With first place in the Western Conference on the line for Real Salt Lake, today's game against the two-time defending MLS champion Houston Dynamo may be the club's biggest game in its four-year history.
"Massive. It's massive," coach Jason Kreis said. "For us, it is a chance to test ourselves against the best. Put ourselves up there against the best. They have been the champions of the league the last two years. I think our guys are ready for it. It comes at an ideal time."
The timing is right for a couple of reasons. First, simply having a big game this late in the season means RSL has improved its position in the standings. It took over first place back on July 12 and has held on for the past month. Second, the team is coming off an 18-day break between games. While that may mean that its timing may be a little off, it also means it has had ample time to rest and prepare for a game against one of the most tactically sound teams in the league.
"It has given us a chance to have two weeks of training leading up to a game," Kreis said. "You can continue to hammer in to them what the things you think are going to be necessary to break down Houston. What we are going to have to be aware of. It is nice to have the two weeks compared to sometimes only a couple of days."
A game scheduled for 6:30 p.m. MST at Robertson Stadium in Houston in the middle of August can mean plenty of heat and humidity. The forecast may give both teams a break with temperatures expected to be lower than normal, but Kreis and his team want to try to take Mother Nature out of the equation even more.
"First and foremost, possession is the key to the match against Houston," Kreis said. "They are a very possession-oriented team that plays in a very hot atmosphere. If you spend large portions chasing the ball, you won't have the energy necessary to make the plays at the end of the game. We are hopeful that we keep things very, very tight, and that the end of the game matters."
One negative for Real is that normal starting central defender Jamison Olave will not be available due to a league-mandated suspension for yellow card accumulation. The RSL defense has been impressive with Jamison, giving up only four goals in its last 10 games, but more than in years past, the 2008 team may be able to overcome his absence.
"It will affect us. He is a very important piece of what we are doing. His athleticism, his size and strength makes it difficult (to replace)," Kreis said. "What we do have, is we have a couple options now. We have said all along that we have tried to create a very deep roster, and now, it's a test of that fact."
One player that may get his shot with the starting 11 is newcomer Robbie Russell. Signed late last month, Russell teamed with starter Nat Borchers a couple of weeks ago in a reserve game and may get the nod.
"I think we fed off each other pretty well," Russell said. "I am still just trying to get used to the team and wherever they can use me is just fine with me. I am looking forward to getting a shot against Houston and seeing where we stand against one of the best."