SANDY, Utah – Two weeks ago, Real Salt Lake's hopes of winning the Supporters' Shield appeared dead. Today, those hopes have a pulse as they head to Vancouver to for a Saturday matchup with the Whitecaps (5 pm MT; CW30, TSN2 in Canada).
“Obviously, we want to secure a top-three position [in the Western Conference],” RSL head coach Jeff Cassar told reporters. “If we get three points there, now we're nipping on some heels.”
After a 3-2 loss in Seattle on Sept. 12, RSL trailed the Sounders by eight points and Seattle had a game in hand. Since then, however, RSL beat Colorado and Seattle lost twice, bringing the Claret-and-Cobalt within five points of Seattle and co-leader LA Galaxy and even on games played.
“You can make big jumps in our league,” Cassar said. “A couple of teams tie, get a loss, now you've gained five points on them quickly.
“I know what our schedule is. I know what theirs is. But we have five games that we have to get three points [each] from and play good soccer.”
RSL's remaining games are against teams below them in the West (Portland, Vancouver, San Jose and Chivas twice), while Seattle and LA play each other twice. The Galaxy also have games against New York and Dallas.
Based on the standings, it would appear RSL have the easiest road to the end of the season.
“Yet to be determined,” RSL defender Chris Wingert told reporters with a smile. “Yeah, maybe it's nicer than playing away at Seattle or LA or whatever, but at the same time it doesn't mean anything unless we take advantage of it. And still we know every week's going to be tough.
“We haven't lost that many games, but one of those games was to Chivas. San Jose always gives us a tough game. And, certainly, going up to Vancouver is going to be tough. We still think it's going to be tough whether other teams think so or not.”
Cassar has his eyes on the standings, and not just on the Western Conference. His team has more points (49) than the first-place team in the East (D.C. United, who have 48).
“That's actually one that I'm looking at even more so than what's going on [in the Western Conference],” Cassar said. “Because that can set ourselves up nicely.”
It's not a stretch to imagine a scenario in which each of the top three, or even four, teams in the West could end the regular season with more points than any team in the East. That would mean if any of those three (or four) teams make it to MLS Cup, they would host it.
Nobody at RSL has forgotten that they missed out on hosting the 2013 MLS Cup by two points and lost in a shootout in Kansas City.
A top-three finish means RSL would avoid a one-off Knockout Round game and play two home-and-home series with Western Conference teams to make it to the Cup.
“No matter what, we're playing all these teams in the West to get to the Cup,” Cassar said. “So it really doesn't bother us.”
RSL's coach and players are reluctant to talk much about the Supporters' Shield, which the team has never won.
“Talking about it and worrying about it is not going to change the actual reality of the way the table is set up,” Wingert said “And so we just need to keep focusing on earning points every week, and then with a game or two to go we'll see. Hopefully, we'll be in a position to get in that top three.
“And then if we're in a position to possibly win a Supporters' Shield, of course we'll be gunning for it.”