SANDY, Utah — A year ago, Real Salt Lake and the Portland Timbers met six times — and every game had something huge riding on it.
First place in the Western Conference. First place in the Supporters' Shield race. A trip to the US Open Cup final. A trip to the MLS Cup final.
The two teams find themselves in very different positions heading into Friday's match in Oregon (10 pm ET on NBCSN). But the game is no less important, because Portland is fighting for their playoff lives.
“This game with Portland is about as close as you get to a playoff game before it actually is one," said RSL midfielder Kyle Beckerman. "Ultimately, if they don't win, their season's done, so to take a team's season, it's a tough task. It'll give us good practice going into the playoffs.”
“If we want to avoid that [No. 4 vs. No. 5 Knockout Round] play-in game and stay in the third spot, these next two games are crucial,” RSL defender Nat Borchers told reporters. “This one against Portland is the biggest for sure.”
RSL can't finish any worse than fourth in the Western Conference, meaning that — worst-case scenario — it would host the Western Conference Knockout Round match. But head coach Jeff Cassar wants no part of that.
“If we're throwing another game in there, it's just more wear and tear," Cassar said. "This team's built to handle it, but we want to stay away from it for sure.”
On their third attempt — after back-to-back losses to Vancouver and Chivas — Real Salt Lake nailed down its seventh-consecutive playoff berth on Saturday with a win over San Jose. And the Claret-and-Cobalt didn't do much celebrating, either on the field or in the locker room.
“It's not something that we really celebrate because it's something we expect of ourselves,” defender Tony Beltran told reporters. “There's still a lot of hard work to be done. There's still two games to focus on.
“And, as far as we're concerned, all the playoff attitude starts now. We want to go to Portland and get a result.”
And, after training on Tuesday, Cassar made good on a promise he made months ago — he went back to the locker room and had his head shaved. He said he had no regrets about making the vow, although, “I was wishing we could have done it about two weeks earlier. And it would have grown in a little bit. So I was starting to stress."