There has been a lot of noise from fans of both sides in reaction to the hard-fought 1-1 battle between Real Salt Lake and the Colorado Rapids this past weekend.
There should be. They are "fanatics," after all, and objectivity may not always be their strongest point—especially when it’s the Rocky Mountain derby you are talking about. And a particularly controversial one at that.
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Yes, Salt Lake coach Jason Kreis made a bold move in resting a number of starters. Many of those regulars—Kyle Beckerman, Will Johnson, Alvaro Saborio—did eventually make the field Saturday night. But the reigning MLS champions must have felt enough confidence in their squad to give some backups playing time as we enter the season's climax.
There were at least two reasons why Kreis elected to rest a few of his stars. First off, it gives the regulars a much needed rest, especially after the trip to Panama in midweek.
It also ensures the lesser-used players get vital experience in handling the pressure of games at the business end of the season, when expectations are ratcheted up. Who knows when they might just get a call to step up for an important 20 minutes in any given game down the stretch?
Let’s face it, Rapids fans, Real Salt Lake are a very good team. Some may look at their MLS Cup victory last year as being tinged with good fortune, given they only just crept into the playoffs. However, Kreis & Co. have built a team this year that nobody wants to play, less so at Rio Tinto Stadium.
The Rapids may be thinking that they have got their toughest away game all season out of the way, even with trips to Los Angeles and Dallas coming up. And certainly, the draw on Saturday will give them confidence that they can go to California and Texas and bring something back.
But, credit where credit’s due—it is beyond a stretch to call the RSL starting 11 at the weekend a reserve team, as some have done.
The Rapids themselves were without key starters Omar Cummings—possibly the hottest striker in MLS at the moment—and central defender Julien Baudet, who would have been a towering figure in the hurly burly of the weekend’s game and whose extra height may have kept the ball from reaching Nat Borchers’ head in those final seconds.
The Rapids still managed to go into Rio Tinto Stadium and get themselves within seconds from breaking RSL's long unbeaten run at home.
If Kreis had put out even his third XI—he has built a system in Utah that allows players to slot in and out so effortlessly—the Rapids would still have faced a keen challenge. It's a bit of a stretch, but the point remains the same.
Colorado head coach Gary Smith said the effort shown by his players was what counted, and the fact is those players were disappointed in the immediate aftermath of the game for not securing all three points.
In the corresponding fixture last year, the Rapids were, in his words, “bystanders” in a crushing 3-0 defeat. Here, they made more than a game of it and could easily have won.
“This game was played at a very quick pace,” Smith told MLSsoccer.com after the match. “Like their last five games, the players have given everything they have got.”
In other words, the Rapids are peaking at exactly the right time. They are winning convincingly at home and snatching vital points against tough opposition at a time when it’s most needed.
Saturday’s tie stands them in very good stead for the two upcoming home games this week. They face Philadelphia on Wednesday and D.C. United this coming Saturday. Should they earn two wins, they will be well on their way to the playoffs.
The Rapids should enter this week’s games with their confidence high. They know, despite the disappointment of conceding Borchers’ late goal, that a point in Utah is a great point, whether against a “reserve” team or not.
Conversely, RSL know they played a highly competitive team in the Rapids.
And on that note, a final word from Salt Lake goal-scorer and former Rapid, Borchers. Perhaps we should rely on the players for the most objective views.
“To be honest, I think everybody's pretty positive about the result,” he told the Salt Lake Tribune.
Nick Thomas covers the Colorado Rapids for MLSsoccer.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org for comments and story suggestions.