RSL is relishing the West’s tight playoff race; San Jose is up next

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Real Salt Lake forward Corey Baird (17) celebrates his goal as Real Salt Lake hosts the Seattle Sounders, Aug. 14, 2019 at Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy. RSL defeated the Sounders 3-0.

Herriman • Neither Real Salt Lake midfielder Kelyn Rowe nor interim coach Freddy Juarez — MLS veterans and fans in their own capacities — can remember a season quite like 2019. Where down the stretch, every game feels like it’s worth more than three points. Where a playoff position can change drastically over the course of just one weekend.

“I’ve had a few earlier in my career when I was in New England, but nothing that has a second-place-to-seventh-place kind of thing,” Rowe said Tuesday after training. “We’ve always had a few close calls in my time — making the playoffs, not making the playoffs. But this is pretty incredible.”

Just four points separate the second-place Seattle Sounders from the eighth-place Los Angeles Galaxy in the Western Conference. Most of the teams in that mix have six games remaining in the regular season, while two have five left.

RSL experienced the volatility of the conference after its loss to the Portland Timbers. Before that game, the club sat second in the West. But after the weekend’s results, it dropped to fifth.

That level of movement looks to be what teams across the conference will experience for the next several weeks. But several Salt Lake players are actually looking forward to it. Defender Nedum Onuoha called this home stretch “the best part of the season.”

“I think as a professional, all the games which feel like they have more than three points on the line for them — whether they actually do or they don’t — these are the big games where you sort of look back at the end of your career and you feel like these are the ones you probably enjoyed the most,” Onuoha said last week. “When you’re pushing on trying to achieve something.”

Defender Justen Glad, who returned Tuesday from a United States Men’s National Team Under-23 camp with Aaron Herrera, Sebastian Saucedo and Brooks Lennon, said it’s both fun and stressful to play under those conditions.

“At the end of the day, we’re playing soccer. It’s what we love to do, so it’s always fun,” Glad said. “But there is a little bit of pressure for sure. But I think that’s great. Hopefully that brings out the best in everyone.”

Defender Donny Toia, however, has somewhat of a different opinion. He said Monday that it’s more stressful to navigate how tight the standings are in the West.

“Obviously it’s good that we’re in the situation that we’re at because, obviously, you’re in the run for playoffs. Obviously that’s the fun part,” Toia said. “Being outside the playoffs sucks. So it’s fun, but at the same time, it’s very crucial and very stressful. But you just have to take it one game at a time and focus on that game and get a result at home.”

But captain Kyle Beckerman is enjoying himself at this juncture of the season because he feels it shows how hard RSL has worked to be its current position. In a way, he said, the club is playing with house money.

“We’ve been punching above our weight class here to be in the same talk as these teams that spend all this money,” Beckerman said Monday. “So a lot would think that we shouldn’t even be here or wouldn’t be here. But we’re here. So we’re enjoying it and we want to just try and do as best we can and make sure we get into the playoffs. Anything above that is bonus.”


At Rio Tinto Stadium, Sandy, Utah

Kickoff » Wednesday, 7:30 p.m.


Radio » 700 AM

Records » RSL 13-11-4; San Jose 13-10-5

Last meeting » San Jose 1, RSL 0 (July 6)

About San Jose » Earthquakes have scored eight more goals than RSL this season (48). … Chris Wondolowski leads team with 13 goals. He’s scored three goals in last two games. … Won previous two games in which team scored six total goals. … Coach Matias Almeyda will serve the last of his three-game suspension. … Seven players won’t play due to international call-ups.

About RSL » Missing five players due to international duty. … Last time Real beat San Jose was Aug. 23, 2017. … Won four of the last six games, but coming off a loss. … Without Albert Rusnák and Sam Johnson, team missing 18 goals between them.