For Real Salt Lake is 3rd or 4th place in the Western Conference the best place to be?

Well no matter what happens with all the other matches, for Real Salt Lake it is simply about them taking care of their own business on Saturday.  There are two scenarios that are in front of RSL, first is that they end up in 3rd place in the Western Conference by winning on Saturday against Portland, or having FC Dallas get the same result as RSL. FC Dallas could take 3rd place and drop RSL to 4th if they win against San Jose and RSL loses or draws with Portland, or if FC Dallas draws with San Jose and RSL loses to Portland.

Both the 3rd and the 4th spot have some advantages, so we will look at each of them:

3rd Place

If RSL were to finish in 3rd place the biggest advantage would be the potential to get into the 2012 CONCACAF Champions League, currently both the LA Galaxy and the Seattle Sounders have already qualified so with a 3rd place finish RSL would have a 75% chance of making the Champions League.  Since the team that would represent the West at MLS Cup would get a birth, it would take the lowest seeded "wildcard" team pulling off an upset over two of those teams to keep RSL out of the tournament.

There is also the shorter travel requirements, direct flights to LA and Seattle are easy to find and neither are long flights that the team would face going to locations in the East.   There is also the fact that RSL matches up well against both Seattle and Los Angeles.  

more about 3rd and 4th place after the jump:

In 2010 RSL drew in both matches with Seattle a 2-2 draw at Rio Tinto and a 0-0 draw in Seattle, and this year it was Seattle winning at Rio Tinto 2-1 and RSL winning in Seattle 2-1.  There was some controversy in each of the matches this year but it is clear that these two teams battle each time the meet and could provide for some exciting playoff matches if RSL finishes in 3rd place.

Should RSL advance past Seattle they would face the Los Angeles Galaxy, and over the last two years that matchup has favored RSL.  In 2010 it was a LA Galaxy 2-1 win in LA and a 1-0 RSL win at home, and this year RSL had a 4-1 win at home and lost 2-1 in LA.  You have to note that in the loss at LA the Galaxy benefited from the first own goal by RSL in several years, but both years the overall advantage would go to RSL. 

So while many people think that finishing 3rd and having to deal with the top two team in MLS might be a disadvantage, I am not sold on that as both the shot to return to Champions League and knowing how you match up against your opponents are things I count as real advantages to getting the win on Saturday night.

4th Place

So several pundits asked that perhaps finishing 4th place might be in the best interest of RSL, it was a move to the Eastern Conference in 2009 that lead to them making it two and winning MLS Cup.  They also point to the fact that the East is perceived as the weaker conference, and to be honest they are if you look at the records of the teams, none of them will be able to match the 15 or 16 wins that RSL will end the season with. None will match the 52 points that RSL already have earned, so perhaps there is some merit to wanting a move to the East.

As of this post finishing in 4th place would earn RSL a "wildcard" match at home against the New York Red Bulls, a team that in the past have proven a worthy adversary for RSL but this year were soundly beaten both at Rio Tinto 3-0, and then at Red Bull Arena 3-1.  History however shows that before this year New York actually did fairly well at Rio Tinto Stadium, a 1-1 draw in the first ever match played at the stadium in late 2008, was followed by a 1-0 New York win in the Western Conference Final that year.  In 2009 RSL was able to secure a 2-0 win at Rio Tinto, but the Red Bulls are a very dangerous team to have to beat in order to just make it into the playoffs. 

Should that be the path for RSL and should they win that "wildcard" match they would then face the top seed in the East, currently that is Sporting KC.  Sporting is a very interesting team, they started their year with a 10 match road trip but have battled back to secure themselves a playoff spot.  The first match would be at Rio Tinto where RSL was able to get a 1-0 win over SKC last month, but it was a 2-0 loss for RSL when they played at SKC's new home LIVESTRONG Sporting Park.  In 2010 RSL had a huge 4-1 win at home and settled for a 1-1 draw when they played in Kansas City.  I will be honest I think this matchup doesn't favor RSL as much as other potential matchups, at least not in my opinion.

So in playing this what if game, should RSL finish in 4th and make it past New York in the "wildcard" and then past Sporting in the first round of the East, they would likely face the Philadelphia Union in the Eastern Conference final at PPL Park.  While RSL was able to salvage a 1-1 draw there earlier this year (we also had a 1-1 draw there in 2010), it was perhaps one of the ugliest matches the team played all year and we were saved time and time again (5 times) by Nick Rimando who had one of his strongest outings of the year.  With the recent form of Sebastien LeToux, I don't know of any teams who are looking forward to having to face the Union in the playoffs.

All of that to get to MLS Cup and to secure a 2012 Champions League spot, so I am not sold in any way, shape, or form that finishing in 4th place would hold any advantage for Real Salt Lake.  It would mean another match (granted it would be at home) but you would then be looking at a midweek "wildcard" match, a weekend home match for first round, travel for a midweek 2nd leg of the first round and then more travel for a weekend final.  

Given the injuries and suspensions that have plagued RSL this year, I think avoiding a match and travel to the East might be the best path even if it does mean having to face Seattle and LA on our path to the MLS Cup.

OFF MY SOAPBOX

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