SANDY, Utah — The last time Real Salt Lake stepped off the field, they were 11 points clear of the Seattle Sounders in the race for the Western Conference and Supporters' Shield.
But Seattle, arguably MLS' hottest team, have gone on to win three games — beating Columbus, Chivas USA and Chicago — while RSL sat idle with a bye. The teams now sit a mere two points apart and the Sounders still have a game in hand on Real.
So to say Friday's match at CenturyLink Field (10 pm ET, NBCSN) is a big game, may be understating things.
"We know how big it is," said RSL defender Nat Borchers after training earlier in the week. "They kind of sat in the middle of the pack for a while, but now they are right there, right on our heels."
Highlights: RSL-SEA - June 23
The fans in Seattle are so excited for the game that the club has decided to open up the top bowl at CenturyLink, and there have reportedly been more than 52,000 tickets sold.
"It is always a good atmosphere when you play up there," defender Tony Beltran said. "I think if you are a soccer player, you look forward to playing in an atmosphere like that. It is exciting to see that soccer in this country has grown enough that there are places to play, like at our home field, too, that have a crowd that gets behind them."
The rest of the RSL squad also seems to like playing in Seattle because despite the raucous Sounders fans, the team from Utah actually owns a winning record when visiting Washington. Salt Lake are 2-1-2 all-time in MLS play when they visit Seattle.
"I think that we always play a little better in front of a good crowd," midfielder Ned Grabavoy said. "I think it is tougher to play when there aren't a lot of people there and it is kind of quiet. I would much rather play in front of a good crowd with lots of noise, even if it is not necessarily directed at you."
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The two teams have played twice this season, with RSL coming out on top in both encounters. But both games were at Rio Tinto Stadium, and they also came before the Sounders added Clint Dempsey to their roster.
"Obviously they added a very good individual player, who can kind of make plays out of nowhere," Grabavoy said of Dempsey. "Players like that, the few players that are like that in this league, you have to be very wary of. He is a guy we have to be looking for. He is a very good player, especially going forward, and so it is just another good player for us to be aware of."
So while Seattle will look to win their fifth consecutive game and third in September, RSL are playing their first match since Aug. 30. But with first place on the line and a huge crowd expected, it won't be hard for either team to get up for this one.
"I think the boys will be fresh, all geared up for Friday," concluded Beltran. "It will be a huge affair and we need to win to keep first place."
Michael Black covers Real Salt Lake for MLSsoccer.com.