Sandy • Real Salt Lake went down a goal in all-too-familiar fashion.
Portland Timbers playmaker Diego Valeri sent a free kick from 30 yards out over the RSL defense and onto the head of an unmarked Rodney Wallace to give Portland a 1-0 lead early Wednesday night.
Like Valeri before him, Columbus' Federico Higuain could pose plenty of problems for RSL this weekend if the team doesn't clean up its set-piece defending. RSL has conceded goals off set pieces in losses to the Red Bulls, Sporting Kansas City and the L.A. Galaxy, and in this week's draw in Portland, a cause for concern for head coach Jason Kreis and his players.
"We bring it up before every game," Kreis said. "We feel it's one of the very few areas that our opponents can key against us and score against us."
RSL sits atop the Major League Soccer table with 42 points. The team's 44 goals scored this year are just two shy of the franchise record.
But defensive lapses, particularly on set pieces, have prevented RSL from earning crucial points in its quest for a Supporters' Shield.
Players say the difference between a clean sheet and giving up goals off free kicks comes down to focus from all 11 men on the field.
"With set pieces, it's just about commitment, so I'm not really sure what happened on that one we'll go back and look at it," defender Tony Beltran said after the 3-3 draw in Portland. "But we take pride in not giving up things on set pieces and trying to get stuff at the other end on set pieces. So, it's a big disappointment to give up that goal but we have to move forward from it."
L.A.'s Landon Donovan, Portland's Valeri and now Columbus' Higuain have been focal points in RSL's defensive plans the last eight days, and each can provide terrific service.
"He's what makes things go," Kreis said of Higuain. "Most everything that's good that comes for Columbus has been coming through him or finishing with him. He's someone we have to be aware of at all times."
The trouble on free kicks and corner kicks has puzzled RSL midfielder Ned Grabavoy.
"It could be a number of things. I'm looking sometimes and it seems like everyone is looking around and we're a bit unorganized," Grabavoy said after the Portland game. "It shouldn't be that way, everyone should know where they're supposed to be. We need to clean that up. We can't just keep talking about it."
Real Salt Lake vs. Columbus Crew
O At Rio Tinto Stadium (Sandy)
Kickoff • 7:30 p.m.
TV • CW30
Records • RSL 12-8-6 (42 points); Crew 8-11-5 (29 points)
About RSL • First place in Major League Soccer. … Leading goal scorer Alvaro Saborio is out with a calf strain. … Goalkeeper Nick Rimando (flu) and midfielder Kyle Beckerman (suspension) will be back after missing Wednesday's game in Portland. … Team has scored 44 goals this year, two shy of the franchise's all-time record. … Midfielder Javier Morales leads the team with eight assists.
About Columbus • Federico Higuain leads the team with nine goals and six assists. … Look for attackers Dominic Oduro (nine goals) and Jairo Arrieta (six goals) to make dangerous runs.… Columbus is coming off back-to-back 2-0 wins over New York and Toronto.