SANDY — Coming off what Jason Kreis jokes was "the biggest game since the World Cup," Real Salt Lake finds itself on another marquee this weekend.
Last week's showdown with Kansas City was a bit overhyped in Kreis' mind, regardless that it featured conference leaders squaring off for the only time in 2012. All along Kreis knew RSL's game at San Jose the following weekend was slightly more important. It's a Western Conference game, or a "6-pointer" as the players refer to them.
When Real Salt Lake visits the Earthquakes tonight at 8:30 p.m. (to be broadcast on Ch. 4), first place in the West is up for grabs, with RSL holding a slim 15-13 point edge in the standings.
"Every week is a new challenge, especially when you're playing Western Conference teams," said defender Nat Borchers.
Unlike some venues where RSL historically struggles, the visitors should feel right at home at Buck Shaw Stadium. Ever since the Earthquakes rejoined MLS in 2008, RSL is 3-1-2 at Buck Shaw in all competitions, including back-to-back, season-opening victories.
Real Salt Lake was the sharper team the previous two meetings in San Jose, which midfielder Ned Grabavoy said was somewhat expected. Heading into last year's First Kick match, RSL had already played a couple of Champions League matches, whereas San Jose was still very much knocking off the rust.
When the teams met later in 2010 and 2011 at Rio Tinto Stadium, Grabavoy said the matches where much more even.
With both teams off to very strong starts this year, RSL is once again the center of attention in MLS this week. Defensively for Real Salt Lake, it's all about "Where's Wondo?"
San Jose striker Chris Wondolowski is tied for the MLS lead with seven goals in just six matches. He's scored in every game but one, and continues to defy his doubters, with 41 total goals since the start of the 2010 season.
"When I look at Wondo, I think, that could be me," jokes Chris Wingert. "He's not overly athletic or does anything crazy, but let's give the guy credit."
Interestingly enough, he's never scored against Real Salt Lake. Grabavoy believes Borchers and Jamison Olave deserve a lot of the credit for that.
"Jamison is obviously a guy that's a physical guy, and Chris is a bit of a gnat up there. He's buzzing around, he likes the contact a little bit and he can get in your head a little bit. Maybe Nat and Jamison and those guys deal with him a little better, but in saying that he's probably had good chances against us as well and maybe it's just gone our way," said Grabavoy.
Just as in previous meetings against San Jose, the team won't game plan around stopping just Wondolowski, Kreis said. He adds that leaves open the door for other players to beat RSL.
RSL will, however, be very mindful of Wondolowski when the ball gets close to the box because he's been an assassin this year.
"A lot of forwards need lots of chances to score one goal, and I feel he needs 1 1/2 chances," said Kreis.
San Jose will be a bit short-handed tonight without injured midfielder Shea Salinas and suspended midfielder Marvin Chavez. Salinas broke his collar bone in last week's 2-2 tie with New York, while Chavez received a one-game suspension from the MLS Disciplinary Committee for a tackle in that same match.
While San Jose is in scramble mode, Kreis might have a few additional options. Earlier this week he said he was hopeful that both Grabavoy and Javier Morales could be available after they suffered their respective injuries in the same match against Montreal on April 4.
Their presence could help RSL maintain possession a bit more than in last week's 1-0 loss at Kansas City.
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