SANDY, Utah – For the past couple of weeks, Real Salt Lake players and coaches have been stressing the importance of maintaining their third-place position in the Western Conference.
Now that they've slipped a point behind FC Dallas into fourth place after their scoreless draw Friday with the Portland Timbers, that tune has changed.
“A couple of weeks ago, I think the mindset was we don't want to play in that [No. 4 vs. No. 5] play-in game,” defender Tony Beltran told reporters. “But it's not the biggest thing in the world.
“When we won in '09, we were the last seed in the West.”
They were the last seed in the playoffs, as a matter of fact. In 2009, the top two teams in each conference qualified for the playoffs along with the next four teams with the highest point totals regardless of conference. RSL was in a three-way tie for the final postseason berth, edging out both Colorado and D.C. on tiebreakers.
“Anything can happen in the playoffs,” Beltran said. “It's a completely new ballgame.”
RSL (14-8-11, 53 points) head into Wednesday's season finale against Chivas USA (9:30 pm ET; MLS Live) with their ticket punched for the playoffs and with still a chance to catch FC Dallas (16-11-6, 54 points) for the third spot with a win and a Portland win or draw against Dallas on Saturday.
“We can't get caught up in stuff that's out of our control,” RSL defender Chris Wingert said. “If we have to play in the play-in game, then so be it.
“Teams have won championships going through the play-in game.”
That happened just two years ago, when the LA Galaxy (No. 4 in the West) beat Houston (No. 5 in the East) in the MLS Cup final.
Of course, RSL are still shooting for a win against Chivas USA on Wednesday.
“We would like to try to finish third so we don't have to play an extra game,” Beltran said.
Avoiding the play-in game has more than one benefit: teams not only avoid a one-off elimination game but also have a chance to rest players.
“After a long season, you want to give the guys as much rest as you possibly can,” RSL coach Jeff Cassar told reporters. “There's no way you can run out the exact same people every single time [with two games in a week].
“… But at the same time, if you end up in that game and you win, you have rhythm. So you can look at it two ways.”
If RSL finishes third, it will give defender Chris Schuler more time to heal after he broke his nose and sustained three separate fractures to his orbital bone when he collided with teammate Nat Borchers in a loss to Chivas on Oct. 5.
Schuler returned to training on Monday with a protective mask; he won't be available for Wednesday's game.
“There's still the healing process, so we're limiting him – as long as he doesn't do headers and things like that,” Cassar said. “He's got to get used to playing with the mask.”
Doctors have to “measure his eye again and see if it's moved within the socket. If it's moved, then they might have to do surgery. If everything goes right … then I think you could get away with not having surgery.”