It’s do or die for Real Salt Lake on Sunday against Portland

A win guarantees RSL a spot in the playoffs.

(Isaac Hale | Special to The Tribune) Real Salt Lake forward Justin Meram (9) drives the ball upfield during a MLS game between Real Salt Lake and Houston Dynamo FC at Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy on Saturday, June 26, 2021.

Herriman • Real Salt Lake has been here before.

On the last day of the 2021 regular season, RSL needed to beat Sporting Kansas City on the road in order to secure the seventh and final spot in the Western Conference playoff picture. It took a near-miracle, but they pulled it off behind Damir Kreilach’s volley goal in stoppage time off Justin Meram’s bicycle-kick assist.

Nearly a calendar year later, RSL (11-11-11) is in the very same position: win and they’re in. It’ll need to happen Sunday at 3 p.m. at America First Field against a Portland Timbers team that played them to a scoreless draw back in April. And it’ll need to happen without Kreilach, who has been sidelined most of the season with injury.

“Let’s run it back,” Meram said Tuesday with a smile. “Hopefully this year I can have a last-minute bike assist, maybe to Sergio [Cordova] since Dami will be unavailable. But, look, anything can happen. It takes one moment. We had that last year and hopefully we have it again.”

The 2022 season has been one of difficult moments for RSL. Injuries, especially the one to Kreilach, have plagued them. Striker Bobby Wood has only played 14 games. They have been much healthier in recent weeks, though.

But in those weeks, RSL has struggled to put together wins. It sits in eighth-place in the conference and has just two wins in the last 10 games. At home, where the team once thrived, its record is 8-3-5.

“I think overall, the way we’ve been playing has been everything that we’ve set out to achieve at the beginning of the season,” coach Pablo Mastroeni said. “To be fair, I think in the last whatever it’s been — seven or eight games — we’ve been the team that’s had the better opportunities and given up the least chances and still found ways to not get anything out of the game. So from that perspective, I think we’ve been better than our record shows.”

RSL Playoff Scenarios

Real Salt Lake would secure a playoff spot with a victory over Portland. A draw or loss for RSL would eliminate the club from postseason contention.

• Six-seed if: RSL wins and Minnesota loses to Vancouver

• Seven-seed if: RSL wins and Vancouver loses

RSL for the last several years has had seasons where down the stretch every game felt like a do-or-die scenario due to the tightness of the conference, the team’s inconsistency, or both. In 2018, for example, it only made the playoffs because Houston mounted a surprising comeback against the L.A. Galaxy. The next season, it finished third.

Through it all, RSL has made the playoffs three of the last four seasons. And in some ways, the team is leaning on past years to inform how it will approach Sunday’s matchup.

“We’ve got a lot of guys who have been in those situations before, who are ready for those situations,” defender Justen Glad said.

Meram loves the pressure that comes with games like Sunday’s.

“You don’t become a professional but by not loving these moments or not taking advantage of these opportunities,” Meram said. “They don’t come very often.”

Portland sits in sixth place in the Western Conference with a record of 11-9-13. The Timbers are hot right now, having won four of their last six games with one draw.

RSL will be at home in front of what should be a raucous crowd, and the game will be broadcast on ESPN2. This is so clearly the team’s biggest game of the season to date.

But the team believes it is worthy of a playoff berth.

“We’ve played some big games,” goalie Zac MacMath said. “We’ve beaten some of the better teams in the league. We’ve shown that really almost every game this year, besides maybe one or two, that we were competitive in. So we deserve to go to the playoffs if we win on Sunday. And when hopefully we get to the playoffs, we know we can beat any team.”