Real Salt Lake got a taste of the upcoming 2013 MLS playoffs on Saturday night. A good taste, by all accounts, despite the scoreless draw in Portland.
"It was a playoff-type game for sure,” defender Nat Borchers said of the tie that played out in front of 20,000 crazed Timbers fans (and a few hundred Salt Lake fans).
RSL coach Jason Kreis said that every match in Portland “plays like a playoff match.”
And, while the result didn't clinch anything other than playoff berths for both teams, it was “a big game. I think probably the biggest of the season,” said RSL defender Lovel Palmer, who was picked up in the re-entry draft in December after being dropped by Portland.
RSL is on its way to the postseason for the sixth straight time, the longest active streak in the league and tied (with New York 2003-08) for the second-longest in MLS history (behind New England 2002-09). And nobody in the Salt Lake locker room seems particularly concerned that they were not only unable to score on Saturday, but had no shots on target.
"It's a step in the right direction, for sure, getting 0-0 on the road,” Borchers said. “It's been a while since we got a shutout.”
A team made up mostly of reserves blanked Vancouver 1-0 four games ago; for the starters, it's been eight games since a 4-0 win over Columbus on Aug. 24. With one match remaining, Real Salt Lake aren't out of the race for the Supporters' Shield, but it would require a win over Chivas USA; a loss by New York; and losses or ties by Kansas City and Portland — plus, perhaps, a tiebreaker or two to go the right way.
“This season, you never know what's going to happen,” Kreis told MLSsoccer.com. “It's a funny game. It's just amazing the parity in our league this year. It's more than I've ever recognized before.”
Currently, a total of five points separates the top seven teams in the league; seven points separates the top nine; eight points separates the top 12.
“It's crazy,” Kreis said. “You look at the team that we took up to beat Vancouver a couple of weeks ago, and then Vancouver beats Seattle by three goals and Seattle loses by four goals to Colorado before that after going on a nine-game winning streak.”
The RSL coach said he's not surprised no one has pulled away from the pack, either in the Western Conference or overall.
“There's more good teams this year than there's been in the past,” he said. ““There's a lot of quality teams that are beating up on each other. I think that's the difference. It's hard to predict anything this season.”
Of immediate concern for Salt Lake is hosting Chivas USA on Wednesday (9 pm ET; MLS Live). A win would guarantee RSL no worse than second place in the Western Conference; a tie would guarantee no worse than third place; and even with a loss, they'll get no worse than fourth place.
But RSL don't want to fall into that fourth-fifth playoff game. And that, at least, is something the team still controls.
"We have to go out there," Borchers said, "and plan on going for three points.”