With 42 matches this season across three different competitions now behind them, Real Salt Lake has its eyes on a single goal -- the 2011 Major League Soccer Cup.
The MLS season was a wild ride for the Claret-and-Cobalt, with enough injuries and lineup drama to fill multiple seasons, the campaign came to a close on Saturday night with Real claiming the No. 3 spot on the Western Conference table despite another uncharacteristic late-match gaffe that allowed Portland to escape from Rio Tinto Stadium with a draw.
On paper, RSL hardly looks to be in top form as it begins its quest for a second MLS Cup in three seasons. The team is winless in six matches and has scored just once in four matches.
Yet Saturday's match, the first of a two-leg Western Conference semifinal series with Seattle, won't be played on paper. It will be played on Real Salt Lake's home pitch at Rio Tinto Stadium, where the team has only lost seven matches in all competitions since it opened in late 2008.
Real Salt Lake will also welcome back midfielder Kyle Beckerman, who served the last of his three-match suspension during Saturday's match vs. Portland. Beckerman's return means that Real boss Jason Kreis, for one of the rare occasions this season, will have full selection of his squad against the Sounders.
Add in that Beckerman, who is one of just three players to log more than 2,400 minutes this season, will be well-rested as he returns to his role in the holding midfield, and it's likely that Real's possession-oriented diamond midfield will once again show its capabilities.
The only real question mark is that of defender Tony Beltran, who is recovering from an adductor tear in a reserve match on Sept. 18. Beltran returned to training on Oct. 13, but mostly just to maintain his fitness. Before his injury, Beltran had been the team's most consistent option at outside back.
"(This season) was up and down for sure, with injuries and call-ups," Real netminder Nick Rimando said. "We had our great streak, our worst streak, and I think right now we are almost where we want to be. We're getting some great players back just in time for the playoffs, and all these streaks go away once you start the playoffs."
And that, in a nutshell, is why Real seems poised to advance its season.
The marathon ride, which began for RSL in February, is now down to a few rapid-fire, short weeks. With nearly all of Real's much-talked-about depth finally available, it is still the team that advanced to the CONCACAF Champions League final in April and looked early like it was going run away with the league title.
In fact, given the obstacles and adversity the squad has overcome, it might be an even better team now with its sometimes brash and fiery play tempered with a dose of humility that can only truly be learned through struggles.
You can follow Justin Johnson on Twitter at: @jjohnson801 or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.