The last time Real Salt Lake played Tauro FC of Panama in the CONCACAF Champions League, it needed to win.
And it did.
Now it needs to beat the team once again Tuesday — this time on the road and without one of its best players — or risk the death of its dream of returning to the Champions League knockout rounds, one of its three main goals for the season along with winning the MLS Cup and Supporters Shield regular-season title.
“It’s a must-win game, no doubt,” midfielder Will Johnson said.
If RSL cannot beat Tauro without suspended midfielder Kyle Beckerman, it will give CS Herediano of Costa Rica a chance to clinch its preliminary group title when it plays Tauro at home Sept. 25. Only the group winner advances to the knockout rounds.
If RSL does win, it will have a chance to overtake Herediano in a winner-take-all match at Rio Tinto Stadium on Oct. 23.
“I like when our backs are against the wall,” defender Nat Borchers said. “We always respond well. … There’s no uncertainty. You know exactly what you have to do. You know exactly what result you have to get, and that just brings out the best in this team.”
It certainly hopes so this time.
Otherwise the list of opportunities for glory starts to get awfully small.
The Supporters Shield already is out of reach, with RSL 10 points adrift of Sporting KC with just five games remaining. And winning the MLS Cup is likely to require a playoff run as unexpectedly magical as the one four years ago, judging by the unspectacular way RSL has played its recent league games.
Beyond that, reaching the knockout rounds of the Champions League will earn RSL a salary-budget bonus from Major League Soccer that would help it keep its core group of players together another year, if it wants.
Without that bonus money, team officials have acknowledged some big changes could be in store.
“Those factors are there,” coach Jason Kreis said. “I can’t tell you that I have the decision for what would happen if it doesn’t go well [in Champions League]. I just know that those factors are there and those pressures are there.”
Beckerman is suspended because of the red card he picked up in RSL’s 2-0 home victory over Tauro on Aug. 21, which could have been an even bigger victory had it not been for the spectacular play of Tauro goalkeeper Alvaro Anzola.
It was the sixth ejection in 31 games across all competitions, adding to a growing concern about team discipline that has made it difficult for RSL to find a rhythm with its best starting lineup on the field this season.
In any case, the team expects an unintimidating atmosphere Tuesday night at Estadio Rommel Fernandez — the stadium is home to the Panamanian national team, but not Tauro — and a winless opponent with nothing to lose, which probably will attack from the start.
“It’s a difficult place to play,” Kreis said. “There’s not a tremendous atmosphere for the game. There’s not a huge crowd to get your emotions going. You really have to kind of handle things within yourself and you’ve got to approach the match in the right way. But again, I think it’s a good thing that we have a very clear objective.
“When the guys have it very clear in front of them that they have to win a game, we typically perform very well.”
Real Salt Lake at Tauro FC
P At Estadio Rommel Fernandez, Panama City, Panama
Kickoff • 6 p.m. MDT
TV • Fox Soccer
Radio • 700 AM
Records in CCL • RSL 1-1-0, Tauro 0-2-0
Last Meeting • RSL 2, Tauro 0 (August 21)
About RSL • It has not played since a 1-0 loss at Houston on a last-minute penalty kick Sept. 6. … Midfielder Yordany Alvarez is expected to start in place of suspended captain Kyle Beckerman, having started five league games this season. … It’s 2-1-1 in its last four games, after a four-game losing streak in all competitions. … Defender Kwame Watson-Siriboe is out with a groin strain, but fellow center backs Jamison Olave and Chris Schuler are expected to be available after recovering from injuries.
About Tauro FC • “Los Toros” have yet to score in two Champions League losses, 2-0 at RSL and 1-0 at home to CS Herediano of Costa Rica. … Eleven-time national champions, they’re sitting one point off first place in the Panamanian League. … Forward Edwin Aguilar leads the team with seven goals in 10 league games. … Goalkeeper Alvaro Anzola was spectacular in the loss at RSL, keeping the game from becoming a real blowout.