Real Salt Lake has never qualified for the playoffs, but fans sure got a taste of what playoff soccer is likely all about on Thursday night at Rice-Eccles Stadium.
With first place in the Western Conference up for grabs, Houston and RSL went after each other relentlessly for 90 minutes and ultimately were forced to settle for a 0-0 draw in front of 17,898 fans.
On a night when a win would've vaulted either team past the L.A. Galaxy into first place in the West, the teams remain in a second-place tie with 20 points, one behind the Galaxy, who play tonight.
"It would've been huge, we were all really up for it," said RSL midfielder Kyle Beckerman. "We were really looking forward to getting into first place."
RSL has had three chances to move into first place this season, but it's come up empty each time. It's not really surprising RSL stumbled in its previous two attempts to move into first, with both coming on the road. Thursday's game, however, was at home, where Salt Lake has been solid this year with a 4-0-4 record.
For most of the match, it seemed like RSL was bound to score, but it couldn't convert on any of its 16 shots. After 75 minutes of playing second fiddle, Houston dominated the final quarter-hour and no doubt feels unlucky not to be walking away with three points by outshooting Salt Lake 6-0 in the final 15 minutes.
The game was chippy throughout, with a combined seven yellow cards and a red card issued to Chris Wingert for shoving Houston's Dwayne DeRosario in the 90th minute.
"It was a really intense game. You put first place out there for two teams to go after it and you're going to get a game like that," said Beckerman.
Wingert's red card was just one of the things RSL coach Jason Kreis was infuriated about in his postgame press conference. While Wingert was red-carded, Houston's Corey Ashe and Craig Waibel were only shown yellow cards. After the match, the ref said Wingert was red-carded for "striking" an opponent.
The fact Kreis thought the referee shortened stoppage time about two minutes didn't help, either.
"I give my team an enormous amount of credit. I thought they were very passionate tonight. We had a fantastic crowd supporting them," said Kreis. "I thought everything was spectacular tonight except for the referee.
"I'm tired of it, I'm exasperated this is absolutely ridiculous, every single week we play here I feel like we're playing away. Every 50-50 call goes against us. My man (Nat Borchers) gets pushed down in the box, the defender has his arms up in front of him showing everybody he's clearly pushed my man down in the box and we don't even get a thought of a penalty kick. Where's the linesman then to help the referee? He was certainly there a few weeks ago to call a non offside's against us."
Kreis was fined and suspended earlier this year for critical comments about officiating, and another one might be on the way.
Thursday's match was chippy early, with DeRosario upending RSL's Jamison Olave with a hard foul at midfield. Four minutes later, Olave got even with a shove in the back, and by the 15th minute Olave was dinged with a yellow card for persistent infringement.
RSL outshot Houston 6-3 in the first half, but only one shot was directed on goal as it squandered several decent opportunities. Kyle Beckerman wasted the best chance in the 17th minute when his first touch let him down following a flicked on header from Kenny Deuchar.
Real continued to dictate the pace of the sloppy first half, with Beckerman, Robbie Findley and Kenny Deuchar each missing out on chances.Real Salt Lake returns to action July 12 when it hosts the Columbus Crew at 7 p.m.