LEHI, Utah – As Real Salt Lake’s match against Portland looms on the horizon, two playoff paths lie ahead of the Claret-and-Cobalt. One is a direct route to the Western Conference seminfinals as the third seed, whereas the other is a bit more convoluted.
Should RSL – who currently sit in third place in the West, tied on points with FC Dallas but ahead due to their head-to-head record – fail to finish above FCD in the standings, then they would enter the postseason via a wild card spot and, should they advance, land on the Eastern Conference side of the bracket.
Since the teams with the four highest point totals reside in the West, this raises the question of whether or not it would be more beneficial for RSL to fall to the wild card spot and work their way through the “easier” East.
“People are overthinking things,” said midfielder Ned Grabavoy after practice on Tuesday. “If you go over to the East, aren’t those teams going to try hard? Aren’t they going to be tough games?”
The last two MLS Cup winners, the Colorado Rapids and Real Salt Lake, were Western Conference teams who earned a berth in the season finale by virtue of winning the Eastern Conference championship. However, Grabavoy insists that is just a bit coincidental.
“We were the last seed going into the playoffs [in 2009], and we had Columbus in the first round and I don’t think any of us thought that was easier than playing somebody else,” said the nine-year veteran. “I just think it’s a situation where you had a team like us in 2009 that probably underachieved a little bit in the season and should have finished higher, and I think it’s the same thing with Colorado last year.”
Unlike in both of those seasons, the route through the East requires an additional wild card match, which would make electing to go that route less likely.
However, RSL head coach Jason Kreis believes there could be some merit to the sentiment that the easier route could be through the East.
“I don’t think that they would be incorrect in their assessment,” said Kreis. “That could be the case, but it’s never a certainty, and we have to have a winning mentality.
“In my mind, to go into the playoffs not winning a game in the last six would never be good enough,” he continued, referring to his team’s recent winless run. “I don’t like my chances at all, no matter which conference you’re in. So for me, we need to win, not only to claim third place and a very, very good chance of a CONCACAF berth, but we also need to get our attitudes right and to get us headed into the right direction coming into the playoffs.”