At first glance, you would think that a match involving two teams that missed the playoffs last year would be a candidate for the Ho-Hum Award. You know, the kind of game that fans might be tempted to blow off for, say, completing some household chores.
But while this week's edition of "MLS Primetime Thursday" does involve two sides that were postseason spectators in 2007, it won't lack passion. That's because whenever Real Salt Lake and the Colorado Rapids get together, it doesn't take much to stoke a rivalry whose megawatt intensity belies its brief existence.
RSL's first-ever win came at Colorado's expense back in 2005. Then there were the antics later that season of Colorado's Pablo Mastroeni, who earned his Ph.D. in taunting following a win over Real -- a display that drew the wrath of RSL owner Dave Checketts. Real got some revenge on the final day of the 2007 regular season when it traveled to Dick's Sporting Goods Park and defeated the Rapids, 1-0, a result that knocked the home side out of the playoff race.
But this Thursday, there is a bit more at stake. The victor will assume sole possession of first place in the Western Conference. That both teams possess losing records at the moment is a testament to the West's mediocrity, but that fact won't stop the winner from claiming even more bragging rights.
Five story lines to follow
1. The Rocky Mountain Cup
This trophy goes to the winner of the season series between the teams, and while Colorado claimed ownership the first two years it was contested, RSL's aforementioned victory in 2007 saw it win the cup for the first time. With two of this year's three meetings taking place in Colorado, a home victory will go a long way toward sending the trophy back to the Rapids.
|MLS Primetime Thursday|
RSL at Colorado
9:30 p.m. ET (ESPN2, ESPN Deportes, ESPN360)
2. Real overhaulin'
Now in its fourth season, RSL has seen more dark days than bright ones, as evidenced by its career record of 23-53-25. But after assuming the coaching duties a year ago, Jason Kreis has embarked on an ambitious rebuilding project -- one that has seen him add tough-minded players like Kyle Beckerman and Dema Kovalenko, as well as Argentine imports Javier Morales and Fabian Espindola. While RSL's season record of 2-3-2 might suggest otherwise, Kreis feels his team is on the up.
"From Day 1 of preseason until where we're at now, I think there has been quite a bit of progress" said Kreis. "But there is still a lot more room to go. I really feel like this team still hasn't played its best soccer.
3. Colorado's revamped attack
After scoring just 29 goals in 2007, Rapids coach Fernando Clavijo went out and acquired 2006 MVP Christian Gomez from D.C. United while also giving young players, like forward Omar Cummings and midfielder Nick LaBrocca, more playing time. So far, the Rapids' 11 goals are tied for fourth in MLS. But while 10 different players have scored, the fact that only Cummings has more than one goal has Clavijo concerned.
"We haven't had that one player who is stepping up and being that Juan Pablo Angel," said Clavijo. "That's a luxury we don't have, and because of that, we have to do a lot more work as a group."
4. RSL's road woes
Real has been solid at home so far, posting a mark of 2-0-2. But on the road, RSL has remained a pushover, losing all three of its away contests while conceding eight goals. But Kreis insists that a road breakthrough isn't far away.
"Over our three games on the road, there have been some stretches where we have played some very, very good soccer," said Kreis. "For me, it's just a matter of time. It's coming."
5. Clavijo's lineup shuffle
When the Rapids lost two straight games to close out the month of April, Clavijo didn't hesitate to ring in the changes. Not only did he bring in the likes of defender Jordan Harvey and midfielder Jacob Peterson into the lineup, but old stalwart Mastroeni was welcomed back from injury as well. The changes have seen an up-tick in the Rapids' performances in the last two weeks, as they beat D.C. United, 2-0, before enduring a hard-luck 2-1 defeat to defending champ Houston.
Five players to watch
1. Christian Gomez, M, Colorado
Gomez has just a solitary goal to his name so far this season, but his four assists are tied for second in MLS, and Clavijo believes that had the team's forwards been a bit more ruthless, Gomez's numbers would be even higher. But even without the eye-popping stats, Clavijo feels that Gomez has been everything he hoped for.
"[Gomez] has changed our game totally," said Clavijo, "We have a player who links and finishes well. In [almost] every game we played, he either scores or makes the pass to score."
2. Kyle Beckerman, M, Real Salt Lake
In one of the more lopsided trades in the league history, the Rapids dealt Beckerman, a U.S. international, to RSL last season in a straight swap for Mehdi Ballouchy, a player who has barely made an impression in Colorado. Beckerman's three goals and stellar two-way game have been invaluable, but it's been the midfielder's attitude that has made the biggest impression.
"He's worked very hard," said Kreis of Beckerman. "I don't' think any of his goals have been dynamic, glittering affairs where he's had some fantastic, skillful piece of artistry. Most of them so far have been due to the sheer amount of running he's doing."
3. Bouna Coundoul, G, Colorado
If your local theme park needs a name for a new rollercoaster, "Bouna Time" would be an excellent choice, given the erratic nature of Coundoul's play this season. Case in point was last weekend's gaffe against Houston, in which he completely whiffed on a clearance, allowing the Dynamo's Brian Ching to score probably the easiest goal of his career. Yet Clavijo remains determined to ride out Coundoul's ups and downs.
"[Condoul] is growing, said Clavijo. "He's not the final product just yet, but I think he's going in the right direction."
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4. Nat Borchers, D, Real Salt Lake
If Real is to stop its road slide, it'll need to tighten things up defensively, and that means a heavy reliance on Borchers to keep things organized in the back. A former Colorado defender, Borchers spent the past two seasons playing in Norway before returning to MLS.
"He's a tough tackler," said Kreis. "He's just tuned in from Minute 1 of every training session and he demands that of other players. He's been a fantastic pickup for us, no doubt."
5. Omar Cummings, F, Colorado
Cummings is another young player with plenty of upside. In particular, his electric pace and finishing ability have done plenty to catch the eye, especially when he scored in last week's game against Houston. That said, other aspects of his game still need work.
"[Cummings] needs to learn not to play alone," said Clavijo. "He's got to play with different people on the field. He needs to connect, he needs to link.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He also writes for Centerlinesoccer.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.