SANDY — As the midpoint of the season arrives for Real Salt Lake this Saturday with a visit to Columbus, clarity for an oft-inconsistent club could be just around the corner.
Through 16 games RSL sits in a fourth-place tie in the Western Conference. When you consider the team has been dealing with the bust offseason signing of Spanish striker Alfredo Ortuno — who is making a team-high $990,000 and has played just 119 minutes with no goals — it makes RSL’s position in the standings that much more impressive.
Has the success been smoke and mirrors though, with RSL benefiting from the softer part of its schedule?
RSL’s record against teams currently below the playoff lines in the Eastern and Western Conference is 5-3-1, while its record against teams in sixth place and above in either conference is 2-4-1.
“We have a lot of quality, and when we’re on we show it obviously. And when we’re not we leak goals as a team,” said coach Mike Petke when he was asked this week to evaluate the first half of the season.
“We’re in fourth place right now in the league, so that’s a very good spot to be in, but we have to make sure we correct the little things that are going to keep us there if not get us higher.”
During the recent stretch when Petke’s team beat four of five opponents to leap up the standings, none of those wins came against teams currently in a playoff position. In fact, Philadelphia was the only team in a playoff position from those five games, and RSL lost 4-1 on the road.
Early in the season as RSL slogged through a difficult schedule with a mediocre 3-5-1 record, a lack of confidence was often referenced as a reason for the struggles.
It capitalized on the softer part of its schedule in May and June to restore some of that confidence, but was it a false sense of confidence?
The litmus test of whether RSL can truly be regarded as one of the West’s best will reveal itself over the next eight days. After a road game this Saturday at Columbus, which sits in fourth place in the East, RSL returns home Wednesday for a game against West-leading Kansas City and then has a quick turnaround on Saturday against FC Dallas, which sits second in the West.
With a great week, RSL could leap into the top three in the West. With a bad week, it could dip well below the playoff line.
A lack of success over the next week against MLS’s elite could also spell trouble late in the season. RSL’s final five games are against Atlanta, Kansas City, Portland (twice) and New England. All five of those teams are above the playoff line, and they all figure to be jockeying for playoff position late in the season.
During the 10 games in between those two difficult stretches, RSL has only one game against a team currently in a playoff position — Aug. 15 at Los Angeles FC.
RSL will need to put its best foot forward against a quality Columbus team to have any hope of walking away with points.
RSL is 0-4-0 on the road against Eastern Conference teams this year, having been outscored 14-3. In all four games its given up goals in bunches.
“There’s times when we’re feeling a little bit of pressure from the other team we don’t do the greatest job about handling that and just soaking it up and getting through a little rough patch,” said RSL forward Corey Baird.Comment on this story
Petke said Columbus plays a distinguished style that can punish Real Salt Lake if it isn’t clean with the ball.
“They’re a team that is committed both in attacking and defending. They like to get numbers around the ball and break quickly after winning the ball, so the quality of our passes and speed of play are going to be huge for us,” said Petke.
Justen Glad should be available for RSL despite leaving last Saturday’s game for precautionary reasons after a head-to-head collision with San Jose player Florian Jungwirth.