The first half of the Major League Soccer season has been riddled with parity out West. Nine points is all that separates first-place Los Angeles from last-place San Jose, and the top four teams are within three points of each other, led by the Galaxy's 21.
In as much as the mediocrity has given every team hope for a Western Conference title, there's no way it can continue.
Since Real Salt Lake joined the league in 2005, the Western Conference champ has finished with 64, 52 and 53 points, respectively. West-leading Los Angeles is on pace for 42 points, which was barely enough to earn a playoff berth last year, let alone a conference title.
Of the seven Western Conference teams, someone is bound to get hot and pull away from the pack. Real Salt Lake and Houston are optimistic about becoming that team.
Tied for second in the West, RSL and Houston meet at Rice-Eccles Stadium tonight at 8 (ESPN2), with the winner vaulting past the Galaxy into first place, and establishing itself as the second-half front runner.
"Whoever wins the game is at least going to be in first for a couple days, that's something big for us," said RSL midfielder Kyle Beckerman. "It's huge, it could be a six-point swing. We feel it's a good opportunity."
This is the first of two meetings between RSL and Houston, with both teams seemingly heading in the right direction after sluggish starts.
Two-time defending MLS Cup champion Houston went winless its first six games this season, but the Dynamo have rebounded in the nine games since with a 4-2-3 record. Players like Brian Ching and Dwayne DeRosario seem to be rounding into form, and they'll pose a serious threat to RSL's unbeaten home record of 4-0-4.
Houston is coming off a loss on Tuesday to Charleston in the U.S. Open Cup third round, but only one of coach Dominic Kinnear's projected starters tonight played in that match, so fatigue shouldn't be an issue whatsoever for the Dynamo.
Real Salt Lake is coming off a last-minute loss at Kansas City, a setback that put a halt to a franchise-tying-record five-game unbeaten streak.
Beckerman said he's not too concerned about the loss.
"I don't think the confidence got lost or anything, it was just a little blip, hopefully," he said. "It was disappointing that we couldn't continue that run."
There should be plenty of scoring opportunities with both teams tonight. RSL leads the league with 203 shots this season, followed by Houston with 192. With just three goals in its last five games, RSL must to do more with its scoring opportunities to have any hope of becoming the Western Conference leader.
"We had some pretty clear-cut chances to score (at Kansas City), and maybe a more mature team takes advantage of that and puts them away and you win the game when you're not playing your best," said Beckerman.RSL will be without the services of holding midfielder Dema Kovalenko, who was automatically suspended for picking up his fifth yellow card of the season last weekend. Striker Kenny Deuchar should be on his best behavior tonight knowing he earns an automatic suspension with his next yellow card as well.
ENDLINES: Tonight's match will be followed by a postgame fireworks show.
RSL on the air
Houston (4-4-7) at Real Salt Lake (5-6-4)
Today, 8 p.m. Rice-Eccles Stadium,
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