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Sandy • After more than seven months, Real Salt Lake's successful regular season ended Wednesday night, with this conclusion: That sure seemed like a lot of work for these guys, just to finish fourth in the Western Conference.
Yet that's where RSL likely will end up, unless Portland can provide some help by winning or tying at FC Dallas on Saturday. This leads to another summary of Major League Soccer, as wryly provided by RSL defender Nat Borchers: "The East sucks."
That's one way of saying MLS is decidedly tilted toward the West, and Real (15-8-11) will face a major challenge in its bid to return to the league championship game.
After his first regular season as RSL's coach ended with a 2-0 win over Chivas USA at Rio Tinto Stadium, Jeff Cassar noted how his team has succeeded against Seattle, Los Angeles and Dallas. But then he started calculating the records and realized his theory was lacking strong evidence. "We played good soccer against them," he insisted. "We're not scared of anyone."
If Dallas wins Saturday and finishes third, RSL will settle for fourth place and a host a knockout-round game against Portland or Vancouver next week, then potentially move into the West semifinals vs. the No. 1 seed. As a No. 3 seed, RSL would open the two-leg semifinals at home.
RSL briefly held the West's top spot in August, then returned to a mediocre pattern before rallying with three shutouts two wins and a tie. That's encouraging, and so is the bulk of the roster's having experienced postseason success.
"This group of guys knows what it takes to win in the playoffs," Cassar said, "and you can see the last three games, we've amped it up a little bit."
That remained true Wednesday, when RSL possessed the ball for nearly three-fourths of the game and repeatedly pressured Chivas goalkeeper Dan Kennedy. The goals came via Alvaro Saborio's penalty kick in the 36th minute and Kyle Beckerman's easy finish of a Joao Plato assist in the 74th minute, with Chivas playing a man down.
At the other end, you'd almost never have known Nick Rimando was in the stadium, if not for his neon green uniform. That's how much RSL dominated the play.
So a team that started the season 6-0-5 settled for a 9-8-6 finish, partly attributable to the absence of Beckerman and Rimando for the U.S. Men's National Team's participation in the World Cup and Saborio's injury while playing for Costa Rica.
Yet beyond the potential reward of hosting the MLS Cup final and the risk involved with playing in the knockout round, the regular-season standings tend to matter little in the playoffs. RSL's earning a seventh consecutive playoff berth makes the franchise's 10th season a success to this point, with the ultimate judgment yet to come.