After spending the past month and a half focused almost exclusively on the CONCACAF Champions League, Real Salt Lake must flip the mental switch tonight when it kicks off the 2011 MLS regular season in San Jose.
RSL coach Jason Kreis says he doesn't feel the type of anxiety or tension you'd expect from a season opener — because technically it isn't.
"I don't feel incredibly different about the situation. For me it's another match and I want to win every match that we play. So preparation for this one is the same as it has been for the last three," said Kreis.
Salt Lake is 2-0-1 in Champions League play over the past month, but beating San Jose — a conference finalist a year ago — won't be easy. Kickoff is set for 8:30 p.m. (MDT) and will be broadcast on KMYU 2.2.
Some would consider RSL the favorites tonight. Not only are the players confident playing at Buck Shaw Stadium, as evidenced by last year's 3-0 season-opening trouncing of the Earthquakes, but they should be sharper as well, having already played three high-level matches.
"We're three games ahead in the curve; that's the way we need to look at it, and we need to take some confidence from that and hopefully apply that in the match," said Kreis.
In those three matches, RSL outscored Columbus and Saprissa 6-1. If that trend continues in league play, it could be on its way to leading the league in goals scored and fewest goals allowed yet again.
Defensively, Real Salt Lake will be without the services of reigning MLS Defender of the Year Jamison Olave, who is out after suffering a strained hamstring in the first half of Tuesday's win over Saprissa.
Kreis didn't offer a time frame for Olave's return, but sounds encouraged he shouldn't be out too long.
"They saw him (Thursday), and said he looked a lot better than they had expected, so I think we have a fairly positive outlook now," said Kreis.
Fellow defender Chris Wingert, who missed Tuesday's match with a sprained ankle, will be available for selection tonight. Kreis said that's no guarantee he'll even play.
Regardless of who's in the starting 11, RSL must contend with last year's MLS Golden Boot winner and MVP finalist Chris Wondolowski. The California native came out of nowhere to lead MLS with 18 goals last year, and in February he signed a new contract with the Earthquakes.
Arturo Alvarez, a former San Jose player who was traded to RSL in an expansion draft day trade last November, believes Wondolowski is capable of similar success this year.
"I think he's going to score a lot. He's a goal scorer, he's a great finisher. He works hard. I think all the praise that he got last year was well deserved," said Alvarez.
In seven meetings since rejoining MLS in 2008, RSL has lost to San Jose just once.
Alvarez only appeared in one of Real Salt Lake's three Champions League games thus far, but he'd love to see extended playing time tonight against his former team.
"I want to be playing regardless. In any game I want to be a part of, but more so against San Jose. Hopefully I can come in and make a difference," said Alvarez.
This is the first of 34 regular season matches this year, an increase from 30 last year which was necessitated by Portland and Vancouver joining MLS.
RSL would love nothing more than to kick off the eight-month season with a victory.
"Obviously any time you go on the road in this league, it's difficult to get a result. You can't overlook San Jose, they made it farther in the playoffs than we did last year," said Will Johnson.
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