DENVER — Throughout Real Salt Lake's struggles this year, particularly in the past two months as it has slipped further and further in the Western Conference standings, the team has used Colorado as its get-out-of-jail-free card.
Real has stressed that no matter how bleak things got, with three of its final six games against Colorado, a sweep of the Rapids would put RSL in serious playoff contention.
For a team that had won just five games all year, winning three straight against one opponent seemed highly unlikely. That was confirmed at Invesco Field on Wednesday night.
Despite another decent performance, Real Salt Lake saw its already dim playoff hopes dashed by the Rapids 2-0.
"It's frustrating not to get results when you think we can get results and deserve results," said RSL defender Paul Broome. "The effort the past few games has been very good."
The effort may be good, but it isn't producing results, and in terms of the 2005 playoffs, it's a hopeless cause now.
With the end of its expansion season just weeks away, the only way RSL could sneak into the playoffs now is by winning its final five games and having Colorado lose its final five. The Rocky Mountain rivals square off two more times — in Denver on Oct. 1 and Salt Lake City on Oct. 12.
At this point, RSL coach John Ellinger doesn't care about the playoffs.
His team is on a 7-game losing streak, and the last thing he wants to do is go into the offseason on a 12-game losing streak.
"We're not playing poorly. Again, it's the fourth time in five games we've played well enough we could've won a game, but we just haven't won," said Ellinger. "What's been going on most of the year is we're finding ways to lose games."
It's a mental thing, according to Ellinger. He doesn't believe "it's a shape thing, or technical thing or a fitness thing. It's just a mental thing."
Unlike Sunday's loss at Dallas, in which RSL played a very conservative first half, Salt Lake came out Wednesday and played like a team with nothing to lose. Despite recording just two shots in the first half against Colorado, the return of Andy Williams and Clint Mathis into the lineup helped RSL's midfield play one of its better games of the season.
In the second half, however, the breakdowns began to emerge.
Colorado seized the lead in the 49th minute on another one of those fluke plays that has plagued RSL all year. On a sequence that seemed very routine, defender Gustavo Cabrera misjudged where a harmless deflection would land near the top of the box. That enabled Eric Denton to run onto the ball and make a simple pass to Jean Philippe Peguero, who rifled it in from the top of the box.
Unlike many games this year, the deficit didn't seem to discourage Salt Lake.
Two minutes after falling behind 1-0, Mathis whipped a perfectly struck corner kick into the box that rookie Melvin Tarley headed powerfully on goal. Unfortunately for Tarley, Rapids keeper Byron Foss was in perfect position to make a reactionary save to keep his clean sheet intact.
He made another point-blank save, this time on a Tiger Fitzpatrick shot in stoppage time, to preserve the shutout.
With nothing to lose, Salt Lake played with just two defenders in the final 15 minutes, and it nearly led to an equalizer on several occasions.
In the 87th minute, Colorado took advantage of the decreased numbers in RSL's backline to go ahead 2-0 on a goal from Dedi Ben Dayan. The goal was assisted by Terry Cooke, who enjoyed an unimpeded run up the right sideline after Williams cramped up near midfield.
Salt Lake returns to action this Saturday when it hosts Columbus at Rice-Eccles Stadium at 7:30 p.m.
ENDLINES: Colorado native Seth Trembly, who spent five seasons with the Rapids prior to joining RSL this year, entered the game in the 69th minute for Brian Kamler . . . Chris Brown and Leslie Fitzpatrick replaced Adolfo Gregorio andMathis midway through the second half . . . The attendance was 6,736 . . . Colorado outshot Salt Lake 13-9.