After hitting what could only be called a mid-year slump, Real Salt Lake quietly rebuilt its momentum, poise and confidence.
Heading into tonight’s critical CONCACAF Champions League group stage finale and Saturday’s Major League Soccer regular season finale, Salt Lake’s resurgence will be put to the test.
With a 1-0 or two-goal win tonight against CS Herediano at Rio Tinto Stadium, Real can check off another box on the long list of goals it set for itself this season.
With either of those results, Salt Lake will win its Champions League group and advance to the knockout round of the tournament next spring.
The match gets under way at 8 p.m. tonight and will be televised live on Fox Soccer.
Real’s annual focus on the regional tournament is a popular choice for fans, especially in the wake of the team nearly capturing the continental title during the 2010-11 edition.
Salt Lake has repeatedly drawn just as well, or better, for its home Champions League matches as it does for MLS contests, and the Claret-and-Cobalt’s run to the 2011 final made other teams in the league sit up and turn more attention to a competition that was long thought of as second-rate.
While Real’s job might seem easy tonight, it’s likely to be anything but.
For starters, leading scorer Alvaro Saborio who has played some of his strongest matches in a Real kit during CONCACAF play is suspended due to yellow card accumulation. Making things even more perilous is that fellow striker Fabian Espindola and central defender Jamison Olave are both questionable due to injuries suffered in last week’s 0-0 draw at Seattle.
Having both first choice strikers out could create a bit of an offensive conundrum for RSL, which would likely start Paulo Jr. and Emiliano Bonfigli up top if recent trends hold, or team boss Jason Kreis could choose to mix things up and start Justin Braun or possibly reconfigure Real’s shape.
Regardless of what option Kreis goes with, it’s likely that Salt Lake will need to remain patient against Herediano, which needs nothing more than a draw to advance and will likely come out in a conservative and defensive mindset.
The finish line
Real will wrap up league play on Saturday at 7 p.m. against the Vancouver Whitecaps, who back into their first-ever playoff berth on Sunday after Seattle knocked out FC Dallas with a 3-1 win.
That result also locked in a first-round rematch between Salt Lake and the Sounders, although the exact seeding won’t be determined until after Seattle takes on Los Angeles on Sunday in Carson, Calif.
If both teams win their final match, the Sounders will take the No. 2 seed and the two-leg aggregate goals series will start on Nov. 3 at Rio Tinto Stadium, with the return leg on Nov. 7-8.
If Real wins and Seattle loses or ties Los Angeles, the series will start in Seattle.
You can follow Justin Johnson on Twitter at: @jjohnson801 or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.