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David Zalubowski, AP
Real Salt Lake head coach Mike Petke looks on against the Colorado Rapids in the first half of an MLS soccer match, Sunday, Oct. 15, 2017, in Commerce City, Colo. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)
One mistake early on cost us. We’re heartbroken because we deserved something more from that match. They celebrated like they won the World Cup after, because in a way, they did. This was their season. —RSL head coach Mike Petke

COMMERCE CITY, Colo. — The winner of this year’s Rocky Mountain Cup had been a foregone conclusion following Real Salt Lake victories in the previous two meetings with Colorado this season. But with a playoff berth on the line against a Rapids side looking to play spoiler, Sunday night’s meeting still had all the makings of a rivalry match for RSL.

“At the end of the day, it’s still a rivalry,” said RSL defender David Horst. “We know Colorado is not playing for the playoffs, but they are still playing for jobs next year. They still have to impress the front office and whoever is taking over (at head coach). We knew they were going to play hard.”

By night’s end, Colorado did damage to Salt Lake’s playoff hopes with a 1-0 win at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park, but RSL still remains in the thick of the playoff race.

“This was definitely a missed opportunity for us,” Horst continued. “We’re definitely not eliminated. We’ll go home tonight, we’ll get back to work this week and we’ll prepare for the last game.”

Colorado took an early lead in the third minute when Alan Gordon’s back-heel throughball found Joshua Gatt, who buried a low effort to give the Rapids a 1-0 lead. It would leave Salt Lake spending the remainder of the first half (and the match) searching for an equalizer.

“Of all the games to not be our night. Thirty shots to two cost us,” RSL head coach Mike Petke lamented postgame. “One mistake early on cost us. We’re heartbroken because we deserved something more from that match. They celebrated like they won the World Cup after, because in a way, they did. This was their season.”

Following the goal, RSL threatened, forcing Rapids goalkeeper Tim Howard into back-to-back saves with efforts from David Horst and Luke Mulholland four minutes later.

At the quarter-hour mark, Salt Lake was again presented with a prime opportunity as Brooks Lennon earned a free kick just outside the 18-yard-box. But Albert Rusnák’s ensuing free kick went high and wide of the mark.

Mulholland nearly came up with an equalizer again in the 17th minute, his diving header going just wide of the mark.

Yet even those weren’t the best of RSL’s opportunities. In the 23rd minute, Joao Plata found himself in on goal with a one-on-one opportunity against Howard. Howard came up with the initial save and defender Marlon Hairston came up with a goal-line clearance to deny Plata on the follow-up effort.

That wasn't the end of RSL’s downturn in fortune, as a low tackle from Rapids striker Dominique Badji sent Salt Lake defender Tony Beltran off with a lower body injury in the 24th minute.

“The match got out of control a little early on,” Petke said of the play. “There’s a reason why it got out of control. Tony got hurt pretty bad. I don’t have an update exactly on what that means for next weekend, but right now, he’s hurt.”

Despite dominating the game with nearly 70 percent of the possession and outshooting Colorado with 17 shots to the Rapids' one shot on goal, RSL still found itself trailing 1-0 at halftime.

RSL continued the offensive pressure into the second half. In the 62nd minute, RSL had another prime chance to level the score when Brooks Lennon found Luis Silva with a cross inside the Rapids’ 6-yard-box, but the opportunity went wide of the mark again.

RSL continued to produce quality chances in the game’s closing minutes, but continued to be thwarted by Howard, who ended the match with seven saves, including two critical stops in the final 10 minutes of the match.

“I think they played really well defensively,” explained Lennon. “I think they were blocking shots left and right. Tim (Howard) came up with some great saves. I think tonight just wasn’t our night and things weren’t going our way. Obviously, we have to move on and go play this upcoming Sunday. Hopefully we get a result and you never know.”

Despite the loss, Salt Lake is still not eliminated from an MLS Cup playoff berth. RSL (42 points) enters the final weekend of the regular season trailing Dallas and San Jose (43 points) by just a point heading into next Sunday’s home match against Sporting KC. It’s fair to say that game is a “must win” for the Claret and Cobalt.

Said Petke, “Listen, we’re going to fight until the end just like we did tonight. Next week is a huge game for us. Obviously, we have to wait for other results that day as well, but we’re going to go out to win.”