With just seven matches left in their season, the Major League Soccer playoffs are looking like a real possibility for Real Salt Lake.
Before they get there, they’ll have to face a desperate team in LA Galaxy. They’re a team that’s gone five games without a win, and that’s pushed them out of a coveted playoff position.
Saturday’s match against the Galaxy presents what some call a “six-point swing,” with both teams in close range in the Western Conference. With the two vying for limited playoff openings, it’s destined to be a tense affair.
RSL’s playoff chances hang in the balance
Sitting in fourth place in the Western Conference with 41 points, RSL has played more games than several teams below, having played in 27 contests. That’s just as many as LA Galaxy, who have 38 points, a point difference of just one match.
Both Portland Timbers and Seattle Sounders have played 25 matches and have 40 and 38 points, respectively.
As a result, Real Salt Lake find themselves in a difficult position. Two consecutive wins on the road, just their second and third road wins of the year, will give the team newfound confidence.
The crowded Western Conference actually features eight teams with a chance to finish from first place to eighth place. A win on Saturday would help boost RSL’s chances, potentially lifting them as high as third place in the conference.
Though in a playoff position now, some sets of results around the league could see RSL drop from fourth place to eighth in just this single game.
Games to watch on Saturday: Seattle Sounders vs. Sporting Kansas City, New England Revolution vs. Portland Timbers, Vancouver Whitecaps vs. San Jose Earthquakes.
Avoiding deference to Zlatan Ibrahimovic
LA Galaxy has a strong history of signing world-famous players, as most evident in their bringing in former Manchester United and Real Madrid star David Beckham in 2007.
This season, the Galaxy signed Zlatan Ibrahimovic, a Swedish superstar who has made a name for himself with a larger-than-life personality. Having played for Inter Milan, Barcelona, AC Milan, Paris Saint-Germain, and Manchester United, Ibrahimovic — known popularly as just “Zlatan” — has grown a global fanbase.
Ibrahimovic is more than just a personality and an ego: He’s scored at a rate approaching a goal each game for every club he’s played with since 2006, and he hasn’t made LA Galaxy an exception. Despite being nearly 37 years old, he’s firmly in second place for goals scored, scoring 16 goals in just 20 appearances.
He will prove the most obvious threat for LA Galaxy, and Real Salt Lake’s defense will need to keep tabs on his movement. His goals all exist somewhere in the realm of the spectacular, so there will need to be some defensive leadership that RSL has, at times, struggled to enact.
Likewise, RSL should be cautious not to give too much respect to Ibrahimovic. His goals come largely in Los Angeles, and he’s scored only four goals on the road.
Ibrahimovic isn’t the only threat the Galaxy have at their disposal, and if RSL doesn't treat their opponent as a capable team, they’ll make the match much harder for themselves.
Open holes in the Galaxy defense
For most of 2018, Real Salt Lake has been most successful when they score early in matches. That’s not much of a surprise since most teams are similar, but it’s more that RSL has struggled at times to take control of games they’re not leading. That can lead to dangerous situations as the match progresses.
It also remains the case that RSL has a wildly talented offense with which to operate. Albert Rusnak, Joao Plata and Jefferson Savarino comprise what is arguably the most talented creative attacking line in the league.Comment on this story
For RSL to succeed against the Galaxy, they’ll need to take control of the match early. This will give those attacking players the most room to operate.
With the Galaxy in a poor run of form, having not won their last five games — a run that includes a 5-0 loss to Seattle — there will be a palpable sense of desperation to the team.
The Galaxy are likely to try to force things as they hunt for a playoff position, and if RSL can remain calm and in control, they’ll have an excellent chance at victory.