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May 9, 2007

Rocky Mountain rivals clash again

Since its inception, Major League Soccer's recipe for a rivalry has been to take two teams in close proximity to one another, come up with a catchy name for a trophy, and presto, instant rivalry. That might work for the fans, but a rivalry isn't really a rivalry until that enmity is shared by the players involved. Suffice it say, this week's MLS Primetime Thursday matchup between Real Salt Lake and the Colorado Rapids has all the necessary ingredients.

Hatred? You got it. Trash talking? Enough to make Terrell Owens look like Steve Urkel. Hard fouls? C'mon, Pablo Mastroeni is playing (and it doesn't end with him either).

Although the mutual distain these two teams share for one another is a well-known fact these days, it wasn't always that way.

"I don't think the players were really on board with [the rivalry] at first," says Real head coach Jason Kreis, who after experiencing the matchup as a player, will go through it as a coach for the first time on Thursday. "But Colorado was the first ever win by Real Salt Lake. It was our home opener, and it has really stemmed from there for the players."

While that match back in 2005 served as a beginning, the training wheels really came off last Sept. 2, when Colorado escaped Rice-Eccles Stadium with a contentious 1-0 win. There were heavy challenges that went unpunished and a controversial goal by Nico Hernandez that came with Real's Mehdi Ballouchy down injured. Several Real players let up on the play, thinking the Rapids would play the ball out of bounds and were incensed when they didn't. Afterwards, the Rapids' Mastroeni added some nitroglycerin to the proceedings by taunting the Real fans to such an extent that RSL owner Dave Checketts confronted the Colorado captain on the field. The result ultimately cost Real a playoff spot, and a compelling rivalry was now at full throttle.

Five storylines to follow

1. The Rocky Mountain Cup

The trophy that goes to the winner of the season series between the two teams has been the exclusive property of Colorado so far, despite Real's initial success. Colorado owns a 6-2-1 record all-time against RSL, and that trend continued on April 30 when the Rapids came away with a 2-0 road victory courtesy of goals by Roberto Brown and Kyle Beckerman. And yes, the jawing with opposing fans continued. This game will be played at the recently opened Dick's Sporting Goods Park, with RSL looking to return the favor.

2. Jason Kreis' coaching baptism continues

RSL's 0-2-2 start to the season resulted in the firing of coach John Ellinger, with Kreis going from player to coach in record time. And his first match in charge saw him coax a near miracle out of his team, with RSL getting late goals from Jeff Cunningham and Chris Brown to salvage a 3-3 tie against New York this past Saturday.

Kreis would settle for a more conventional result this time, but given Real's woeful road form since their inception (they are 4-24-5 all-time away from home), that may require an even bigger miracle.

3. Can the Rapids rebound?

Fernando Clavijo's rebuilt side looked solid in the season's opening weeks before getting flattened 3-1 at home last weekend by defending champions Houston. Injuries played a part in that loss, with defenders Ugo Ihemelu and Brandon Prideaux both sidelined. Ihemelu's speed in the back was especially missed, but a bigger issue for Clavijo was a lack of midfield play, where Beckerman and Jovan Kirovski were both quiet. Ihemelu's return could see Mastroeni get pushed into midfield alongside Beckerman, adding a little more combativeness to the middle.

"We were two steps away from everything against Houston," Clavijo said. "More than anything, the attitude and the energy need to be better."

4. The defense rests

While the list of Ellinger's sins is lengthy, his biggest was a failure to shore up a defense that tied for worst in the league last year, and the results have been predictable. Real has conceded 11 goals in five games -- the second-worst mark in the league -- and their back line and goalkeeping have both been suspect. No surprise then that defense has drawn nearly all of Kreis' attention.

"If I were to go back and analyze all of the goals that were scored against us, most of them were down to individual mental errors," Kreis said. "So for me, the entire first week has been about changing that mentality, getting players to react quicker in situations, transitioning from offense to defense."

5. Forward decisions

The Rapids' Brown has been an instant hit with Colorado's fans, tallying three times in four matches.

However, a forearm to Brown's head from Houston defender Eddie Robinson has left him with headaches, which may force him out of the match. If Brown can't go, Kirovski will likely take his place up top, although recent acquisition Conor Casey could get the nod.

Five players to watch

1. Jeff Cunningham, F, Real Salt Lake

One of Kreis' first decisions as coach was to junk Ellinger's 4-5-1 setup and go with a 4-4-2 alignment. Although simplifying roles was his primary aim, it also allowed Cunningham to be paired with Atiba Harris, whose ability to hold the ball up should allow Cunningham to use his speed and face up to goal more. Given that Colorado traded away Cunningham prior to the 2006 season, the RSL forward should be even more motivated than usual.

2. Nico Hernandez, F, Colorado

While Brown has enjoyed some early success, the start of the season has been less kind to Hernandez, who is still looking for his first goal. Clavijo isn't worried by the Argentine's slow start however, noting that Hernandez has been making other contributions.

"[Hernandez] does so many other things around the box and defensively, that he hasn't put himself in positions to score," Clavijo said. "I have no issues with Nico. He's going to find the back of the net sooner or later."

With Brown's status likely to be uncertain until game time, the Rapids may need Hernandez to assume more of the scoring load.

3. Freddy Adu, M, Real Salt Lake

Little has gone right for Adu since his offseason trade from D.C. United. The teenager was brought in to be the quarterback of the offense, but quickly lost that spot to Ballouchy, and has since resumed the wide role he had at United. The departure of Ellinger, who coached Adu when he was with the U.S. U-17 national team, was also a blow, since he was a big reason Adu agreed to head west. On the wing, the RSL midfielder has struggled as well, but the matchup against Colorado defender Dan Gargan looks to be one that favors Adu.

4. Kyle Beckerman, M, Colorado

Aside from Mastroeni, Beckerman has done the most to get under RSL's collective skin. His insurance tally in the earlier match against Real not only sealed the win, but gave him yet another opportunity to stick it to Real's fans. But Beckerman was far from his best against Houston, contributing little to the attack while Dynamo midfielder Dwayne De Rosario ran riot, scoring two goals. With Mastroeni likely to be back by his side, expect a rebound performance from Beckerman.

5. Chris Seitz, G, Real Salt Lake

When Nick Rimando began the season by giving up some soft goals, RSL turned to Seitz to stem the tide. And while Seitz's shot-stopping has been solid, poor communication with his back line and some hesitant decision making have seen him exposed. The expectation is that Kreis will keep playing Seitz in the hope that the rookie will iron out the rough spots in his game.

Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at eljefe1@yahoo.com.