matches this weekend.
Simply clinching a playoff berth, however, isn’t what Real Salt Lake is hoping for in Portland.
RSL is 5-0-1 in all competitions against the Timbers the past two seasons, and coach Jason Kreis’ team will no doubt be eying the full three points again.
Both teams end the season next week against last-place Chivas USA — RSL on Wednesday, Portland on Saturday — and both know a victory Saturday puts them in the driver’s seat for the No. 1 seed in the playoffs.
“They’re a very good team. They just have a really good mentality; they know what they do well; and they stick to it and they’re able to get results that way,” said defender Tony Beltran.
The past two months are proof of that mentality.
When Real Salt Lake trounced Portland 4-2 at Rio Tinto Stadium back on Aug. 30, RSL moved eight points clear of the Western Conference pack and nine points ahead of the Timbers.
Over the past seven weeks though, the clubs have streaked in opposite directions. While RSL has slumped to a 1-3-1 record, Portland is unbeaten in six straight (4-0-2) including last Sunday’s 1-0 triumph over rival Seattle, which set up this week’s No. 1-vs.-2 clash.
Real Salt Lake will be without star midfielder Javier Morales, who’s suspended because of yellow card accumulation.
“Javy is a great individual player, a guy that can unlock things kind of out of nowhere, and so I don’t know what the change will be but obviously we all need to pick things up in the midfield and try and create some chances and be dangerous in the final third, because that’s what really Javier does for us,” said Grabavoy.
Throughout RSL’s six-game unbeaten streak against Portland, there have been a whopping 26 goals scored, and don’t be surprised if two or three goals will be necessary to win again Saturday.
“I think both teams have aggressive mindsets. Both teams want to dictate the flow of the game. Both teams want to boss the game a little bit in all the statistical categories. Because of that it opens up space to attack,” said Kreis.
It will probably be a refreshing style of play for Real Salt Lake after predominately facing counterattacking teams the past month, but Kreis stressed his team needs to grind out results regardless of the opponent.
“We need to figure out how to get a result regardless of how the opponent plays. It’s a little bit of a mindset thing to get back in a positive rhythm going into the playoffs,” said Kreis.