Herriman • In the last few seasons, Real Salt Lake earned various reputations: a team that doesn’t spend, a team that plays inconsistently, a team built primarily out of academy players.
In the last two years in particular, coinciding with the arrival of coach Mike Petke in March 2017, RSL added to that list. When the back half of the season arrives, the club tends to pick up its play. Petke’s noticed, too.
“Over the last couple of years, I’ve noticed that — it doesn’t have to the last game, it could be the last month or two — that as we’re getting closer to, for lack of a better word, either a consequence or a reward, the level just raises,” Petke said earlier this week. “I’ve said it a number of times over the last two years that our guys are really good with their backs up against the wall.”
Case in point: In RSL’s last 17 games last season, it won or tied 12 of them (7W, 5T), keeping them above the playoff line for months. Real eventually made the playoffs despite a dip in form in the last few games.
This season, however, appears primed to be more challenging for Salt Lake. With just 15 games left, it sits below the playoff line at eighth place in the Western Conference with 26 points. And it doesn’t help matters that only six points separate the third-place Seattle Sounders with the eighth-place RSL.
With so many games left and every one having playoff implications, RSL can’t afford to wait until the last two months of the season to ramp it up. It has to happen now. The team acknowledges that.
“We know how important it is to be getting results week in and week out from this point forward because if we want to make the playoffs and we want to have a good seed, we have to climb up the table and in the rankings,” Brooks Lennon said. “So we need to do everything we can, especially at home, to get those three points every weekend.”
RSL is the midst of a stretch where eight of 11 games are at Rio Tinto Stadium. The first two were wins against Sporting Kansas City and Colorado, which have been struggling this season. But after seemingly creating some momentum, next came a stoppage-time loss to San Jose. That one could come back to bite them.
“Every point counts,” Petke said. “That’s why I think the one point that we left on the table — if not three — in San Jose hurts a bit.”
REAL SALT LAKE’S NEXT EIGHT
Saturday vs. Philadelphia Union (1st in East)
July 20 vs. Minnesota United (4th in West)
July 27 at FC Dallas (5th in West)
Aug. 3 vs. New York City FC (5th in East)
Aug. 10 at Sporting Kansas City (10th in West)
Aug. 14 vs. Seattle Sounders (3rd in West)
Aug. 17 vs. LAFC (1st in West)
Aug. 24 vs. Colorado Rapids (12th in West)
And the schedule doesn’t get any easier. In the next eight games, six of those are against opponents well above the playoff line, starting Saturday against the Eastern Conference-leading Philadelphia Union.
“We’re at that moment that now we have a handful of games at home and we have to collect as many points — we have to collect all the points, to be honest with you, Petke said. “That’s the mindset that we have.”
Midfielder and captain Kyle Beckerman said the possible reason for the uptick in form in the latter portion of the last two seasons is simply having more home games than during those stretches. But at the 19-game mark in the last two years, RSL played 11 home games in 2017 and 10 in 2018.
This season, however, only eight of the first 19 have been at home. With so many games at the RioT on the horizon, Beckerman said it’s an opportunity to establish a rhythm that could spill over to road games as well.
“I think when you start to get a couple of games at home, you start to add up some wins,” Beckerman said. “Your confidence gets up, then you go on the road, you have confidence going on the road. And then you can get into a rhythm that’s used to winning and you’re starting to feel like you’re going to win.”
In the end, it’s not about finding a higher sense of urgency, Beckerman said. It’s just about winning games. And he knows how tight the race will be.
“It’ll probably come down to the last game again this year,” Beckerman said. “Hopefully it doesn’t. But if it does, we’re used to it.”
REAL SALT LAKE VS PHILADELPHIA UNION
At Rio Tinto Stadium, Sandy, Utah
Kickoff » Saturday, 8 p.m.
TV » KMYU
Radio » 700 AM
Last meeting » Philadelphia 4, RSL 1 (May 19, 2018)
Records » RSL 8-9-2 (8th in West), Philadelphia 10-5-6 (1st in East)
About Philadelphia » Has a winning record on the road (4-3-3). … Kacper Przybylko leads team with nine goals. ... Has won only one of the last five games against RSL. … New striker Andrew Wooten could make MLS debut.
About RSL » Pablo Ruiz, along with Andrew Brody and Josh Heard of the Real Monarchs, have been loaned to FC Pinzgau Saafelden of the Austrian third division for six months. … Sam Johnson and Nedum Onuoha are out with injuries. … Won three of last four home games