Real Salt Lake has begun training for its eighth season with a roster full of banged-up starters and new players in the reserve roles, and one question looms larger than any other:
Can it catch the Galaxy?
Since RSL won its only championship by beating its rivals from Los Angeles three seasons ago, the Galaxy have put a stranglehold on Major League Soccer. They have won back-to-back Supporters Shield regular-season titles, hoisted the most recent MLS Cup championship and assembled a roster with more international star power than any team in league history.
Talk about a team that's a star.
"They're able to do it just a little more consistently than us right now," RSL's Kyle Beckerman acknowledged. "But I think it's right there. I think it's right around the corner, that if we can just up that consistency, then we can maybe win that."
It doesn't figure to be easy.
The Galaxy expect to have Landon Donovan, Robbie Keane and David Beckham back again, while RSL tries to coax a quality reserve unit out of a dozen draft picks and trialists who are aiming to replace the nine players who departed after last season.
At least, the Galaxy are doing a little mixing and matching themselves, with all-star midfielder Juninho having left for Sao Paulo in his native Brazil fellow Brazilian Marcelo Sarvas is the expected replacement and reigning league defender of the year Omar Gonzalez is expected to miss most of the season after tearing knee ligaments while on loan to FC Nuremberg in Germany.
No matter who suits up, RSL will play the Galaxy more frequently this season three times, instead of just two by virtue of the new unbalanced regular-season schedule implemented with the expansion Montreal Impact joining the league.
Two of those games will be on the road, including the season-opener March 10 at the Home Depot Center.
"This year will probably be harder than any of the years past because now we're going to have to play a stronger side more times," Beckerman said. "But it's out there for us. … We put on some really good performances last year even beating on the Galaxy pretty good but to maintain that over the nine- or 10-month season is a different story, and that's what we'll work on."
Indeed, RSL beat the Galaxy 4-1 at home early last season, but lost 2-1 late at the Home Depot Center and fell there 3-1 in the MLS Western Conference final, when defender Nat Borchers was out injured and fellow center back Jamison Olave played hurt.
That hints at what midfielder Will Johnson said is the real key to RSL finally topping the table.
After first offering a half-joking assessment of how RSL can surpass the Galaxy "spend more money?" Johnson said the team needs to be better on the road.
"If you want to win the Supporters Shield," he said, "you have to win your road games. You have to do better than anybody else. … It's getting better, but there's still a lot of room for improvement there."
While RSL did enjoy its best road record ever last season at 5-8-4, the Galaxy are the only team in the league to have posted a winning road record each of the last three years. They're a combined 21-10-16 in that span, while RSL is 11-23-13.
"We're not taking anything for granted," Johnson said, "but our home record is not the problem. We just need to fix the away-game mentality and find a way to grind out games, because we're not going to find a way to pass every team to death, especially on the road. It's going to take a lot more of a different approach, and I think that's something we're focused on, and we've learned a lot."
Coach Jason Kreis insists there isn't much difference between the teams, even though RSL has finished ahead of the Galaxy in the standings only once, in 2008.
His team was 15-11-8 last season; the Galaxy were 19-5-10.
"I don't know that I would call it a gap," he said. "I think the difference between us and the Galaxy is extremely small. We saw that over what we did against them in the regular season. We saw that in the playoff game. Don't think we were played off the park by any means. One thing goes right for us, or if we don't lose both of our center backs the week before or you know, there's a whole host of things that if the ball bounces right for us, we're winning that game and we're into a championship match. So I don't feel like the gulf is large between us.
"I do think we need to as a club, and as a team focus on and embrace what we're about," he added. "We're not the Galaxy. Let's let the Galaxy be the Galaxy, and let's let Real Salt Lake be Real Salt Lake. We need to kind of remind ourselves exactly what that means."
Maybe then, RSL will come out on top again.
Clashes of the Titans
Real Salt Lake will meet the L.A. Galaxy three times this season:
March 10 • RSL at Galaxy, 8:30 p.m., ABC4
June 20 • Galaxy at RSL, 7 p.m., CW30
Oct. 6 • RSL at Galaxy, 7 p.m., NBC Sports Network*
* Formerly Versus