Sandy • Real Salt Lake had a chance to secure a playoff berth in the Western Conference with a win at home against the Portland Timbers on Wednesday.
Instead, they may have sealed their postseason fate in the opposite direction.
RSL lost 3-1 to the Timbers, who guaranteed themselves a home playoff game with the win.
Salt Lake remained eighth in the West and just two points behind the L.A. Galaxy for a playoff spot. But they’ll need some luck to go their way from around the conference and will also need to win on the road Sunday against Sporting Kansas City to give themselves a chance.
Here are three takeaways from RSL’s loss to the Timbers.
1. Counter attack kills RSL
Possession is in the eye of the beholder.
RSL dominated it, holding the ball at a 65.4% clip. They passed the ball 561 times. That’s a lot of ball control.
But what mattered was what the Timbers did when they got the ball. When that happened, they were flying up the field with numbers, creating opportunity after opportunity and putting Salt Lake off balance.
One of the sequences led to Portland’s third goal. RSL turned the ball over in the midfield and the Timbers were off to the races, short-passing their way to Sebastian Blanco’s second goal.
RSL is vulnerable to counter attacks due to the 3-5-2 formation the team has been playing since Pablo Mastroeni became interim coach. Midfielder Albert Rusnák said when they give away the ball in bad spots, their formation makes it so they have to be hyper-aware of the fact that there are only three players defending in the back.
“We’re trying to play attacking football, yet we still turn the ball over easily, which leads directly to counter attacks and goals,” Rusnák said. “If we want to play this style of football with three at the back, then us players in the attacking half will have to take care of the ball a little bit more and knowing that when you lose it, we’re don’t have too many men at the back.”
Interim coach Pablo Mastroeni said the team has to be more aware of where it is on the field and the decisions it is making.
“There’s no magic fix,” Mastroeni said.
RSL will have to fix that in just a few days time after it has played four games in the previous 10 days.
2. Lack of competitive spirit
RSL started Wednesday’s game much like it started the one against San Jose. The team created chances and showed a lot of fight in the first 15 minutes or so.
But once Salt Lake conceded, it was like someone popped their balloon and transferred the helium to the Timbers, who dominated from there. Portland scored two more goals before halftime, and RSL all but welcomed it to do so.
From a competitive standpoint, RSL’s performance was woeful. Portland is a good team, but by no means has been a juggernaut in the Western Conference. On a night where Salt Lake was guaranteed a playoff spot with a win — and when the club honored legend Kyle Beckerman —the home team played as though it wanted the season to be over.
At least when the Earthquakes beat them a few days ago, RSL scored two late goals and made the game respectable. But Mastroeni’s message at halftime was “win the second half,” which, to the team’s credit, it was able to do.
“Did we believe we could score four goals? Yes,” Rusnák said of the second half. “But in reality, that’s something that happens once in a few hundred games.”
Rusnák scored the team’s lone goal by way of a penalty kick in the 88th minute.
3. Playoff scenarios
LIke was said above, RSL can still make the playoffs. A win on the road would against SKC would clinch a berth due to having tiebreakers over four other teams still vying for spots.
RSL has 45 points entering Decision Day. LAFC also has 45 points and is one spot behind RSL. The Vancouver Wihtecaps and the Galaxy have 48 points and 47 points, respectively. That’s about as tight as a playoff race as you can get with just one game remaining in the season.
If RSL ties any of the aforementioned teams in points, it holds the first tiebreaker, wins, over every team.
Kansas City lost 3-1 to Austin FC on Wednesday, but is still in position for a bye in the first round of the playoffs. So SKC will have something to play for, and it will be at home, where it has lost only twice all season.
“It is not going to be easy,” Rusnák said. “But if there’s 1% chance, then I guess we still have to believe and take advantage of that chance that we’ll have on Sunday.”