MLS: Real Salt Lake on top, but in precarious position
By Aaron Falk
The Salt Lake TribuneFirst published Aug 22 2013 11:11AM
Portland, Ore. • With two months left in the season, distinguishing top from bottom in the Major League Soccer playoff race is a little like navigating one of M. C. Escher’s stairwells.
Real Salt Lake has kept its spot atop the league table, and now has 42 points thanks to a late equalizer Wednesday night in Portland. But with eight games remaining, RSL is just a six-point swing from falling out of playoff position entirely.
In the West, only Chivas USA has fallen by the way side, and every other team is within nine points of the conference’s top spot.
It’s as tight a race as RSL midfielder Ned Grabavoy can ever remember seeing.
"There are no easy games at this point in the season," he said after the 3-3 draw with the Timbers. "Everybody is fighting. There are probably more teams than I can remember that have a real shot at making the playoffs. … It’s crazy."
RSL won’t have much time to rest, with a game against a surging Columbus team set for Saturday night at Rio Tinto Stadium. Salt Lake coach Jason Kreis said he believes the pressure surrounding the importance of each game will benefit his players.
"I think the beauty of it all, is that typically when you’re in August, you’re starting to think about ‘How am I going to motivate these players?’ ‘How are we going to continue to give our best every game when there’s nothing really there to fight for?’ Typically, there’s somebody so far out in front that your chances of catching them are very slim. Typically, there’s a lot of people down at the bottom, so your chances of not making the playoffs are very slim. So, you begin to kind of lose your way," Kreis said. "But this year, I think every single game is going to be like [Wednesday night against Portland], with that intensity, and I think that’s fantastic because it should put us in a really good place for the playoffs."
RSL will get captain Kyle Beckerman back from a one-game suspension in time for Saturday’s matchup with the Crew. But the statuses of goalkeeper Nick Rimando, who missed the Portland game because of a stomach virus, and forward Alvaro Saborio, who is dealing with a calf strain, are still uncertain.
Kreis said he believed Saborio pulled out of training early enough this week that the strain may not be too serious, and said he was hopeful the Costa Rican striker could go Saturday.
Wednesday’s draw ensured RSL will at least have a share of first place, regardless of what happens against Columbus. But Portland, Colorado, Kansas City and New York each have 39 points, and are within striking distance of Salt Lake.
"It’s a great race," RSL defender Tony Beltran said. "It should be interesting coming into these last eight games. It’s gonna be fun, it’s gonna be a battle, and I’m happy we’re in it."