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Carson, Calif. • Four games left. Three teams, including Real Salt Lake, all within two points of one another, and all fighting for just two spots that will allow them to avoid the dangerous new wild-card game in the Major League Soccer playoffs.
"Every game is a big game," RSL's Chris Schuler said. "Every single game."
Including the one featuring RSL taking on Chivas USA at the Home Depot Center on Saturday night.
The Goats might be in last place in the MLS Western Conference, with only 21 goals in 29 games by far the fewest in the league. But RSL cannot afford to drop any points and give the Los Angeles Galaxy and Seattle Sounders a chance to move ahead in the final weeks of the regular season.
"If we slip up in any game and give them a chance to get points," defender Nat Borchers said, "we're going to be looking at that fourth spot."
That's something RSL desperately wants to avoid.
The wild-card game was instituted this season when MLS moved to a more straightforward playoff format, with the top five teams in each conference during the regular season qualifying for the playoffs. The fourth- and fifth-place teams contest the wild-card game, with the winner facing the No. 1 seed just four days later.
In the West, the top seed will be the league-leading San Jose Earthquakes.
Playing the wild-card game would add a taxing step to RSL's road to the MLS Cup title game, by making a congested schedule even worse.
If it wound up stuck in the wild-card game, RSL would have to survive six games in 19 days counting its must-win Champions League game on Oct. 23 and league regular-season finale on Oct. 27 before enjoying a full week off between legs of the conference finals in mid-November.
If it avoids the wild-card game, RSL at least would get a full week off between the end of the regular season and the start of the conference semifinals Nov. 3 or 4.
It also would be assured of playing either the Galaxy or the Sounders in the conference semifinals.
Coaches and players don't believe RSL quite needs to win each of its last four regular-season games to avoid the wild-card game, "but we need to stay focused on one at a time," coach Jason Kreis said. "If we don't give them our full respect and attention, they'll beat us."
Indeed, one of the Goats' seven victories this season came against RSL back in March at Rio Tinto Stadium, no less though RSL evened the season-series with a 3-0 victory on the road in June.
But the Goats are reeling, riding a nine-game winless streak since July 28. They have lost their last five in a row by a combined 10-1 score, having not found the back of the net at all in their last three games.
Coach Robin Fraser, a former RSL assistant under his close friend Kreis, is only now returning from a two-game suspension for arguing with referees about a penalty kick decision. It's the kind of opponent that a team with aspirations as grand as RSL should be able to beat, even though it has not played spectacularly in recent weeks. After Chivas, the team concludes its regular season with important road games against the Galaxy and Sounders, followed by the finale against Vancouver.
"I don't think every game you have to get the full three," Borchers said. "You have to take care of business at home, for sure. We have one more home game against Vancouver, and I think we're going to have to win at least one of our three away games, if not two."
RSL has four games left in its MLS regular season:
Saturday • at Chivas USA 8:30 p.m.
Oct. 6 • at Los Angeles, 7 p.m.
Oct. 17 • at Seattle 9 p.m.
Oct. 27 • Vancouver, 7 p.m.
All Times Mountain
Real Salt Lake at Chivas USA
P At the Home Depot Center (Carson, Calif.)
Kickoff • 8:30 p.m.
TV • CW30 Radio • 700 AM, 1600 AM, 102.3 FM
Records • RSL 15-11-4, Chivas 7-15-7
Regular-season series • Chivas leads, 10-8-4
Last meeting • RSL 3, Chivas 0 (June 16)
About RSL • It's coming off a 2-1 home win over Portland last weekend in which it looked great early but slowed near the finish. … Forward Alvaro Saborio is doubtful with the shoulder injury he suffered setting up the winning penalty kick in an important Champions League game Sept. 18. … It's 13-1-0 when scoring first, and 2-10-1 when conceding first. ... They have scored 27 of their 40 goals in the second half. … Defender Chris Schuler is expected to start in place of Jamison Olave, who's suspended due to yellow-card accumulation.
About the Goats • Riding a nine-game winless streak, they also have lost their last five games in a row by a combined 10-1 score. … They have scored only 21 goals, fewest in the league. … Forward Juan Pablo Angel leads the team with four goals, but he has been mostly relegated to the bench recently with Juan Agudelo and Casey Townsend featuring up top. … They have allowed 14 of their 45 goals that's nearly a third in the final 15 minutes of games.