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Sandy • Coach Jason Kreis and his staff spent a lot of time earlier this season wondering just how in the world Real Salt Lake was going to survive a savage stretch of scheduling that included 14 games in 56 days and three foreign countries.
Amazingly, thank you.
Heading into tonight's game against the rival Colorado Rapids, the defending MLS Cup champions are an astonishing 6-1-4 during their relentless stretch so far, with just one week and three games remaining. The team has somehow managed to juggle injuries and other absences never mind some brutal travel to both remain in the hunt for the MLS Supporters Shield regular-season title and advance to the doorstep of the knockout rounds of the CONCACAF Champions League.
Oh, it also set a league record along the way with its 23-game regular-season home unbeaten streak and can clinch a playoff spot at the earliest point in its history tonight with a victory or maybe just a draw against the Rapids.
Even Kreis acknowledged he didn't see this coming.
"It's remarkable that we've done so well to date," he said. "But I also know there's a lot left in front of us."
No doubt, the team can't relax just yet.
It's still fighting to remain in position to surpass the Los Angeles Galaxy for the regular-season title and top seed in the playoffs in case the Galaxy slip up down the stretch and will take off again for its next Champions League game in Toronto barely 12 hours after playing the Rapids.
"We still have some doubters out there," defender Nat Borchers said. "The media are writing a lot of nice things about us during the week, but, obviously, everybody's waiting for us to slip up. So we have to make sure every weekend we don't allow it to happen."
It seems unlikely.
RSL has lost only once in 20 league games since May 1, going 12-1-7 in that span.
And though its dizzying scoring pace has slowed quite a bit since the schedule toughened up and RSL had to start relying on many of its reserves, it's still riding a nine-game league unbeaten streak during which it has allowed just three goals while posting six shutouts.
"As long as we get results, things are fine," midfielder Will Johnson said. "We have a lot of guys a lot of guys that can score goals for us. When it comes time in some of these big-time games that we're going to have during this stretch here, I've got no doubt that we'll be able to bang in" some goals when the team needs them.
The last time RSL met the Rapids, it kick-started its improbable title run with a 3-0 home victory that vaulted it into the playoffs on the last day of the regular-season after a series of other results turned out precisely the way the team needed.
"Probably the win against us was the catalyst for them to go on and do as well as they did and win the cup," Colorado coach Gary Smith told The Denver Post. "On the back of winning the cup, they look like a really confident group. The players express themselves extremely well, and they've got a bit of a champion's swagger about them. They deserve that."
The Rapids won only twice in the past eight meetings and will be without injured forward Omar Cummings, who didn't make the trip because of a sprained ankle.
Cummings is part of what Borchers called "one of the best strike pairs in the league," having scored 10 goals for the Rapids this season, as has fellow forward Conor Casey. Newly acquired Mac Kandji could make his first start in Cummings' place.
Locking it down
Real Salt Lake can clinch a playoff spot by beating the Colorado Rapids tonight at Rio Tinto Stadium.
But the team can still clinch a spot in the postseason even if it manages only a draw, so long as FC Dallas wins at Kansas City and the Chicago Fire beat the Seattle Sounders at home.
Real Salt Lake vs. Colorado Rapids
P At Rio Tinto Stadium, Sandy
Kickoff • 8 p.m.
TV • Fox Soccer Channel
Radio • 570 AM, 1600 AM, 106.1 FM
Records • RSL 13-4-8, Colorado 10-7-7
All-Time Series • Colorado leads, 8-6-4
Last Meeting • RSL 3, Colorado 0 (Oct. 24, 2009)
About RSL • It has claimed the Rocky Mountain Cup from the Rapids in each of the past three seasons. … It has lost just one of its past 20 league games and three of its past 48 home games in all competitions. … Forward Alvaro Saborio leads the team with nine goals, but six others have scored at least two. … Its 532-minute shutout streak is just 35 minutes shy of the team record set earlier this season.
About the Rapids • Having won three of their past four games 3-0, they're still locked in a tight battle for a playoff spot. … Forwards Conor Casey and Omar Cummings lead the team with 10 goals each, but Cummings is out with a sprained ankle. … They haven't lost when they score first this season, and haven't won when allowing the first goal.