Sandy • The hunters must now embrace a new, yet familiar role.
In chasing the Seattle Sounders and Sporting Kansas City for the title of Major League Soccer’s top points-getter the last couple of months, Real Salt Lake reiterated it could — and would — return to form after a brief dip in performance. Eventually, it caught back up to its Eastern Conference rivals and the defending MLS Cup champions. On Aug. 9, RSL caught the first-place Sounders for 24 hours.
Then on Saturday, RSL beat Seattle in its 2-1 victory at Rio Tinto Stadium, running the three-game season series to 1-1-0 , with a final showdown between the top two teams in the West slated for Sept. 12 at CenturyLink Field in Seattle. The three points once again catapulted the club to first place in the West, leading the Sounders by a sliver of one point. Seattle, through 22 league outings, has two matches in hand on RSL, who has played 24, so the pressure to keep accumulating points and wins is heavy.
And from here on out, every opponent in the final 10-game stretch of the regular season hails from the Western Conference, starting Friday at red-hot FC Dallas (11-7-6, 39 points), riding an unbeaten streak of nine matches and coming off a 5-0 dismantling of San Jose on the road.
"Every week is a six-point turnaround," defender Chris Wingert said. "Almost everybody is still right in position to make [the playoffs]. The difference between first place and out of the playoffs is not that much … we just have to hang tough."
The next four weeks will certainly clear up the murky picture around the West.
RSL faces FC Dallas twice in three weeks as the two sides end their regular-season series on Sept. 6 in Sandy before RSL heads to Seattle. Three matches against two teams nipping at its heels should either tighten the gap, or if RSL can continue its six-game unbeaten streak, create some significant space.
"You can really start putting distance between other teams," RSL coach Jeff Cassar. "It’s an important game [at FC Dallas], it’s a massive game because there are less and less games to play."
Often batting away talk of postseason and Supporters’ Shield hopes throughout the season, the club is content with where it is and how it’s playing entering the late-summer stretch.
Wingert made it a point to say it’s still early to label anyone a Supporters’ Shield frontrunner, although he said he’s be surprised if Kansas City doesn’t win due to the extreme parity in the West.
"We’ll certainly be gunning for it if we’re in that position," he said, "but as cheesy as it sounds or as cliche as it sounds, we just need to keep taking it week by week because there’s a lot of games to go."
But reinforcements may be on their way soon.
Incoming midseason designated player Sebastian Jaime could arrive sometime week from Chile and all-time leading scorer Alvaro Saborio remains two weeks ahead of schedule in returning from a fractured foot suffered in late May.
The race isn’t shaping up in any way — it’s simply heating up with the unpredictability of an MLS season guaranteed to make a few surprising moves within the next 10 weeks.
Copyright 2014 The Salt Lake Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.