SANDY, Utah – In the crowded, competitive Western Conference, season sweeps matter – especially when the opponent in question is a perennial playoff rival.
If Real Salt Lake can earn a positive result on Saturday at StubHub Center, the Claret-and-Cobalt will do something their club has only done once before in its 10-year history: Go without a loss to the LA Galaxy in the regular season.
It seems a bit early, but this is the third and final time the two teams will meet in the 2014 regular season. RSL opened their campaign on March 8 in Carson, Calif., and left with a 1-0 victory over the Galaxy on the strength of Joao Plata's 80th-minute goal.
And the rubber match is worth more than just three points to the winning team, RSL coach Jeff Cassar told reporters.
“Any time you go head-to-head with a team that has a lot of confidence – especially now in the second half of the season – it's going to be a six-point game,” he said.
In other words, a win for RSL (7-3-7, 28 points, second place in the Western Conference) would open up a 10-point gap between themselves and the Galaxy. A win for LA (5-3-1, 21 points, sixth place) brings the Galaxy within four points.
And given that LA have played three fewer games than RSL, the gap may be less than it appears at the moment.
While the Galaxy tend to attract more headlines than Salt Lake, the competition between the two clubs is close. RSL hold a slim lead in the overall regular-season series at 11-10-6; the two are tied 12-12-7 when you throw in MLS playoff matches and the 2009 MLS Cup final, which Salt Lake won in a penalty-kick shootout.
Neither has ever swept the other. The Galaxy held the advantage in two seasons, Real had the advantage in two seasons and the two teams ended the year deadlocked five times.
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And RSL have done quite nicely for themselves on the road in Southern California.
“It’s a place where we do extremely well, especially against the Galaxy,” Cassar said.
RSL are 6-7-1 in the regular season when playing the Galaxy on their home field — including wins three of the last four times the two teams played there. If you add playoff matches, RSL are 6-9-1 on on LA's home field. (Real are 6-8-1 at StubHub against Chivas USA.)
The game will also be a US national team reunion of sorts. RSL captain Kyle Beckerman and goalkeeper Nick Rimando both played in Friday's 2-1 win over New England — barely a day after they returned from Brazil. L.A.'s Omar Gonzalez did not play in the Galaxy's 2-2 tie with Portland on Friday, but he's expected to see action against RSL.
Cassar did, however, say he planned to give Rimando and Beckerman some time off this week.
“I think we’re going to give them a few days off, then re-visit it on Wednesday or Thursday to see how they’re doing and where they’re at,” Cassar said. “Going to LA – that’s one of those games where our guys try to rise to the occasion. I’d be really surprised if they say they don’t want to play.”