SALT LAKE CITY - All of the sudden, the Rocky Mountain Cup is a big deal.
Blame the Colorado Rapids. Real Salt Lake coach John Ellinger certainly does.
"They'll be ready for bear coming in, but they won't be able to parade their little Rocky Mountain Cup in our face this time," Ellinger said.
Now that the gauntlet has been thrown, Real Salt Lake and Colorado are ready for one of their most crucial matches of the season. A victory will propel the winner from a fourth-place tie in the Western Conference standings to sole possession of third place.
Last year, in Real Salt Lake's inaugural season, the Rocky Mountain Cup meant very little. RSL had performed poorly enough at the beginning of the season that it had little chance of winning the fan-based award. And with no chance of making the playoffs, RSL were already looking forward to the next season.
But now, the teams have plenty to play for. The prospect of winning the cup just adds another dimension to the competition.
Fans from Salt Lake City and Colorado created the Rocky Mountain Cup before Real's inaugural season began in an attempt to establish a rivalry between the teams. Saturday's game at Rice-Eccles Stadium will be the last regular season match between Real and the Rapids; both teams are 1-1-1 against each other, making the game the pivotal match in the competition for this season.
Both teams have 32 points in the Major League Soccer standings; they sit two points behind Chivas, the third-place team in the Western Conference and four points behind Houston, the second-place team. Chivas is out of action until Sunday, so anything but a tie will put the winner in third place for at least a day.
Real and Colorado played to a 2-2 tie on May 27, then the Rapids earned a 1-0 victory two weeks later. The next match between the teams was in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup (which does not count in the Rocky Mountain Cup standings); Colorado again earned a 1-0 victory.
But then, Real earned a 4-1 victory in Colorado a week later, one of the most convincing victories of the season for RSL.
"[We will] try and do the things that we did right the last time we played them," Ellinger said.
Colorado comes in to Rice-Eccles Stadium at the wrong time; Real has been on a roll in recent weeks, going 4-1 in August and 5-1-1 in their last seven MLS games. Real's last game, a 1-0 victory against the Los Angeles Galaxy, also was a pivotal match in the playoff race for both teams, and both teams were tied in the standings.
Andy Williams was one of the most active players on the field for Real against the Galaxy; Ellinger said Williams is just one of the players standing out for Real.
"He's playing at a different level right now, and he's one of several guys that have raised their level in the last six weeks, and that's the reason we have a chance to make the playoffs right now," Ellinger said.
One of the team's strengths, said Jason Kreis, is its mindset.
"What I think is so remarkable about this team is how level headed we are," Kreis said. "If you came to every training session from the beginning of the year to the end of the year, you couldn't tell when we were on a winning streak or on a losing streak."
Peter Richins is a contributor to MLSnet.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.