It must feel like finals week for Real Salt Lake, one big test after another.

One week after facing Houston with first place in the Western Conference on the line, RSL travels to Columbus to face the Crew, the second-place team in the Eastern Conference.

"I feel this is a very similar test to what we faced last week at Houston," said coach Jason Kreis. "They play a similar game as Houston and have been playing very good soccer as of late. They present several of the same problems that Houston presented for us."

That could spell trouble for Real. After all, the Dynamo scored four goals in the first half against a depleted RSL defense that was missing three of its five pieces. Defensive midfielder Dema Kovalenko is still listed as questionable, while outside defenders Tony Beltran and Ian Joy are both still out. But on the bright side, the defense should not be quite as shorthanded. Jamison Olave returns from his yellow card suspension.

"Not to take anything away from David (Horst) because I thought he did a pretty good job, but it will be nice to have Jamison back," said Nat Borchers. "He just shores things up for us. I am not quite sure how to put it, but we certainly missed him in Houston, and he will be welcomed back for Columbus."

As strange as it sounds, Real also may have struggled against the Dynamo because of its early success. The offense was clicking early and creating scoring chances. But on the down side, the attack was at times spacing out the structure for Salt Lake and opened things up for Houston.

"It is hard not to keep doing what seems to be working," said midfielder Kyle Beckerman. "We got going and wanted to keep putting pressure on them. I think we need to just keep playing our game and not let up on the attack when we play Columbus, but we also have to be a little bit smarter about keeping it all together, being all on the same page and not give up so many lanes for a counterattack."

If Real doesn't limit the space for the Crew, one player who will certainly take advantage is Guillermo Barros Schelotto. The 35-year-old Argentinian leads Major League Soccer with 12 assists and has tacked on four goals as well.

"He is the guy that makes things tick for Columbus," said Kreis. "They play him as a very withdrawn forward, and it makes you have to decide if you want to mark him with a man all the time. When you are forced into making tough decisions, that is when your defense is put into a tough spot."

With kickoff scheduled for 5:30 MST, a tough battle on the road for RSL and a chance for Columbus to move back into first place in the East are on the line. That's a huge difference between the 2007 season in which both squads missed the playoffs.

"I think both teams have done a pretty good job of turning things around from last season," added Kreis. "Both have worked hard at getting to the success and standings that we want."


E-mail: mblack@desnews.com