It's only a third of the way through a long season, but amid its worst slump in nearly two years, Real Salt Lake might just be facing a watershed moment when it plays at D.C. United tonight.
"You're really talking about the direction of your season," general manager Garth Lagerwey said.
That's because almost nothing has gone right for RSL since its strong start.
Riding a four-game winless streak in which it has scored only twice, it still has not scored a goal nor a point in the Major League Soccer standings on the road all season, and faces four of its next five games away from home. So if something doesn't change soon, it's not hard to envision RSL staring up at the rest of the MLS Western Conference and straining to play its way back into playoff contention for the rest of the summer.
"We're going to try to use this as a steppingstone to start our season over and get the points we need," midfielder Clint Mathis said. "Obviously, it's going to be tough with these games being on the road, but it's still soccer -- whether it be on the road or at home, you still need to come out and get points and get results. We need to start now."
Coach Jason Kreis and some of the players acknowledged this week that their biggest problem has been a swelled head borne of their early-season success and last season's unexpected playoff run -- "we just bought into all of the hype," midfielder Will Johnson said -- and Kreis opened the competition for starting spots ahead of tonight's game, in a wide-ranging reconsideration of the team and its strategies.
He's widely expected to make changes to the lineup before heading out in search of RSL's first victory ever at D.C. United, a team that's tied for the lead in the MLS Eastern Conference and has scored a tying or winning goal in the last five minutes four times this season.
Most likely, the changes will come upfield, considering RSL has scored only twice during its four-game slump.
"I look at this as an opportunity for us to respond," Kreis said. "I really still believe in this team, I really think we're one bounce away -- we're one good thing happening in a game away from getting on a nice confidence high, and riding that. I still believe that the quality is within our team.
"It's about paying attention to details," he added. "It's about remembering how we built this team and how we want to play and who we are. The good thing we've seen in the past [few] days is we still have a group that really believes in themselves ... and is really together."
Goalkeeper Nick Rimando could return to the lineup against his former team, if the deep cut on his finger that has kept him out of most of the last four games is healed enough. If he can't play, third-string back-up Kyle Reynish will get the first start of his MLS career, with regular backup Chris Seitz out with a sprained shoulder.
Either way, the players insist that getting back to working hard and sticking together will yield results.
"It's only going to take one game for us to get the kind of push that we need to know that we are a good team," Mathis said. "Right now, we're kind of down in the dumps just because of the results we've had. But again, it only takes one game to bounce back and be on top."
At RFK Stadium, Washington
Kickoff » 5:30 p.m. MDT
TV » KUTV 2.2 Digital/Comcast 111
Radio » 700 AM, 1600 AM
Records » RSL 3-5-1; D.C. United 3-1-6
Series » D.C. leads, 4-3-1
Last meeting » D.C. United 4, RSL 1, (April 26, 2008)
About RSL » Riding a four-game winless streak, it's trying to avoid its worst slump since going winless through the first 11 games of the 2007 season. ... Striker Yura Movsisyan still has just one goal, despite leading the team with 27 shots -- including 14 on goal. ... It has scored only twice in its last four games, and not at all in four straight road losses this season. ... Coach Jason Kreis probably will juggle his lineup or formation -- or both -- after saying it was time to "really think" about making changes.
About D.C. United » Striker Luciano Emilio leads the team with five goals, and striker Jamie Moreno -- the league's all-time leading scorer -- has three, plus five all-time against RSL. ... It has never lost at home to RSL, going 3-0-1 with a 12-4 scoring advantage. ... Four times this season, it has scored the tying or winning goal in the final 5 minutes.
Today, 5:30 p.m.
TV » KUTV 2.2 Digital/Comcast 111