Considering Real Salt Lake is tied for fourth place with the MLS Western Conference, and just two points out of second place, Saturday night’s matchup at Rio Tinto Stadium against the Colorado Rapids has innate substantial importance.
Is that all there is to it, though? Does the rivalry between the franchises still elicit any actual additional motivation? Does earning the Rocky Mountain Cup yield any tangible accomplishment beyond pleasing the fans, to say nothing of the benefit inherent in earning three points and remaining well-positioned in the playoff hunt?
Well, it would seem the answer isn’t entirely definitive.
“A rivalry is a rivalry. If it matters to the fans, it matters to the players, because we're all in this together, you know?” said defender Nedum Onuoha. “We all represent the organization in different ways, whether you’re a stakeholder or a shareholder or anything like that. So it's a big game for us. We want to make sure that we have the dominant force in this region. So, we'll go into it and try to get a win.”
None of which really suggests there remains any of the deep and roiling undercurrent of enmity — like, say, when then-Rapids midfielder Kyle Beckerman incited some altercations by taunting the RSL faithful — among the respective players and staffs of the teams.
Perhaps that’s to be expected now.
Colorado is, after all, tied for last place in the Western Conference, with just 27 points (13 behind RSL going into their matchup). Under those circumstances, perhaps it’s hardly revelatory that historical drama and regional bragging rights should matter more to those in the stands than those on the pitch.
Asked about the Rocky Mountain Cup, forward Corey Baird, did allow that “It’s cool to get another opportunity to win some silverware,” but concluded his thoughts by noting that maybe the biggest potential benefit to emerge from it would be in the form of passionate supporters creating “a nice environment for that game” on account of their own longstanding, deeply-embedded dislike of the Rapids.
For their part, RSL’s players and coaches are going into the matchup focusing on nothing beyond the recognition that they can take nothing for granted.
The last time the teams squared off, back on May 11 at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park in Commerce City, Colo., RSL had to overcome a blown two-goal lead, stop a penalty kick, and see a stoppage-time score by the Rapids wiped out on a this-close offsides call just to emerge with a 3-2 victory — over an opponent that saw its losing streak extended to eight straight games as a result of the defeat.
That result was very much on RSL’s minds during the team’s practices throughout the week.
“I remember we started out clearly on top of them, and then there was a switch and they had like 20 minutes where they were just on top of us and killing us in transition,” said Baird, who scored Real’s second goal in that contest. “So you can’t ever get too comfortable in a game — every team in this league is dangerous in their own way.”
The lingering memory of that matchup for now-interim head coach Freddy Juarez was the tying goal that Colorado got via RSL failing to clear a corner kick less than two minutes into the second half. To that end, he closed out Tuesday’s practice session in Herriman with about 20 minutes of a corner-kick-defense drill, intent on such a mistake not happening twice.
“All of a sudden, we've got ourselves a game,” Juarez recalled. “And then it was it was some crazy closing minutes, some scrambles there, a goal and then offsides, and this and that. So we know it's gonna be one of those games where records do not matter; the only thing that matters is there's two teams going for a trophy and going for three points.”
Both of which, he added, hold some level of significance for all involved.
“Three points is massive for us to stay where we are in the table, and it also could potentially move us up if there’s some other results that go our way,” he said. “[Plus] it’s a trophy, and a trophy that means a lot to the fans. And it’s three crucial points, right? So it’s important in all aspects — one doesn’t over-weigh the other.”
REAL SALT LAKE vs. COLORADO RAPIDS
At Rio Tinto Stadium, Sandy
Kickoff • Saturday, 8 p.m. MT
TV • KMYU
Radio • 700 AM
Records • RSL 12-10-4; Rapids 7-13-6
Last meeting • RSL, 3-2 (May 11)
About RSL • Its three-game winning streak came to an end a week ago with a 2-0 loss to league-leading LAFC. … Forward Sam Johnson, the team’s co-leading goal-scorer who missed about five weeks with a quad injury, returned to action last week as a 70th-minute substitute. … Real has won 10 of the 14 Rocky Mountain Cup season series between the rivals.
About the Rapids • Colorado is tied for last place in the Western Conference, with only 27 points. … The Rapids have the second-most goals allowed in the MLS with 52 (only FC Cincinnati has yielded more, at 61). … Colorado is coming off a 2-2 draw against the Houston Dynamo, a game in which the Rapids blew a two-goal lead.