SANDY, Utah — The stakes have gotten high again for Real Salt Lake.
The matchup between first-place Portland (13-5-14, 53 points) and second-place Salt Lake (15-10-7, 52 points) on Saturday night at JELD-WEN Field (10:30 pm ET; MLS Free Stream of the Week) is certainly one of RSL's more important regular-season matchups since the club took the field in 2005.
“This is as big as it gets,” RSL defender Chris Wingert told MLSsoccer.com. “We've had a couple of big ones against Colorado, like that one that put us in the playoffs.”
That was 2009, when a season-ending win over the Rapids allowed Salt Lake to sneak into the playoffs on a series of tie-breakers — and, four weeks later, win the MLS Cup.
The math is somewhat simpler this time around, albeit there are plenty of complications. Whichever teams wins on Saturday night will clinch a playoff berth and will be in first place in the Western Conference. A tie would send Portland to the playoffs; and, regardless of the outcome of the Timbers-Real game, both teams can clinch if Colorado fails to win against Vancouver on Saturday, or if San Jose fails to do the same at LA on Sunday.
“This is a huge game for us,” RSL goalkeeper Nick Rimando told reporters. “We've spent a lot of this season saying, 'This is the biggest match,' but this is really a match that can determine a lot of things for us.
“I think everybody knows how big this game is. We're not going to take it lightly.”
Salt Lake coach Jason Kreis said his team is “completely focused” on the Timbers right now. A win would go a long way toward finishing first in the conference and leave RSL in the running for the Shield – especially if New York slips up at Houston.
“We've been close, but never this late in the season on either count,” Kreis said. “It's really exciting to go into our last two games and we literally control our own destiny as far as the conference goes.
“And we've played a lot of big games like this this season.”
Not always with positive results, however. Salt Lake is just 1-3-1 in its last five matches, including a hugely disappointing loss to D.C. United in the finals of the U.S. Open Cup. And, while RSL has benefitted from Seattle's late-season swoon, the club has failed to take advantage of opportunities to pull ahead of the pack in the standings.
“There's been so many times we've said, 'This is a huge game,” Beckerman said. “So I think those games have been practice for games like this, and we're prepared. We know they're going to be up for it, too. They don't expect to lose. They play really well at home.”
Rimando concurred: “We have to bring it. Everybody has to be on. If we don't, they're a good enough team that will make us pay.”