Full plate for RSL

By By Tony Pizza

By Tony Pizza

Real Salt Lake can stamp the words “mission accomplished” on part one of its most important homestand of the season. The standings won’t show it, but RSL essentially captured six points by beating the L.A. Galaxy on Wednesday night as RSL distanced itself from L.A. more than the standings will reveal.

RSL’s victory knotted the season series at two games apiece, and with the 1-0 victory, RSL also took a 6-5 advantage in the goals scored, giving the second-year franchise the tiebreaker for the playoffs. In the standings, RSL only moved three points ahead of L.A., but it also means that L.A. cannot tie RSL for fourth place and must actually move ahead of RSL if it wants to capture the fourth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference.

This doesn’t mean that RSL can just forget about L.A., but it does restore a bit of breathing room as RSL prepares to take on the Colorado Rapids on Saturday-the team with which RSL now sits deadlocked with out West.

At the moment, RSL holds the advantage in the tiebreaker. RSL and Colorado have played three times this year, with both teams taking one of the matches, and playing the other match to a draw. The good news for RSL is that the team has outscored Colorado 6-4 in those three matches, and only needs a tie to capture the season series. This means that RSL can gain three virtual points and sole possession of fourth place with a tie, but RSL has loftier aspirations than just taking over the conference’s fourth spot.

As unlikely as it may sound, RSL still could capture the No. 1 seed. RSL is only 10 points behind first place FC Dallas and has a home-and-home series with Dallas later this month. Conventional coaches will commonly say, “We just need to take things one game at a time,” and RSL will likely heed this advice, but the possibilities are still out there.

On a more realistic note, RSL currently sits a mere two points behind Chivas and four points behind Houston. RSL will also play both of these teams before season’s end, and RSL knows how big a victory over Colorado would be. An RSL win and a Chivas loss to D.C. United on Saturday would vault RSL into third place.

“It’s a big game for us, hopefully by the end of the night (Saturday) we’re in fourth place and maybe have a chance at third place if we beat Colorado,” RSL head coach John Ellinger said.

With a win or a tie, RSL will also capture the Rocky Mountain Cup, which is annually presented to the winner of the season series between RSL and Colorado. The idea behind the cup is to generate friendly rivalries between neighboring MLS teams, but the rivalry has already reached unfriendly proportions.

“They won’t be able to parade their little Rocky Mountain Cup in our face this time,” Ellinger said.

Ellinger was referring to an Aug. 9 match in Colorado when the Rapids pretentiously brandished the 2005 Rocky Mountain Cup before the game. The gesture was thought to suggest that Colorado expected to capture the 2006 cup with a win. The match featured 10 cards, including an ejection on each side, but RSL dominated the match, winning 4-1.

With more than just a Rocky Mountain Cup riding on the line Saturday, RSL knows that Colorado will be ready for a heated final game between the two Rocky Mountain rivals this season.

“They (Colorado) will be ready for a bear coming in here (Saturday),” Ellinger said.

The match will also bring Colorado’s Clint Mathis and RSL’s Jeff Cunningham back on the field to play against their former teams. RSL was willing to trade the disgruntled Mathis for basically nothing last year, but in return RSL received this year’s top goal scorer. Cunningham scored his 15th goal of the season against L.A. on Wednesday night, leaving him one goal ahead of Chivas’ Ante Razov with seven games left to go.

Colorado features the best ball distributor in the league this year in Terry Cooke. Cooke has 10 assists this year, good enough to lead Cunningham by one going into Saturday’s match.

Kamil Krzaczynski

RSL midfielder Kenny Cutler looks for room in the L.A. Galaxy defense during RSL’s 1-0 victory Wednesday night. RSL is now tied for fourth in the Western Conference.