Earlier this week Tony Beltran opened up a web browser and started doing some research. The 26-year-old Real Salt Lake defender was trying to figure out the last time — if ever — the standings in his Western Conference have been this neck-and-neck with nine weeks remaining in the Major League Soccer schedule.
"It’s never been this close with this many teams," Beltran concluded. "Each game from this point out is absolutely pivotal."
RSL at San Jose
At Buck Shaw Stadium, Santa Clara, Calif.
Kickoff » Saturday, 8:30 p.m.
TV » CW30
Radio » ESPN700 AM
Records » RSL 11-5-9; San Jose 6-10-7
Last meeting » RSL 3, San Jose 3 (March 15 at Buck Shaw Stadium)
About RSL » New Designated Player Sebastian Jaime is expected to travel with the team and be on the game-day roster at San Jose … The 27-year-old Argentine forward arrived last Friday and started training with the club Monday. … Midfielder Javier Morales (hip) remains questionable for the trip after missing the last two matches due to injury. … Forward Joao Plata was called into the Ecuadorian national team thanks in part to his 11-goal season up to this point. … RSL is 4-3-1 all-time at Buck Shaw Stadium.
About San Jose » Injuries have ravaged the Earthquakes season as the club is currently missing new DP Matias Perez Garcia, forward Steven Lenhart and winger Yannick Djalo. … Forward Chris Wondolowski leads the club with 10 goals, while the next closest players are Djalo and former RSL man Atiba Harris each with three. … San Jose has scored the fourth-lowest number of goals in MLS at 28. … Goalkeeper Jon Busch leads the league in saves with 87.
Case in point: On the morning of Aug. 20, Real Salt Lake woke up in first place in the West a few days after defeating rival Seattle 2-1 at Rio Tinto Stadium. Later that night, the Sounders drew with San Jose 1-1 to move back into a tie with RSL atop the West.
A little more than a week later and after a 2-1 loss at FC Dallas, RSL sits in fourth place in the West staring at its final visit to Buck Shaw Stadium against the middling San Jose Earthquakes Saturday night in Santa Clara, Calif. For the moment, RSL is looking up at FC Dallas (both knotted at 42 points), L.A. Galaxy and Seattle Sounders, who are back atop the conference.
Has RSL entered must-win territory with nine regular-season matches to go, all of which are against clubs in the West?
"We have to win all of our remaining home games and then we have to take points out on the road because with so many teams in the mix, somebody’s going to go out there and win a couple of games on the road, and that’s going to be the difference," Beltran said.
Starting with a road win at San Jose could go a long way in keeping up. The Earthquakes, Supporters’ Shield winners in 2012, have fallen off dramatically since their banner season two years ago. San Jose (6-10-7) sits in eighth in the conference, currently eight points away from fifth-place Vancouver. In their last four outings, the Quakes have given up 12 goals.
Gone is the brash, physical style of play up top as Alan Gordon was shipped to L.A. and Steven Lenhart remains sidelined after undergoing knee surgery earlier this month.
Winger Yannick Djalo has been dealing with a lingering leg injury and new Designated Player Matias Perez Garcia is out for an extended period of time after undergoing knee surgery of his own.
But RSL isn’t discounting San Jose’s World Cup-caliber forward Chris Wondolowski, who’s proven to be a thorn in the side of the club for the last few seasons.
"Anytime you have Wondolowski on the field, they can get goals at anytime," RSL coach Jeff Cassar said. "Obviously, it’s a team that’s not playing with a ton of confidence, and we don’t want to give them any, so it’s about when the ball turns over, winning it back right away, putting pressure on them, not letting them get into any type of rhythm."
The stop in Silicon Valley is a precursor to back-to-back matches at home to FC Dallas and at Seattle, a three-game slate that could either catapult RSL to the top of the table or leave the club desperate for wins.
"I know it’s tight up there and if we concentrate on ourselves, the results will come," goalkeeper Nick Rimando said.
"We can’t rely too much who’s on top, who’s on bottom, who’s behind — we’ve got to rely on ourselves about getting results and we have another tough one this weekend."
Copyright 2014 The Salt Lake Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.