Sept. 16, 2006 is not a day that lingers in the memory of too many Major League Soccer fans. For the most part, it represented just another slate of MLS games. Yet supporters of Real Salt Lake can be forgiven for looking back on that date with longing, because it marks the last time that RSL won a league match, something the team desperately will be trying to duplicate when it plays host to FC Dallas on this week's edition of MLS Primetime Thursday (ESPN2, 9 p.m. ET).
In a twist of fate, the Hoops were the last to taste defeat against RSL in league play, falling 3-2 that September evening, with current Real head coach Jason Kreis scoring the game-winner. Yet Dallas has heaped plenty of misery on RSL since, starting Real's present slide with a 2-1 defeat the following week. And it was FCD which snatched victory from RSL's grasp on opening day this season, when Carlos Ruiz's stoppage time equalizer forced a 2-2 tie. For Dallas head coach Steve Morrow, it makes for a tricky encounter.
"It's always a dangerous situation when you're going up against a team that hasn't won in a while," said Morrow. "And [RSL] have been playing a lot better of late. It's never an easy game going there."
Five storylines to follow
1. Streak? What streak?
While RSL did prevail in a U.S. Open Cup match earlier this year, their current league winless stretch now stands at 13 matches. And while Real have a ways to go to match their MLS record of 18 games without a victory, the fact remains that RSL needs a win worse than Paris Hilton needs attention. But Kreis says the streak isn't something his team talks about.
"We all view things inside of our locker room extremely positive," said Kreis. "We've been on the road for four straight games, and picked up three draws out of four. The fact is that we've had one recent home game, [a tie] against a New York team that I think is the most talented in the league. So we haven't had a home game that we could feel disappointed about."
2. Is there a forward in the house?
Heading into this season, Dallas was looking at a three-headed monster of a forward line comprised of Ruiz, Kenny Cooper and Roberto Mina. As expected, Ruiz has been on Gold Cup duty, but Cooper is set to miss up to 10 weeks with a broken right leg. It's also feared that Mina will be lost for the season with a left knee injury. Fortunately for the Hoops, the depth of their forward line extends beyond that trio,, with Abe Thompson and Dominic Oduro making significant contributions. The loss also has been mitigated by the fact that nine different players have scored for Dallas this year.
3. Real improvement
When Kreis took over as head coach on May 3, his first priority was to shore up a defense that was giving up an average of two goals per game. Since then, Real have cut that mark almost in half, getting consecutive shutouts against Chicago and New England, while earning another clean sheet in an exhibition win over China. For Kreis, RSL's defensive improvement can be found everywhere on the field.
"A lot of it has come down to individual performances," said Kreis. "But I've always believed that defending is not just about the back four and the goalkeeper, it's about an entire team effort, and I think everyone has done a good job of that."
4. Dallas' erratic "D"
While much has gone right for Dallas so far this season, the team's shaky defense remains a problem. Still, there are worse defensive units in the league. Dallas has yet to keep a clean sheet this season, and Morrow concedes that this is preventing his side from breaking into the league's elite.
"[The defense] is obviously a concern," said Morrow. "I still have confidence in the guys who are out there, but I've spoken to them and made them aware that we've got to start keeping clean sheets if we want to be successful this year."
5. Kreis goes up against his old club
Given that this is Kreis' third season on the Wasatch Front as either a coach or player, it's tempting to think that going up against his former team holds little meaning. But Kreis makes it clear that the matchup is one he has circled on his calendar.
"When you spend nine years somewhere, and put your heart, soul, blood and tears into it, whether it's two years or five years [since you left], there is always going to be some extra emotion involved," said Kreis.
Five players to watch
1. Juan Toja, M, Dallas
Toja's first match of the season against RSL was one to forget, as he struggled to adapt to the artificial surface of Rice-Eccles Stadium. But the Colombian has made steady progress each week, culminating in last week's match against L.A. that saw him score the opening goal as well as orchestrate the Dallas attack in a 3-1 win. For Morrow, Toja's progress has gone according to plan.
"He's been everything that I expected," said Morrow of Toja. "He's so strong on the ball. You can get the ball into him in tight situations, and he can hold players off, and he can go at players as well."
2. Alecko Eskandarian, F, Real Salt Lake
With the defense now sorted out, Kreis' challenge is to get his offense going, and that means giving the newly acquired Eskandarian more opportunities to strike at goal. Two changes of address in a five-month span have had Eskandarian's head spinning. But a 12-day break between league games has given him more time to settle in with RSL, and with Eskandarian getting the only goal against China, the hope is that he and frontline partner Atiba Harris will show even more cohesion in attack.
3. Abe Thompson, F, Dallas
A starter at the end of last year, playing opportunities were expected to be more scarce for the Maryland product this season, but the injuries to Cooper and Mina now have made Thompson a constant presence in the lineup. Thompson's six-foot frame makes him an adept target, but Morrow adds that there are other dimensions to his game.
"[Thompson] is a player who deserves more recognition than he gets," said Morrow. "He's smart, he makes good runs, and he's one of the best finishers we have around the box."
4. Mehdi Ballouchy, M, Real Salt Lake
Another player that Kreis is counting on to revive his offense is the Moroccan-born Ballouchy, who remains the hub of the Real attack. And while the collegiate All-American is a fine passer, Kreis is keen to have Ballouchy drift further up field.
"[Ballouchy] is an extremely hard worker with a great engine," said Kreis. "But we need to pull the reins back on him a little bit, so we can get him in more advanced positions, so he's not retreating so deep into midfield to get passes off our defenders."
5. Dominic Oduro, F, Dallas
Three weeks ago, logistical issues led Oduro to turn down an invitation to a camp for the Ghanaian U-23 national team. Given the spate of injuries, that amounted to a godsend for Dallas. The VCU product is speedy, making him the ideal foil for Thompson, but Morrow adds that the development in other aspects of Oduro's game has been the key to his success this year.
"[Oduro] came back this year and showed all the coaches that he had improved his all-around game with his touch and passing," said Morrow. "He's also learning the game more, and making smart runs off other players."
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.