SALT LAKE CITY - Match fitness: it's hard to attain and difficult to maintain. For Real Salt Lake this year, it has made a big difference.
Just a look at the team's scoring trends shows how committed RSL has been to its fitness regimen. Twelve of their 15 goals have been scored in the second half, 10 in the final half hour and six in the last 15 minutes.
"A big part of that has to do with our fitness," coach John Ellinger said. "That's been a radical improvement from last year."
RSL's fitness helps even more when they play at Rice-Eccles Stadium, where the high-altitude air tends to slow down opponents. With more in the tank late in the game, Real have gone 3-0-1 in its last four games, three of which have been at home.
"We get more of the killer instinct that we didn't see last year, but we're getting to see it emerge from this group," Ellinger said.
Forward Jeff Cunningham played 88 minutes last Saturday in RSL's 3-1 win against the Chicago Fire. He was replaced by second-year player Jamie Watson. In postgame interviews, Cunningham said he was tired and felt ineffective at times during the game. Still, Cunningham scored two goals and set up another.
Cunningham said he was a little short of match fitness after seeing limited playing time of late. In RSL's previous three games, Cunningham came off the bench in the second half as a substitute for Atiba Harris.
In the last four games, Cunningham has scored six goals. He is now tied with Carlos Ruiz of FC Dallas, Houston's Brian Ching and D.C. United's Jaime Moreno with a league-best seven goals on the season.
Ellinger said Cunningham, like many of the players on his team, is no longer feeling the weight of RSL's early-season slump. The team's newfound confidence has fueled the team's offensive prowess; Real have scored 10 of their goals in the last four games.
"Even when we were going through the hard time at the beginning of the season, they never stopped working in training and never stopped working in games," Ellinger said. "They never really stopped believing, and it just took one good game, the L.A. game, and confidence shot up. The guys will tell you, the feel like they are over the hump."
Now, RSL has three wins and two draws in 10 games and is sitting in fourth place in the Western Conference. They will face Colorado, currently in third place in the conference, on Friday. Doubtless, Ellinger will stick with his 4-4-2 formation that has been so successful of late.
Ellinger made only minor adjustments to his formation against Chicago. At halftime, he told wing midfielders Chris Klein and Mehdi Ballouchy to move more towards the center in an attempt to counter Chicago's 3-5-2. It worked out well.
"Our possession [improved] 10-fold," Ellinger said.
Chicago coach Dave Sarachan said the Fire made some mistakes in the second half that led to RSL's goals.
"When you give a guy like Cunningham a chance to get in between you or behind you, he's going to do that if we're not tight on him," Sarachan said.
Sarachan was pleased with the play of Brian Plotkin. Twice in the span of six minutes, Plotkin let loose with fast-flying, long-distance shots. The second of those tries, in the 62nd minute, went in from 25 yards out to tie the game 1-1.
"Brian had an overall very good game," Sarachan said. "It goes without saying that the goal he had was a terrific goal. When it left his foot we could see is was going in; he's dangerous in that spot and he showed good composure for a young player."
Peter Richins is a contributor to MLSnet.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.