COMMERCE CITY, Colo. — Though the Colorado Rapids have some tough road games ahead, perhaps none will be more challenging than Saturday's trip over the Rocky Mountains to Real Salt Lake.
The reigning MLS champions last week set the league record for most games unbeaten at home: a 23-game stretch going back to May 16, 2009. The Rapids, meanwhile, have only won three times in Utah in nine games.
For Colorado, it doesn’t get much bigger than a road trip to their archrivals. Supporters’ groups are organizing bus trips to Utah. Not only is another step toward the playoffs at stake, but there is also silverware up for grabs: The Rocky Mountain Cup is awarded each season to the team with the best regular-season record in matches between the two clubs.
RSL are the current holders.
Of utmost importance to the Rapids right now, though, is reaching the playoffs — and there is little doubt the team is currently in good form. Colorado have won their last three home games by dominant 3-0 margins against Houston, Chivas USA and New England.
But Gary Smith and his players also said that recent road defeats in New York and Columbus Crew by 3-1 margins have not been fair reflections of how the team has performed.
“Even with both those games, I felt we controlled a lot of the football that was played for long periods,” Smith told MLSsoccer.com this week.
Smith has his team playing well enough to earn a postseason bid — and even go further if they indeed do make the playoffs. The squad was recently strengthened with recent signings Brian Mullan and Macoumba Kandji.
Mullan, a four-time MLS Cup winner, started his debut game for the Rapids last week against New England and was then replaced on the hour by Kandji.
Kandji, who told MLSsoccer.com after last weekend’s game that he most enjoyed the free-roaming role behind Omar Cummings and Conor Casey, is unlikely to enjoy that kind of aggressive approach this weekend, but he may see some significant game time in Utah.
Cummings went off prematurely in the New England game with a sore ankle and Smith said that this could be an opportunity to give the Jamaican some much-needed rest.
Certainly, two upcoming home games next week against struggling Philadelphia and DC are great opportunities for the Rapids to get closer to securing a playoff spot.
Points against Salt Lake this weekend would also do wonders for team morale, however.
“This is going to be a fantastic game,” Rapids managing director Jeff Plush told MLSsoccer.com earlier this week. “Both teams play a great style. There’s no question, by any objective analysis, that we are a good team to watch, but this will be a big test. They are essentially unbeatable at home.”
The Rapids experienced a late slump last year when a run of disappointing results saw them miss out on the playoffs for the second straight year. They won't want to wait until the final game of the season — against RSL at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park on Oct. 23 — to have to secure a result to earn a postseason berth.
Bad results both in Colorado and Utah in the last three years in the final game of the regular season against Salt Lake have condemned the Rapids to watching the playoffs rather than playing in them.
“Those games [against RSL] have been some of the most difficult games I have ever been involved in,” Smith said. “We have fallen the wrong side of the results.”