The road to the playoffs got a little bit more difficult for Real Salt Lake.
After their Wednesday loss to the San Jose Earthquakes, Real still sat in ninth place in the Western Conference with the help of other results throughout the week. They were just two points below eighth-place Vancouver, and thus only one win away from being the playoff picture with two games left in the 2020 season.
But Major League Soccer changed the measure by which teams make the playoffs this year. Because the coronavirus pandemic has caused the Colorado Rapids to cancel several games, not every team will end up with the same number of games. So MLS decided to make points per game the main demarcator of who’s in and who’s out.
That change affected RSL immediately. It now sits 10th in the West at 1.1 points per game, behind Vancouver (1.14) and Colorado (1.27). Mathematically speaking, Salt Lake will likely need to win Sunday against the L.A. Galaxy and Nov. 8 against Sporting Kansas City just to have a chance at making the playoffs.
“It’s not going to be easy. Not at all,” midfielder Damir Kreilach said. “But as long as we have any chance to bring us into the playoffs, we are going to give 100% and to try to win both games.”
Coach Freddy Juarez was unhappy with the league’s decision. He thinks it would have been more equitable if the league instituted what exists in the Eastern Conference, where seeds 7-10 compete in a play-in game for the chance to face the No. 1 and No. 2 seeds.
Juarez also said that RSL has done a “pretty good job” of adhering to safety protocols in order to not catch the virus.
“It would be a shame if we put ourselves point-wise to be in the playoff but we don’t get to get in there because of the percentage,” Juarez said.
RSL AT L.A. GALAXY
When • Sunday, 8:30 p.m. MST
TV • KMYU
So now RSL is left with another must-win situation. Much like it was a few days ago against the Earthquakes. And a few days before that against FC Dallas, a game that ended in a scoreless draw. The club collectively knows it will likely take all six points and a little luck to make the postseason this year.
Kreilach said it will take “a little bit extra” from each player to beat an L.A. Galaxy team that just fired its coaching staff and will be looking to get a win after losing eight of their last nine. Defender Justen Glad expanded on Kreilach what and explained what “a little extra” could look like on the field.
“Giving that extra bit to make sure you win your battle,” Glad said. “If you get beat, giving that extra to get back and re-press. Stuff like that. It’s just a mentality thing.”
RSL wanted to do something similar against San Jose on Wednesday. Before that game, players talked about overmatching the energy of the Earthquakes in order to overcome their unique style of play. But it took Salt Lake most of the first half get comfortable playing against them.
Kreilach said that against the Galaxy, Real need to be ready to go immediately.
“Our concentration and our focus should be there, especially energy, from the first second,” Kreilach said. “We are not allowed to be sleepy first five, 10 or 15 minutes and then to see what is L.A. Galaxy going to do.”
Juarez’s message to the team as it prepares for the Galaxy is one of joy. Yes, 2020 has been the grind of all grinds. But when his players go out on the field, competing is all that should matter.
“The biggest thing I ask of my players is all that stuff aside, this is the best time to be a great teammate and play with a pure heart so we can go and enjoy the game,” Juarez said. "I told them, ‘I want you to enjoy these experiences now. That’s the only way we’re going to go over there and perform. We’re uptight, forget about it. It becomes a difficult game.’
“I don’t want our guys to be uptight. There should be no fear in this game. It’s a game. Let’s go and compete and love competing.”