SANDY, Utah – The Rocky Mountain Cup, which resumes on Wednesday (9 pm ET, Direct Kick, MatchDay Live), has come a long way since its humble beginning in 2005 as a mere fan-backed rivalry with hardware on the line between Real Salt Lake and the Colorado Rapids.
Once a contest between two bottom-feeders who were struggling for respect in the league, it now features two of the upper-echelon teams in the league, who between them have won the last two MLS Cup championships. The geography-based rivalry is now considered to be one of the top in the league.
“I think it’s become more and more important in both clubs’ eyes with every passing year,” said RSL head coach Jason Kreis. "I think it’s a nice thing for both of us to take some pride in."
“I think that’s a positive step for the league and think we should continue on with it," he added. "I don’t think we should try to downplay it or make it appear smaller than it is. I think we should say this is important to us. This rivalry with Colorado, this Rocky Mountain Cup, it’s important to us.”
In order to achieve the level of success that culminated in last year’s championship, Colorado have undergone a transformation over the last couple of seasons similar to what Real Salt Lake went through a year or two earlier.
“Very impressed,” said Kreis of this transformation. “Similar in a lot of ways to what we were in 2009.
[inline_node:328057]“They were a team last year that had their share of ups and downs and inconsistencies. And then, at the end of the season, they were a very strong team, they were playing consistently in every match.”
Said RSL midfielder and former Rapids player Kyle Beckerman, “They went out and did it. They got it done. Credit to them. They deserve that silver ball.”
Now, Colorado face some of the same criticisms that Salt Lake faced after winning the title. The challenge for the Rapids, said Beckerman, will be to take their success to the next level.
“We’ll see,” Beckerman said when asked if Colorado were in a similar category as RSL. “They won a championship, they had a good run, but let’s see them do it over a season. Then we’ll see if they are going to join the elite.
"[Critics] didn’t put us in the elite because we won. It was after we did what we did last year, and continue to do this year. And now they are starting to put us in the elite. I think [the Rapids] still got some work to do.”
Regardless of which category you put them in, the Rapids will be a handful to compete with on the field. Kreis cited Colorado's impressive strike force of Caleb Folan, Omar Cummings and Conor Casey.
“Two of them are such big bodies and such battlers that they can make life difficult on center backs," he said. "And then, with Cummings' ability to run at players and his pace to get in behind, he causes a completely different challenge. And then [Pablo] Mastroeni and [Jeff] Larentowicz – when they are playing, you have to consider them two of the stronger central midfielders in our league and a really nice pair.”
Both Casey and Mastroeni have been ruled out of Wednesday’s game, but that does little to make the Rapids less dangerous. Defender Nat Borchers, is especially wary of Cummings' skills.
“I’ve watched him from afar and obviously close up and I think he’s one of the best in the league,” admitted Borchers. “So we’ve got to be aware of him.”
Borchers, Beckerman and teammate Chris Wingert have never been on the losing end of the Rocky Mountain Cup series. In fact, Beckerman has won it every year since its inception – including twice with the Rapids.
According to Borchers, they are looking to keep it that way.
“It’s big for us. It’s big for the fans,” said Borchers, “So we want to make sure to keep it.”