CARSON, Calif. — When Real Salt Lake beat Los Angeles 4-1 at Rio Tinto Stadium way back on March 26, many saw it as a changing of the guard atop Major League Soccer.
RSL was clinical in its dismantling of the defending Supporter's Shield champs on that March evening, and immediately it became the early team to beat in 2011.
Six months later though, RSL is in the same spot it was a year ago — chasing the Galaxy.
The chase for first could be over tonight as well when Los Angeles hosts Real Salt Lake at 8:30 p.m. at the Home Depot Center. With four games remaining in the regular season, West-leading L.A. has a seven-point cushion on second place Seattle and a 10-point cushion over RSL.
With a victory Saturday night over RSL and a Seattle loss or tie in New England, the Galaxy can officially clinch its second consecutive MLS Supporter's Shield.
For Real Salt Lake, a team reeling after its second straight lopsided loss, it would love to pull off the upset and extend the chase another weekend.
It won't be easy without midfield captain Kyle Beckerman, who's suspended because of the red card he picked up in Wednesday's 3-0 home loss to Chicago.
Regardless of who's on the field, first and foremost coach Jason Kreis hopes to shore up a soft defense that's conceded seven goals in the past two matches.
"I think we've really got to get concentrated on trying to get better. And one step in the right direction will be not to allow three goals in a match. That would be a good step in the right direction, wouldn't it?" said Kreis following Wednesday's loss.
While RSL is limping into the match, Los Angeles is beaming with confidence after a dramatic victory over Mexico's Morelia on Wednesday in CONACACAF Champions League group play. The victory puts L.A. in great position to advance to the quarterfinals with one group game remaining.
Neither David Beckham (suspension) or Robbie Keane (hamstring) played Wednesday, and both are in the starting 11 tonight as L.A. looks to wrap up the Supporter's Shield.
"If there's a wake-up call, it's right now. We have L.A. this weekend and they're not going to back down to us at all," said RSL defender Nat Borchers.
Even if RSL pulls off the upset, catching L.A. for the best record is unlikely. The more realistic goal is passing Seattle into second place, which has the potential to be very lucrative when it comes to securing a berth in the 2012-2013 Champions League.
The United States receives four berths in the Champions League every year, and they're awarded to the U.S. Open Cup champ, MLS Cup champ, MLS Cup runner-up and Supporter's Shield winner. If the same team secures two berths, the Supporter's Shield runner-up is next in line to join the tournament.
With four games remaining in the regular season, Seattle clings to a three-point lead over RSL for the second best record in MLS.
Javier Morales figures to make his second straight appearance at some point in tonight's match. He made his first appearance in nearly five months in Wednesday's loss to Chicago, and RSL wants to get him as many minutes as possible over the final month to get him ready for the playoffs.