COMMERCE CITY, Colo. Not once in Real Salt Lake's four-year history, not even for an hour in the first week of the season, has the club been able to call itself a first-place team. It's never won a season-opener, which has traditionally led to a sluggish opening month pushing it toward the bottom of the Western Conference heap.
Amazingly, that could all change tonight.
With a win at the Colorado Rapids, ESPN2's Thursday night game of the week, for the first time in franchise history Real Salt Lake can unabashedly call itself a first-place team.
Real has racked eight points in six matches, good enough for a third-place tie in the West with the L.A. Galaxy. That's also just one point behind Colorado and FC Dallas, which are tied for first.
With a win over rival Colorado at Dick's Sporting Goods Park at 7:30 p.m., RSL would vault into sole possession of first place with 11 points. That status may only last two days if FC Dallas wins on Sunday, but for a club that's mostly floundered since its inception, the reality of first place, no matter how brief, is a step in the right direction.
It's worth noting that even with a win tonight, RSL's 11 points would only be good enough for fourth place in the Eastern Conference.
With three-quarters of the season yet to be played, RSL coach Jason Kreis isn't putting too much stock into the possibility of being in first place.
"It's nice, but I don't want to put too much focus on that," said Kreis. "I think the staff has to continue to be focused on what we see on the field, continue to stay on the direction we took at the start of the season which was not absolutely results oriented. It was more about what we're doing on the field."
Tonight's game will be a homecoming for Kyle Beckerman and Chris Wingert, each of whom began last season with the Rapids before being traded to Real Salt Lake. The match is also the first of three games between Colorado and RSL in the quest for the Rocky Mountain Cup.
The Rapids won the Cup in the first two years, but RSL claimed it for the first time in team history last year with a win at Colorado on the final day of the regular season.
"We take the Cup seriously," said Kreis. "I think it's a good thing."
Trying to get a win, or even a draw, in the first leg of the Cup won't be easy. Not only is Colorado playing well, but RSL has lost all three road games this season.
Wingert believes they've learned a lot from those road losses and is very confident going forward, especially after last Saturday's 2-1 win over FC Dallas.
Salt Lake's three road losses can be lumped into two categories. Its 1-0 loss at Toronto was a case of playing too conservatively. Multiple-goal losses at Chivas USA and D.C. United demonstrated a lack of mental fortitude. In both games RSL seemed to be the better team in the opening 20 minutes, but when they weren't rewarded with a goal their confidence seemed to drop and a big loss ensued.
"When the other team did score, maybe against the run of play a little bit, it kind of broke our backs. It changed momentum of the game," said Wingert.
To beat Colorado, RSL must come out aggressive early, but remain focused if things aren't all rosy early.
"We just need to come out and play like it's a home game," said Beckerman. "We've been really good at getting at teams early and we need to continue to do that this weekend."Tonight's game is the first of three straight roads games. On May 24 RSL makes its only visit of the season to FC Dallas, follow three days later by a U.S. Open Cup qualifying match at the Columbus Crew.
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