SANDY — There was a stretch not that long ago when Real Salt Lake and Houston produced some of the most memorable matches in Major League Soccer.
From 2007 to 2009, the two teams played each other seven times, with a combined 18 goals and five red cards. The Dynamo enjoyed the better of the rivalry during that stretch with a 3-1-3 record, including a pair of 4-3 victories.
Houston's roster has undergone a major overhaul the past two years, though, and tonight's match at Rio Tinto Stadium has lost a bit of its luster.
"We had some good battles when they were the defending champions and we were kind of up and coming. We had some really good games, with some red cards, some hard fouls and really hard-fought games," said RSL midfielder Will Johnson. "I think there has been enough turnover that it's really not quite the same."
The faces might not be the same, but RSL coach Jason Kreis said Houston still has the same team concept and Dominic Kinnear is still one of the best coaches in MLS.
For Real Salt Lake, tonight will be the first of many games without arguably its most familiar face — Javier Morales. The all-star midfielder is out for at least four months after breaking his ankle last weekend, and there's been a lot of speculation about how RSL will cope with his absence.
Players like Andy Williams, Collen Warner and Ned Grabavoy all figure to take on a larger role during the remainder of the 2011 season, but there's no substitute for arguably the most creative player in MLS.
Kreis believes RSL can be successful even without Morales, though.
"I look at the situation in a bit of a positive way, and say this is a tremendous test now in front of us," said Kreis. "This will test us to the very core of our philosophy here in the club.
"We built this team on one principle, that the team is the star, and collectively we can be better than any individual on our team. We'll see now. We'll be put to the ultimate test on whether or not we can continue on and be an extremely good, elite team in this league without Javier Morales. I believe the answer is yes."
To retain its elite status, RSL must play better than it has lately.
Following last week's 1-0 victory over Chivas USA, Kreis was critical of his first-choice guys, saying they haven't played well since a 4-1 victory over Los Angeles in late-March. RSL's record since then is 3-3-1, but the credit for one of those wins goes to the backups for their 2-0 triumph in New England.
"We know we can play better than we're playing now, but we know also if we play a bad game, we can still get a result. Right now, it's going back to doing the simple things for us, defending well, defending in groups and getting chances out of that," said defender Nat Borchers.
Kreis hasn't revealed who will start in Morales' place against Houston, but inevitably second-year midfielder Warner will get his opportunity. He said he's ready.
"I'm more comfortable now after the first year. Just this preseason and the way the season has been going, I feel I'm really ready if the coach needs me," said Warner. "In my own right, I feel like I'm good enough to play, but that's obviously up to Jason."
RSL trails Los Angeles by two points in the Western Conference standings, but it has played five fewer games. Houston sits in fourth place in the Eastern Conference with 12 points, three fewer than Salt Lake.