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The heat, the humidity … the opponents.

Throw in a handful of ill-timed mental mistakes, and it's not hard to understand why Real Salt Lake has had such a hard time playing in Texas.

Twenty games.

Zero victories.

It's a miserable stretch that RSL hopes to finally snap on Thursday night, when it plays the Houston Dynamo at the new BBVA Compass Stadium in downtown Houston.

If it can pull it off, the team will take a huge step toward solidifying its future in the Major League Soccer playoffs. Some team officials believe RSL needs 10 points from its last six regular-season games to assure a top-three finish in the Western Conference and avoid the new wild-card games that would turn the postseason into a death march.

But obviously, its all-time 0-17-3 record in all competitions in Texas suggests RSL isn't just going to glide away with three points — not against a team riding a 21-game unbeaten streak at home, even if the Dynamo are winless in their last four overall.

Both teams are short-handed due to international duty and suspensions, too, and temperatures are expected in the mid-90s at game time, with humidity above 80 percent.

The heat index during the day, before the game, is expected to touch 105.

"We've just got try to be a little bit smarter in critical areas at critical times," coach Jason Kreis said. "In the past, we've made some real mental mistakes when we had put ourselves in a good place, to allow the momentum to shift. … Mental mistakes and lapses in judgment happen when you're very fatigued, and Houston — because of the heat — puts us in a very fatigued state.

"You're always hopeful that you're learning from those situations and that at some point things are going to go right for you and there won't be those mistakes."

So you're saying there's a chance …

Although RSL is 0-7-1 on the road against the Dynamo (it's 0-10-2 against FC Dallas), it's riding a three-game unbeaten streak, with three straight shutouts that reflect a defense much improved from the horrific six-game stretch in which it won only twice and allowed 11 goals, including five in a shocking 5-0 loss at Western Conference leader San Jose on July 14.

"Consistency is the word we're using right now," defender Nat Borchers said.

The Supporters Shield regular-season championship appears all but out of reach for RSL at this point, with the team seven points adrift of the Earthquakes, who have one more game remaining than RSL.

But Kreis isn't ready to simply throw all his effort into the two crucial CONCACAF Champions League games during the final six weeks of the MLS season, because he's still needs to make sure RSL finishes in the top three in the Western Conference.

It's sitting second at the moment, but both the Seattle Sounders and Los Angeles Galaxy are close behind, with upcoming games against RSL.

"Things are going to change a lot, from this point to the end of the season," midfielder Ned Grabavoy said. "I don't think anybody is going to finish where they are now."

If RSL slips to fourth or fifth in the West, it would have to win a wild-card game for the right to meet the top-seeded team, and create a path to the MLS Cup final that would require seven games in 24 days, counting a Champions League game mixed in there.

"I don't think our position is that cemented, at the moment," Kreis said. "But I do think we are in a good position."

It would be even better if RSL can finally win a game in Texas.

Twitter: @MCLTribune —

Real Salt Lake at Houston

P Thursday, 6:30 p.m.

TV • CW30. Radio • 700 AM, 1600 AM, 102.3 FM

Records • RSL 14-10-4, Houston 11-7-9

Regular-season series • Houston leads 8-3-5

Last meeting • Houston 3, RSL 2 (Aug. 20, 2011)

About RSL • Riding a three-game unbeaten and shutout streak, it's missing three players to international duty — forward Alvaro Saborio and midfielders Will Johnson and Kyle Beckerman. … It's in second in the MLS Western Conference, with 46 points. … Forward Fabian Espindola is the top remaining scorer, with six goals. … Defender Chris Wingert is out serving a yellow-card suspension, but fellow defenders Jamison Olave and Chris Schuler are expected to be available after recovering from injuries.

About the Dynamo • They're sitting fourth in the MLS Eastern Conference with 42 points. … They're unbeaten in 21 straight games at their new stadium, just eight away from the league record held by RSL. … Four players are away on international duty, including midfielders Boniek Garcia and Je-Vaughn Watson, and defenders Jermaine Taylor and Andre Hainault. … Forward Will Bruin leads the team with 11 goals, but they're riding a four-game winless streak.

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