SANDY, Utah — This is usually the time of year when Real Salt Lake is trying to add points for a run at the Supporters’ Shield or a higher finish in Major League Soccer’s Western Conference.
This season is different. For the first time in eight seasons, the question for RSL isn’t playoff seeding, but playoff qualification.
“We’re not where we want to be,” midfielder Kyle Beckerman said Friday. “Where we’ve been in the past seven years or so — building that foundation to be an elite team in this league — it took a lot of hard work. Now our fans have those expectations. That’s where we want to be. We don’t want to make this familiar, being where we are on the table. And we want to try to get out of it. … Getting a win (Saturday) would help that out big time.”
Saturday’s 7 p.m. match is all the more important because the opponent is Seattle, which holds the sixth and final playoff spot in the West.
“They’re all big (games) right now,” RSL coach Jeff Cassar said. “We’re trying to shorten the distance between us and them, and they’re trying to create a bigger gap. Obviously this is huge; we all know it is. But what we really have to concentrate on is just how we play, and the results will come.”
Results have come with unprecedented consistency for RSL in recent seasons.
In 2004, MLS picked Salt Lake over Seattle and other expansion candidates. The new club missed the playoffs its first three seasons. However, RSL broke through in 2008 and hasn’t missed the postseason since, an MLS record of seven straight seasons.
Now that seems imperiled, as RSL is ninth in a 10-team conference in which the top six finishers go through to the postseason.
“It is difficult,” said RSL assistant coach Tyrone Marshall, who played in Seattle 2009-10. “In a salary-cap league, it’s very competitive. … It’s been a difficult season for us with our injury situation and just having to field players with all these different competitions. So with that being said, we’re obviously going to need the help of (newcomer Juan) Martinez, and — cross our fingers — we can get into the playoffs again. But overall, it’s become a real competitive (league) now and obviously we have to step up our game.”
The Sounders have a playoff streak of their own to protect, having qualified for the postseason every year since joining MLS in 2009. That’s six straight appearances, tied with Los Angeles for second-longest behind RSL.
Seattle goes into this weekend three points behind fifth-place FC Dallas and three points clear of seventh-place San Jose. However, while a graph of Salt Lake’s season would show a relatively flat line — its current three-game losing streak is its deepest dip of the season — the Sounders’ is more like an inverted “V” with a quick climb to the top of the league followed by a sharp drop with eight losses in nine games.
The Sounders hope they began reversing course again last weekend with a 4-0 win over Orlando City, a game that marked the return of goals-leader Obafemi Martins and the debuts of designated player Nelson Valdez and central defender Roman Torres.
“I feel that the losing streak that they went through is not a true identity of Seattle,” Beckerman said. “I think they’re a real good team. They’ve been able to help themselves with early wins. When you get those early wins, going into a streak like they did losing, it’s not a big a deal. They’re still right in the thick of things. I think they all are feeling that they got a good one last week, and if they can find their form again, that they’ll be just fine. Hopefully we can stop them for at least another week and get on a streak of our own.”