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RSL tries to find defensive solution

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In just four games, a disturbing trend has surfaced for Real Salt Lake.

When central defenders Eddie Pope and Daniel Torres are on the field together, RSL has only allowed one goal. When one of the two starters is on the bench, the defense breaks down far too easily — as evidenced by the six other goals.

"It's one of those things mentally we need to get past," said Real coach John Ellinger. "It's a tribute to the level of those two, but it's going to happen at times."

It might happen again this Monday as Torres continues to nurse the hamstring strain that kept him out of last Saturday's game with Chivas. He's listed as questionable for the home match with Colorado.

If he's unable to go, Ellinger is prepared to give 18-year-old Nik Besagno the start centrally instead of shifting Jack Stewart to the middle from his right fullback spot.

Even though Stewart played well centrally for RSL after being acquired in a midseason trade last year, he hasn't looked sharp yet this year in any of the games he's replaced either Pope or Torres in the heart of Real's defense.

"Jack seems to be more comfortable outside this year than he is inside," said Ellinger.

In the season opener against FC Dallas, Pope left the game in the 61st minute with a hip injury and then late in second-half stoppage time RSL surrendered the game-tying goal. It's questionable whether Pope's presence would have made a difference, but nonetheless it happened with Pope sitting on the bench.

In the second game against Columbus, Pope and Torres played the full 90 minutes together as RSL shut out the Crew.

The Pope-Torres duo started together in last Wednesday's U.S. Open Cup qualifier against Kansas City, but Pope was subbed out in the 62nd minute to rest his legs for that upcoming weekend's game with Chivas USA. Twenty-six minutes later, Kansas City tied it up and RSL was forced to win the game in overtime.

Even though that late Kansas City goal didn't cost Real Salt Lake the game, that inability to hold a lead had more subtle consequences. Torres played those extra 30 minutes in significant pain, and it probably contributed to his late scratch from the lineup in Saturday's game with Chivas USA.

It's impossible to know if Torres' presence would have made a difference in that Chivas debacle in which RSL lost 4-0, but it definitely couldn't have hurt.

"There's always the shock value and that little bit of doubt when you lose a starter who's been playing well," said Ellinger during last Saturday's postgame press conference.

Considering Pope's age (33) and Torres' tendency to get injured, it stands to reason that a similar situation will present itself at least once more this season.

That's why RSL is mixing up its training sessions even more.

During a typical practice week, the coaching staff usually shuffles players around in scrimmages early in the week, but later in the week tries simulating game situations more realistically by having its projected starters play on the same side.

Even though that's still the ideal situation to sharpen things up leading up to a game, given the recent developments Pope admits the team has to "mix it up in training more."

"That's a great remedy to that problem," Pope added.

This should help better prepare players like Chris Lancos, Besagno, Dustin Kirby, Jean-Martial Kipre and even emergency defender Steven Curfman for when their number is called at the last minute on game day.

E-mail: jedward@desnews.com