SANDY — As construction was being finalized on Sporting Kansas City's new soccer-specific stadium earlier this year, the team was forced to play it first 10 games of 2011 on the road — and it struggled mightily with a 1-6-3 record.
Since Livestrong Sporting Park opened on June 9, Kansas City has been one of the best teams in the league, posting a 9-2-7 record with 14 of those 18 matches at home. That includes an advantageous stretch of nine straight home games that ended last weekend with a 3-0 win against Houston.
Real Salt Lake anxiously awaits Sporting KC tonight as it embarks on the road for the first time in nearly two months.
"These guys are on fire right now at home. Who knows how they come out when they come on the road," said RSL keeper Nick Rimando.
At the end of Kansas City's 10-game road trip to start the season, it sat dubiously in the cellar of the Eastern Conference standings. It has methodically worked its way up the table and is tied for the East lead heading into the final month of the MLS regular season.
Real Salt Lake is making a similar push up the standings.
With consecutive wins against Chivas USA, Philadelphia and Seattle, RSL is on the verge of moving into the top three in the Western Conference for the first time since May 22.
It trails first-place L.A. by 10 points, second-place Seattle by three points and third-place FC Dallas by one point — and has played two fewer matches than all three.
"I hope our guys feel that there's still everything to play for, and that's what we told them a couple weeks ago when we took a really hard result at Houston," said RSL coach Jason Kreis. "Everybody was down and everybody was down on us. The message then is the same as it is now, you just keep worrying about performing and not so much about results. If we're really focused on all the details the results will come."
Looking back on that 3-2 heartbreaking loss in Houston, RSL captain Kyle Beckerman said in retrospect it might have been a good thing.
"I think it actually helped us in the long run. It really woke us up. We actually played pretty good there, and to not get at least a point out of there we were kind of devastated. But I think after we looked at the game, maybe we needed that loss," he said.
In the three games since, RSL has collected the maximum nine points and has positioned itself nicely to crack the top three in the Western Conference. If it misses out on the top three, barring an epic collapse, it would still qualify as a wildcard team, but would be forced to play a midweek wildcard game prior to the first week of the playoffs on Halloween weekend.
"We've got to continue to handle business and take each game like they're our last. We need to get these points. We don't want to play that midweek game. This is a huge game for us like all of them are the rest of the way," said Rimando.
Despite the unfamiliarity of hitting the road again, Kansas City should be a confident team at Rio Tinto Stadium tonight knowing it already beat RSL 2-0 last month. Kansas City scored twice in the opening 34 minutes of that match, a result Rimando said the players haven't forgotten.
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