Sandy • The scene was surreal.
Real Salt Lake's players put on a happy face while offering gifts of autographed posters and the like to a portion of the 20,378 fans gathered at Rio Tinto Stadium for the final regular-season game of the MLS season. Their smiles burned through clinched teeth.
Afterward, on the heels of a disappointing 1-1 tie to Portland, a game that appeared won until the Timbers scored in extra time, thoughts turned to San Jose, Calif., where the Earthquakes hosted FC Dallas. A Dallas win would push RSL (15-11-8) into Wednesday's wild card game. Instead, even as the postgame festivities continued, the San Jose score filtered through the RSL locker room.
What was a 1-0 Earthquake lead turned quickly to 2-0, 3-0 and then 4-0. The mood relaxed as RSL understood that it would be the third seed of the Western Conference, hosting No. 2 seed Seattle on Saturday at 8 p.m.
Seattle and Salt Lake split the season series, each winning on the other's home field.
"There were a lot of good things in that [Portland] game," RSL defender Chris Wingert said. "Hopefully we can carry that into the playoffs. … It's going to be tough, so we need to bring that same intensity."
RSL must also rediscover the art of victory. The team matched last year's record total of 15 wins six games ago. Since then, RSL has four losses and two ties.
"We've had a lot of stretches where we've had some positive things happen, and we've had a lot of stretches where it seems we couldn't buy a result," RSL coach Jason Kreis said. "We've been more consistent for longer periods of time it hasn't been one week to the next but there is just a ton of difficulties we've faced this year. I'm hoping all of this means something come playoff time."
There were positives to close the season, including RSL forward Alvaro Saborío's 11th goal of the season, which closed out the first half against Portland. He leads RSL in scoring for the second straight year.
Will Johnson returned from injury, while Ned Grabavoy and Tony Beltran should be ready for Saturday's playoff game. Also, Kyle Beckerman's three-game suspension is done.
RSL will field close to a full squad for the first time in several weeks.
"[The season] was up and down for sure, with injuries and call-ups," RSL goalkeeper Nick Rimando said. "We had our great streak, our worst streak, and I think right now we are almost where we want to be. We're getting some great players back just in time for the playoffs, and all these streaks go away once you start the playoffs."