It might not be time to write Real Salt Lake's MLS season off and focus on CONCACAF Champions League quite yet.
With 8 games remaining in the MLS season, RSL has a record of 8-10-8. Not very flattering. Especially unflattering is the fact that Real is firmly placed at the bottom of the Western Conference.
But before you give into despair, there are a few things we can look at as we head into the final stretch of the season.
That wasn't the same team that played on Saturday
RSL put in arguably their best performance of the season on Saturday night against the Sounders. While a second-half goal would have put the game well and truly away, the defense did a good job of crowding the box and containing Obafemi Martins' dangerous runs. I can't think of a time when Seattle had a really clear shot on goal, and that's a good thing. Scoring twice in the early part of the first half didn't hurt.
We've been here before
Let's not forget that RSL often has a late-summer slump. Maybe it's the heat or maybe it's the time of the season when injuries and yellow card accumulation starts taking a toll (admittedly the latter hasn't been a real issue for us this season). Whatever the reason, we've seen this story play out before many times and it doesn't always signal doom for the season. The problem is the late-summer slump is usually at the tail end of a decent run that hasn't happened this year.
It's not impossible to put together a good late season run
Many of us have been looking at the 15 win/50+ point season as a baseline for a playoff run. It's far too early to know the minimum requirements for gaining entry to the playoffs at this point. However, there's some math we can do (that's easy enough for me to figure out) that make the playoffs slightly more than just a pipe dream.
After Saturday's 3 points, RSL has 32 points on the season. Let's ignore where they are in the conference table for a minute. If RSL wins all 8 remaining games, they'd have 56 points -- 6 above that 50-point baseline. In order to just hit 50 points, they need to win the last 3/4 of their games, or 6 out of 8.
Before you cry out about how unlikely that number seems, let's look at the teams we have yet to play:
- FC Dallas (Away, current season record 0-0-0)
- Houston Dynamo (Away, current season record: 1-0-0)
- LA Galaxy (Home, current season record: 1-1-1)
- San Jose Earthquakes (Away, current season record: 1-0-1)
- Colorado Rapids (Away, current season record: 0-1-1)
- Portland Timbers (Home, current season record: 1-1-1)
- FC Dallas (Home, current season record 0-0-0)
- Seattle Sounders (Away, current season record: 1-0-0)
Most of those teams are teams we've beaten before this season. The only exceptions are FC Dallas (who RSL plays for the first time this weekend) and the Rapids (who are in last place). Scrapping together 6 wins out of these games isn't an impossibility.
And the 50-point thing isn't a guaranteed requirement, either. Yes, the Western Conference is a lot more competitive -- for whatever reason -- than the Eastern Conference and the addition of Sporting KC and the Houston Dynamo -- both of whom are often in playoff discussions around this time of year -- doesn't help. But the number of teams going into the playoffs has increased, too. Instead of half the teams entering the playoffs, we now have 60% of teams entering the playoffs. And while it would suck (a lot) to be one of the 8 teams not entering the post-season, more teams means more chances and (potentially) a lower barrier-to-entry.
With Plata back on the field and Jordan Allen healthy, not to mention the arrival of El Burrito, things are starting to look up. The only weak point at this stage is in the back line -- Maund's been solid, but it would be nice to have an experienced centerback alongside Jamison Olave if we can't have Chris Schuler for the rest of the season. Centerback isn't the most prestigious position and that tends to make it less pricey as well. If my name was Craig Waibel (it isn't), out-of-contract, Spanish-speaking centerbacks is what I'd be looking at right now.
It could still fail horribly
On the other hand, we could completely burn out. I'm not going to pretend that any of this is certain. I'm not setting my expectations at nothing less than a playoff berth. I'm not pretending that there's every likelihood that the star-studded Galaxy are going to walk away with the rest of this season behind Gio dos Santos and Robbie Keane and Steven Gerrard. New injuries for RSL at this stage in the season could have a profound impact on the matches ahead.
But let's not forget that the only hardware this team has ever earned has been when all the odds were stacked against them and they were playing a heavily-favorited LA Galaxy team. In 2009, RSL squeaked into the playoffs at 5th place in the Western Conference with 40 points overall and a (losing) record of 11-12-7. Earning 50 points on the season and/or getting 15 or more wins would be nice, and its a fairly safe bet that it would earn entry into the playoffs but it's possible (and even fairly likely) that the bar will be at least a little lower than that.
It's not quite time to give up and focus on the remaining CONCACAF matches yet. There is, as they say, still a lot of soccer left to be played.