Now that RSL has missed the playoffs, the what-ifs begin

(Chris Detrick | The Salt Lake Tribune) Real Salt Lake midfielder Kyle Beckerman (5) acknowledges the crowd after the game at Rio Tinto Stadium Sunday, October 22, 2017.

Even before Real Salt Lake came up one point short of a playoff berth on the last day of the season Sunday, captain Kyle Beckerman anticipated that the what-ifs that would follow.

“It happens every year,” he said before the season finale against Sporting Kansas City. “Every single year we look back and say, ‘Man what about that game, could we have won? Or that game, could we have tied instead of lost?’ Every year. And it’s no different, maybe even worse this year. Because if we get that one point somewhere then we’re controlling our destiny.”

Real Salt Lake couldn’t have known it throughout the season, but if it had collected one more point ahead of the 2-1 win over SKC, a playoff spot would have been guaranteed. As things actually stood on decision day, it also needed both Dallas and San Jose to fall short of a victory. Neither did, and the Earthquakes punched their ticket to the postseason.

Of course, an extra point (or two) could have come from any of RSL’s combined 21 draws and losses. Real Salt Lake started the season with a five-game winless streak, and before beginning its turnaround in early July, Real Salt Lake had sunk to a 5-12-2 in league play.

However, the easiest match to label as “the one that got away“ is RSL’s 1-0 loss at Colorado last week.

“In the end we didn’t have to win that game,” Albert Rusnák said in training Thursday. “We needed a point to be above the playoff line, but these things you don’t know in soccer. Maybe three points wouldn’t be enough that day to be above the line; a week later you find out that a point would be.”

Of RSL’s final two opponents, Colorado looked like the easier of the pair to collect three points against. The Rapids, who finished the season in 10th place in the West, had long ago kissed their playoff hopes goodbye.

On the same day that RSL lost to Colorado, Dallas lost at Seattle 4-0 to remain just a point ahead of Real Salt Lake. Then San Jose, which was tied in points with RSL, jumped the Salt Lake side with a 1-1 draw at Vancouver.

“This was definitely a missed opportunity for us,” defender David Horst said after the loss, “but we are definitely not eliminated.”

They weren’t at that point. But a week later that loss became one of a series of what-could-have-beens.

What if RSL coach Mike Petke had been in place from the start of the season? What if RSL had won one of the three consecutive home matches that it tied? What if it had taken a different tactical approach in just a couple games?

Said Petke: “I honestly think — and this is not a coach doing the coach thing and taking blame here and there — this is genuine when I say that I feel if I would have managed a couple of games in those dog days of summer a bit better, maybe we would have pulled out two or three ties instead of losses.

“My mindset that whole time was that I wanted to instill my philosophy on them and the way I wanted to play, even if we lost, because it would have paid dividends in the long run. And it did. But perhaps if we bunkerred, and perhaps in those games we got two or three more points, we’d be sitting here a little different.”

Or perhaps RSL wouldn’t have become the team that it did — a team equipped to climb out of the last place in the conference to compete for a playoff spot.