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Real Salt Lake aim to shut down Zlatan as Galaxy visit for massive match

HERRIMAN, Utah – Saturday’s game between the LA Galaxy and Real Salt Lake is a big one, for plenty of reasons (10 pm ET | Full TV and streaming info).

Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who scored twice in LA’s 3-0 victory in the teams’ first meeting of the season, travels to Salt Lake for the first time, and does so on the cusp of 500 career goals.

Just three points separate the two teams in the Western Conference standings, where five teams are separated by four points, stretching from RSL’s spot in fourth to Vancouver in eighth. A road victory for the Galaxy would only tighten the fight for the final three playoff spots even more.

That heightened level of importance for a single game has helped get the best out of RSL the past couple weeks – at least that’s what RSL head coach Mike Petke thinks.

“I just think these guys are mentally the type of guys that realize at a certain point it’s getting real now,” Petke said. “Instead of doing what I wanted them to do and realize from the first day of preseason it’s real. These are some guys that need to have something really tangible in front of them, whether they’re reading the standings or doing the math, and they step their game up.

“It seems like a different vibe and it’s not that they weren’t into it early on. I think they just want to feel a little pressure.”

Back-to-back road wins in their past two matches – after only winning one away match in 12 up to that point – suggests that such pressure may indeed be getting the best out of RSL’s roster. Combine that road success with two weeks to market Zlatan’s arrival, and a rowdy Rio Tinto Stadium could be in store on Saturday.

“This game’s a lot more than about Ibra, but he’s a big focal point of it,” Petke said. “He singlehandedly won the game against us last time, while their entire team played well. We have to be a bit tougher. We can’t be intimidated.”

Only six games remain for RSL after Saturday, and only one of them is against a team ahead of them in the standings. So while Saturday isn’t quite a must-win, there aren’t too many opportunities like this left, especially given that the home side are riding the high of getting six points on the road and returning home to face a fellow playoff contender for a potential six-point swing in the standings.

“The last 10 games of the season, every point counts and every game matters. Maybe there’s a little bit more pressure because we’re at home,” RSL midfielder Albert Rusnak said. “We have to keep that momentum going because we have two road wins in a row, which hasn’t happened in a while. We know it’s going to be a tough game and I think we’ll be ready for it.”