SANDY — No team gave Real Salt Lake more fits last year than rival Colorado.
The Rapids were the better team in both matches and realistically should have won both contests. Ironically enough, it didn't win either as RSL scored stoppage-time goals in both games to salvage draws, including two late goals in the season finale at Colorado.
Colorado learned from its lapses against Real Salt Lake and went on to win the 2010 MLS Cup.
Tonight, at Rio Tinto Stadium, the 2009 and 2010 champs square off in a highly anticipated match at 7 p.m.
"They usually play us very well at home and very well away, so I think we're going to have our work cut out for us," said RSL defender Nat Borchers.
Even though Colorado's been tough, Real Salt Lake is still 4-2-4 against the Rapids since Kyle Beckerman and Chris Wingert switched allegiances midway through the 2007 season.
Winners of the Rocky Mountain Cup the past four years (which goes to the team that wins the season series), RSL will look to get a leg up on retaining the Cup with a solid result at home yet again.
Momentum is definitely on its side.
Real Salt Lake is coming off a banner week in which it took care of business in Costa Rica to advance to the CONCACAF Champions League final, and then won at New England 2-0 with a reserve-laden line-up. It's the only perfect team remaining in MLS at 3-0-0, but don't expect the players to pat themselves on the back.
"Even when we're 3-0 we're still trying to improve, still feel like we can be better. I think that's a big part of it, we're concentrating on the small details," said RSL captain Beckerman.
Outside of Will Johnson, who is suspended because of a red card picked up last week — a game in which he also broke his thumb in three places — RSL should be well rested and healthy for the match.
Colorado can't say the same thing. It's coming off a 3-0 drubbing at Dallas last week in which stars Pablo Mastroeni and Conor Casey both sat out with injuries. The tandem might be forced to miss tonight's match as well.
It's hard enough to win at Rio Tinto Stadium at full strength, let alone shorthanded.
RSL is unbeaten in 36-straight home matches in all competitions, including 26-straight regular-season home matches. Overall, it's unbeaten in 17- straight league games, which is two shy of equaling the league record.
Even if Colorado's big guns don't play, Borchers said the Rapids are still a dangerous team.
"They're a very organized team in the tactical shape they play in so we have to make sure possession is the name of our game to make sure they're not getting in those pockets that make things tough on us," he said.
Even though Colorado won the MLS Cup last year, Real Salt Lake finished with a better regular-season record and will be out to remind the Rapids of that reality.
"I hope there's a bit of that in our minds still. I hope that we all remember the disappointing end to the season last year and approach every match in our league this year with a chip on our shoulders," said RSL coach Jason Kreis.
There's another incentive to play well — the Supporters' Shield.2 comments on this story
A year ago, the Los Angeles Galaxy were so good in the first half of the season, they built a large enough cushion in the standings that they were able to withstand RSL's late charge to finish with the best record. This year, Real Salt Lake is trying to duplicate that hot start.
"We learned with L.A. getting out to such a great start at the beginning of the season, you can win the Supporters' Shield in the first half of the season," said Beckerman. "When we weren't able to catch them, we're concentrating even more on getting as many wins in the beginning of the season just like L.A. did and see if we can get out to a big lead."
A win over last year's champs would be another marquee win early in 2011.