“This is pretty much the first round of the playoffs, where you gotta play that first game,” Galaxy defender Daniel Steres said of their match against Real Salt Lake on Saturday in Sandy, Utah (7 p.m.; SpectrumSN; Spectrum Deportes). “This separates us from them or brings us tied with them or ahead of them because we would have won the series.
“We’ve got seven games, and we have to win as many as possible and this is a big one.”
The Galaxy (10-9-8) will need somewhere close to 51 points if they want to sneak into the MLS Cup playoffs. And with a possible 21 points still available and sitting at 38 points, the Galaxy could win out and easily qualify. But tough games stand in their way, and at the rate they’ve been dropping points — they were winless in August and are 0-2-3 in their last five games – it’s more likely the Galaxy miss the playoffs than make them.
Statistical analysis site FiveThirtyEight.com has the Galaxy’s current chance of making the postseason at 28 percent. That’s down from 31 percent on Monday and was before the Portland Timbers jumped over the Galaxy with a win over Toronto FC on Wednesday.
And with several teams still having games in hand over the Galaxy, they may have to watch as teams quietly climb above them without much recourse.
Real Salt Lake (12-10-5) are in a different situation altogether. They currently sit in fourth place in the Western Conference but just three points ahead of the Galaxy. RSL is riding a 12-game unbeaten streak at home and have lost only once (5-1 loss to LAFC on March 10) this season at Rio Tinto Stadium.
The Galaxy can significantly take a chunk out of RSL’s positioning with a win and, conversely, RSL may get to watch the Galaxy’s playoff hopes evaporate with a win.
“This one’s big,” Galaxy midfielder Chris Pontius told reporters. “The last four games we’ve dropped points, and it’s kind of bitten us in the butt. It’s on us to come up with points.
“A big one in Salt Lake, a must win,” he continued. “The guys’ mindset is good; we just have to go out there and perform.”
All-time the Galaxy are 15-13-9 in the series but only 4-6-7 in the thin air of Utah.
The Galaxy, however, did have some good news as all players participated in training Thursday. That included Romain Alessandrini, Jonathan and Giovani dos Santos, Michael Ciani and Dave Romney. And it appears likely most of them could be available for selection this weekend with only Alessandrini and Giovani dos Santos remaining in anything close to a “questionable” status.
And with a healthy roster, the Galaxy will be able to attack an RSL team that is dangerous on the counter and can string delicate attacks together at the flip of a switch.
Any confidence the Galaxy defense gained from last Friday’s 1-1 draw with LAFC will need to continue to build while trying to defend Albert Rusnak and Jefferson Savarino, leaders in goals (eight) and assists (eight), respectively, for Real Salt Lake.
“I like to have a must-win in every game,” Ibrahimovic answered when asked if Saturday’s game was a must-win. “That’s my mentality; I like to win and I want to win. And I do everything to win.
“A must-win for me doesn’t matter. I like the pressure. I can handle it. I put even more pressure on myself than the situation is. We all handle it differently.”
The Galaxy need points in the next seven games and a loss to RSL could derail any hopes of sneaking into the playoffs. And if they win Saturday’s game the next “must-win” will carry over.
“Pressure comes with the territory,” Galaxy head coach Sigi Schmid explained. “Players can’t play with a little bit of pressure, then they probably shouldn’t be professional players.
“So I’m confident all of our players can play with that and handle that at the level they’re at.”