Sandy • Chris Wingert stepped off the field Friday, smiling after training at Rio Tinto Stadium on a perfect spring afternoon.
The Real Salt Lake back could be in an even better mood Saturday evening.
After rehabbing from preseason surgery on his foot, the veteran defender has worked himself into the RSL 18 two weeks in a row, only to see journeyman Lovel Palmer's name in the starting lineup.
And while Salt Lake coach Jason Kreis is not one to divulge his selections in the run-up to a match, he hinted strongly that Wingert could see his first action of the season this weekend against Vancouver.
"If we had not gotten a shutout at home last weekend, in all likelihood Wingert would have started [last week against the Los Angeles Galaxy]," Kreis said. "But when players do well we want to reward them for doing well. We want to make decisions fairly, so the decision was to keep Wingert out. We're in a different boat this week."
Wingert, who broke a bone in his foot while training during the offseason, has watched from afar as Palmer and Abdoulie Mansally have filled in at left back over the season's first nine weeks. Wingert praised his teammates' performances, but said he is eager to return to the pitch.
"I'm really excited to hopefully get back out there sooner or later," he said. "It feels like it's been a long time coming with such a long time recovering from the injury. But at the same time, I think those guys have done a great job. I just have to be ready when I'm called upon."
If Wingert, who in his seventh season with the club is RSL's longest-tenured field player, is indeed called upon to play against the Whitecaps, he'll have plenty of experience playing with starters Nat Borchers, Chris Schuler and Tony Beltran to call upon. Even after a long absence, the team's back line believes that chemistry will carry over.
"I don't know if we're going to be 100 percent as sharp as we would if we were playing together every week for half the season, but that's part of playing the game," Wingert said. "Hopefully I can get back in there and we won't miss a beat."
Borchers said he looks forward to playing with the man he called "one of the most underrated backs in this league."
"He's just so good positionally and he communicates a lot," the center back said. "You never see him get beat on the outside there. ... If he's going to be back in the lineup, we're excited to have him back."
RSL, which conceded a late penalty kick goal and took a 1-1 draw earlier this season at Vancouver, is braced for the Whitecaps' speedy attacking unit.
And after watching his team fall flat in the early minutes of last weekend's home game against the Galaxy, giving up two goals in the first 20 minutes, Kreis called the matchup against Vancouver "critical."
"I think this is as critical a game as we've faced all year," he said. "To come back from a very disappointing performance last weekend, we need to make a statement to ourself about how good we are, and how willing we are to work, and how much we want things."
Wingert, for one, would welcome the test.
"It's going to be a tough challenge for us," he said, "but we look forward to that."
Vancouver at Real Salt Lake
O At Rio Tinto Stadium (Sandy)
Kickoff • Saturday, 7 p.m. TV • CW30
Records • RSL 3-4-2 (11 points), Whitecaps 2-3-3 (9 points)
Last meeting • RSL 1, Vancouver 1 (April 13)
About RSL • Surrendered two goals in the first 15 minutes last week against L.A. ... Will be missing leading goal scorer Alvaro Saborio. ... Has only scored seven goals in nine matches this year.
About the Whitecaps • Vancouver is missing striker Kenny Miller and captain Jay DeMerit due to injury. ... Camilo Sanvezzo is tied for a club-best two goals on the year; one of them came on a PK against RSL. ... Will be on short rest after playing Wednesday.