Despite the recent blip in an overall dominant season, Real Salt Lake remains within reach of three trophies.
Recently bumped out of the No. 1 slot by the Seattle Sounders, RSL isn't out of the race — not even close.
There are several key games, individual performances and tactical adaptations that lie ahead of Kreis' team in the closing weeks of the MLS regular season. The Open Cup, Supporters' Shield and MLS Cup trophies would each bring outstanding recognition to Real Salt Lake, but winning all three would signify an outstanding bout of MLS dominance.
With pride aside, each of the titles would earn the club another appearance in the CONCACAF Champions League. In the 2010-11 season, RSL made a notable run to the final and still remains as the only MLS team to reach a CONCACAF final.
All RSL needs to reach the CONCACAF Champions League is one trophy, but here are 10 things that need to happen for RSL to earn all three.
Whitney O'Bannon is a web sports writer for the Deseret News. Follow on Twitter at @whitney_oban.
Starting with the most obvious, RSL must send D.C. United packing in the U.S. Open Cup final. This game is for a championship, a trophy, and it happens to be against the worst team in MLS.
D.C. United is so bad this year that it has the same number of MLS wins and Open Cup wins: three. The problem is that a March win against RSL is one of D.C. United's three MLS victories.
Real Salt Lake lost in Washington, D.C., a stadium where the Claret and Cobalt are still winless (0-6-3). This match, however, features a much better established RSL side that has home field advantage.
Although it seems as if Real Salt Lake should be able to easily wrap up a victory and a title, it might not be as simple as it sounds. RSL's U.S. Open Cup run already featured two overtime games, a rare Utah downpour and an interesting mix of reserve and first team players. Every Open Cup game has entertained, but rarely been wrapped up before the final whistle.
Although RSL needs to win out ideally, the team absolutely cannot afford to drop either game with bottom-of-the-barrel teams. RSL faces San Jose this coming Saturday and then Chivas USA in its regular season finale. RSL will host both games, which makes losing either one completely unacceptable.
San Jose, despite being the eighth team in the Western Conference, still has a chance of making the playoffs. This game might be tricky because San Jose is playing directly for a life in the playoff picture. In two contests this season, RSL outscored the Earthquakes 5-0. The home team will need to continue blanking San Jose and keep star Chris Wondolowski under wraps.
The closeness of the top teams in the West right now almost guarantees that the Supporters' Shield winner will come down to the very last week of regular season play. When it comes down to it, the Chivas may be the only thing standing between RSL and the No. 1 spot in the final 2013 MLS rankings. In recent games, top teams like Colorado and Portland fell victim to the Chivas charm. RSL cannot afford to get caught looking and watch the Chivas strip glory from Salt Lake.
Real Salt Lake thoroughly entertained fans for the better part of two months this summer. When RSL sported an 11-game unbeaten streak across all competitions, extending from mid-May to mid-July, RSL scored 30 goals. This is also the time when the depth of RSL's forwards emerged, with several goals coming from Alvaro Saborio's counterparts.
RSL established one of the most potent offenses in MLS, scoring a league high 52 goals on the season in 29 games. RSL's recent loss to Seattle was the first game the high-powered offense failed to score in 23 consecutive games.
When Real scores three or more goals, it is 9-1-1 on the season. When Jason Kreis' side is held to two or below though, the team is very average at 9-5-8.
The last five games of Real Salt Lake's season are going to be mentally draining. RSL will not only have to focus on making the playoffs, but in the race for the Supporters' Shield this season, every point counts. RSL is dealing with league-wide expectations after keeping the No. 1 spot in the West for the majority of the season and is on a campaign to prove it deserves respect nationally. Every match will be under a microscope from here on out.
In addition to overall pressure, every player individually will need to keep his head. RSL suffered losses and draws this season from unfavorable calls. Outcomes were affected on several occasions when referees awarded penalty kicks to RSL's opponent for incidental handballs and fouls in the box. On occasion, Real Salt Lake struggled to move past the calls made, and the games ended unfavorably.
The most recent example of this happened in Seattle and was actually the opposite. A Sounder went in for a hard challenge on Javier Morales in Seattle's box and the referee said play on. Morales went down hard and felt the defender took a cheap shot at his ankle. The rest of the game, Morales, and consequently the rest of the RSL squad, had trouble moving on from the play as it was a potential game changer.
If Real Salt Lake comes out and scores a goal right out of the gate, it is good news and usually leads to at least a draw. Many teams suffer from letting up after scoring early in a match, however RSL hasn’t had that problem this season.
Real Salt Lake must avoid getting too far ahead of itself. One game at a time will equal one trophy at a time. RSL must avoid succumbing to extreme pressure overload by not thinking about all the potential all at once.
The next two keys are defense related. RSL cannot rely on the most potent attack in MLS as a crutch. But more importantly, the team cannot solely rely on arguably the best keeper in MLS, Nick Rimando. Not because Rimando can't hold his own, obviously with 107 career shutouts and eight this season, that's not the problem.
A problem arises when the defense lets balls through or gives players too much room for a shot because they know Rimando stands a good chance of stopping it. Multiple goals were scored on Rimando this season for that very reason, including both goals in RSL's recent trip to Seattle.
The toughest outing for Real Salt Lake on the defensive end this season was its 3-0 victory over FC Dallas. Backup keeper Josh Saunders left the game with a devastating ACL injury. Kries was forced to insert third-string keeper Jeff Attinella who had never played in an MLS game before that moment. Attinella came up big on a couple saves late in the game, but RSL's defenders played with such intensity that Dallas managed to get very few accurate shots off. That's the kind of play RSL will need in order to earn all three titles.
Although there were too many tactical errors to count in RSL's recent 2-0 loss in Seattle, the team's defensive efforts were the most harmful mistakes. RSL allowed 25 open-play crosses, of which two were converted into costly goals and several more led to 10 attempts on goal. A main problem for Real Salt Lake against Seattle was holding off talented players like Obafemi Martins and Lamar Neagle.
Real Salt Lake had the same issues during a 4-2 loss to the L.A. Galaxy a couple weeks back. Robbie Keane, who recorded a hat trick, had his way with RSL's defense all night long. It showed on the scoreboard and the faces of Real Salt Lake. Carlos Salcedo is a rising defender for Real Salt Lake, but at times his youth is the culprit of giving up critical plays to the opponent.
RSL's defense is dynamite against mediocre attacks, but if RSL wants to go all the way to the MLS Cup final, it has to find a way to stop extremely talented players.
The Claret and Cobalt are known for pristine passing, and that was definitely not the case against Seattle nor in several losses this season. RSL's goals usually come after several crisp, clean passes that get the defenders on their heels. This is why Real Salt Lake needs accurate passing, especially in the final third of the field. If the RSL squad can't advance the ball with its classic triangle passing, it likely will not be successful in the coming weeks.
Head coach Jason Kreis dubbed his side's 4-0 victory over the Columbus Crew a few weeks ago the most complete match of the entire season. He said that because his side played the game the "RSL way."
The "RSL way" means clean passing, dominating possession and teamwork. All fans, players and personnel know Kreis has a unique system of play. If RSL manages to play that system every time it takes the field for the rest of the season and post season, the team will find success.
This is by far the main key to the rest of RSL's season and the only way Real Salt Lake can win all three trophies.