Real Salt Lake and the Houston Dynamo meet in Sandy, Utah on Saturday night in a clash of teams with distinctly different outlooks entering the final five weeks of the MLS regular season. The home side finds itself in the thick of the race for a first-round bye in the bloodbath that is the 2016 Western Conference, while the cellar-dwelling Dynamo sits on the brink of mathematical elimination from the playoffs.
A lost match...and two lost players
Salt Lake enters Saturday’s tilt firmly in fourth place in the West, sitting on 44 points and only three points behind the second-place LA Galaxy, which currently holds one of the conference’s byes. The Claret-and-Cobalt will be seeking to recover from a 1-0 loss to the Portland Timbers last Saturday. But RSL lost more than just the match in its Oregon visit, as the MLS Disciplinary Committee on Wednesday announced the suspension of midfielder Sunny Stephen for a dangerous foul committed against his Nigerian compatriot, Timbers forward Fanendo Adi. Meanwhile, midfield creator Javier Morales is also likely to be sidelined Saturday after suffering a quadriceps injury at Providence Park.
RSL will rely heavily on its forward trio of Joao Plata, Yura Movsisyan, and Juan Manuel Martinez to score early and often. Real Salt Lake has been forced to play from behind frequently this season, conceding first before charging back in the second halves of matches, including an April 30 victory against the Dynamo in which Leonel Miranda netted ten minutes into the second half, before RSL responded with goals from Jordan Allen and Movsisyan to secure the win.
Struggling toward the finish line
Houston, meanwhile, arrives at Rio Tinto Stadium after nicking a point from Sporting Kansas City on the road in a wild 3-3 draw that saw goals from Mauro Manotas and Alex before the final equalizer from Raul Rodriguez. But for all its success last week, the Dynamo continue to languish in last place in the league on 26 points, averaging less than one point per match. With only one road win on the season (at San Jose Earthquakes on August 19), the Men in Orange face a tall order against an RSL side that is undefeated at home on the season. Without Erick Torres (loaned to Cruz Azul), the Dynamo will be forced to look elsewhere for offensive creativity with very few options available on their roster.
Pushing for playoff position
A victory on Saturday would go a long way for the Utah-based squad’s playoff positioning. With three of its final five matches at home—including matches against fellow playoff contenders FC Dallas and Sporting Kansas City—Real Salt Lake could realistically move up in a crowded Western Conference, especially as FC Dallas and the LA Galaxy face off twice in the league’s final five weeks. Eleven points in its final five matches would be enough for RSL to return to the playoffs after its down season in 2015.
Saturday’s action kicks off at 9:30 Eastern time.