If you had wagered back in March that Real Salt Lake would be even with the Houston Dynamo in the Western Conference standings halfway through the 2008 season, you would have received the longest of odds. After all, RSL had done little to distinguish itself in three barren seasons, while Houston was (and still is) the two-time defending MLS champion.
So is the balance of power shifting in the Western Conference? While not quite giving a definitive answer, this week's "MLS Primetime Thursday" matchup between RSL and Houston should be revealing, with sole possession of first place in the conference going to the winner.
Five story lines to follow
1. A Real turnaround
It was 14 months ago that Kreis assumed the RSL head coaching duties, and since then he has gradually reshaped the team, bringing more ability, tenacity and athleticism to the Wasatch Front. The result has been a complete change in the team's attitude.
"In pure soccer terms, I don't think we had enough good soccer players," Kreis said. "I think the average level of player was too low, and I just thought the competitive nature of the entire group wasn't high enough. They thought it was OK to lose."
2. The Dynamo's Gordian knot
Houston at Real Salt Lake
10 p.m. ET (ESPN2)
Houston hasn't been horrible in the season's first three months. In fact, the team is tied for the fewest losses in MLS. But the Dynamo have found it difficult to beat teams, and their league-high seven draws have meant that the defending champs have gone sideways for much of the season. The ire from such results appeared to boil over in last week's 1-1 tie with Dallas, when a defensive miscue allowed Kenny Cooper to equalize in the second half, and goalkeeper Pat Onstad bellowed at his defense afterward.
"The frustrating part is that you feel in those games your margin for error is very small," said Houston head coach Dominic Kinnear. "That's what's hurting us, because we have a lapse, and teams are capitalizing. That's the story of the season so far."
3. The pit of despair
Ever since San Jose's Spartan Stadium ceased being a league venue in 2005, Real's Rice-Eccles Stadium has claimed the prize of "least favorite stadium to visit" in MLS. At issue are the venue's narrow dimensions and an artificial surface that's about as forgiving as an airport runway. Of course, it wasn't long ago that Real was complaining, too, but now the team has taken a liking to Rice-Eccles, and RSL is one of two teams in the league that is unbeaten at home.
"This year, I think the mentality of the group has been, 'We're on it, we're going to play on it, and we're going to have a very aggressive mind-set at home and not even talk about the surface,'" Kreis said. "That mind-set and aggressive mentality has helped us more than anything."
4. Houston's dinged-up defense
With World Cup qualifying now on hiatus until August, Kinnear thought he was close to getting his entire first-choice lineup back. But All-Star defender Eddie Robinson likely will miss Thursday's game with a right ankle sprain, and understudy Patrick Ianni also might be sidelined due to an injured shoulder (hurt in last week's 1-1 tie with Dallas). The injuries have come at a key time, with Houston's SuperLiga commitments congesting its calendar in the coming weeks.
5. Real's Kansas City hangover
Still one of the poorer road teams in MLS, Real was on the verge of a rare away result last week against the Wizards, when disaster struck in the form of an 89th-minute own goal by defender Tony Beltran. It's the kind of defeat that in the past would have delivered a heavy blow to the team's confidence, and while Kreis feels there won't be any carryover into this week's match, the team's ability to bounce back will be tested.
Five players to watch
1. Stuart Holden, M, Houston
With Dwayne De Rosario now partnering with Brian Ching up top, it has been left to Holden to pick up the creative slack in the center of the midfield. And while it hasn't been raining goals for Houston, Kinnear has pronounced himself more than satisfied with Holden's play.
"He's got a great engine, holds his position well, and he pressures the ball well," Kinnear said of Holden. "You lose a little bit of a physical presence, but he does hold his own physically in there, and we just want him to be that finisher of plays."
2. Javier Morales, M, Real Salt Lake
Other, more heralded Argentine imports have arrived in MLS the past two years, but few have performed as well as Morales. The RSL midfielder took a while to adjust to MLS, as a shoulder injury sustained last year slowed his progress. But in 2008 he has two goals and is tied for the league lead in assists (seven), even as opponents become aware of his game-breaking ability.
"Morales is a guy that shows up in a lot of different spaces," Kreis said. "He can run the ball at players, get in behind them, and he's a talented and gifted passer with tremendous vision. He has all the facets of the game."
3. Brian Ching, F, Houston
Ching continued his recent hot streak last week against FC Dallas, scoring Houston's only goal in the match. It gave the Hawaiian four goals in his past four games, and he appears to be benefiting from Kinnear's decision to move De Rosario to the forward line.
"A forward like [Ching] who doesn't do everything on his own, he relies on service," Kinnear said. "But his movement off the ball is always good, he's always elusive."
4. Kyle Beckerman, M, Real Salt Lake
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Beckerman was one of Kreis' first acquisitions when he took over last season, and the trade that brought the U.S. international to RSL in exchange for Mehdi Ballouchy may go down as one of the biggest steals in franchise history. Since arriving in Utah, Beckerman has come to personify what Real is all about, with his tackling and winning attitude doing much to turn around the team's fortunes.
"You bring in a guy like Beckerman, and all of a sudden he makes two or three other guys more competitive," Kreis said.
5. Craig Waibel, D, Houston
If both Robinson and Ianni are unable to play, look for Waibel to slide into the center of Houston's defense alongside Bobby Boswell. The nine-year MLS veteran isn't the fleetest of foot, but he has loads of experience in dealing with speedy players, making his matchup with RSL flyer Robbie Findley one to watch.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He also writes for Centerlinesoccer.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.