SANDY — A recurring theme is emerging in post-game comments delivered by Jason Kreis.
Week after week, whether his team wins or loses, the Real Salt Lake coach talks about the frustrating inability of his team to string together 90 minutes of quality soccer. Usually the quality comes in spells of 30 or 45 minutes, and often in the second half.
Kreis has often stated that if RSL ever figures out how to put together a consistent 90-minute effort, it might emerge as a legitimate playoff contender.
The secret might lie in the first 15 minutes, often a weakness for RSL.
"I think it's an energy thing. I think it's something we've had issues with," said Nat Borchers. "Other teams have come here and outplayed us in the first half. I think its time for us to turn the tide and change things up."
The timing couldn't be better with league-leading Houston in town tonight for a 7 o'clock kickoff at Rio Tinto Stadium. Houston enjoys a 12-point cushion over RSL in the Western Conference standings, but that doesn't concern the home team too much this weekend. Salt Lake is only one point out of a playoff spot with 10 games remaining, and securing the maximum points against Houston would be a huge boost.
"We're just focused on every single game, week by week, and getting the maximum points we can every week," said Kreis.
A focused effort from the opening whistle is critical. In the 149 games played in MLS this season, teams scoring first own an 87-14-48 record. Every team in the league owns a winning record when scoring first, including RSL and its impressive 5-0-3 record.
As important as scoring first is, it's equally as crippling not to as evidenced by RSL's 2-8-1 mark in those games. A year ago, RSL finished the season with a 2-7-3 record when falling behind first, a .292 winning percentage that was actually the third best in MLS.
Despite the quality of the opponent, Real Salt Lake's game plan tonight will likely involve putting Houston under pressure early. Some believe it's an advantage the home team hasn't exploited enough.
Salt Lake's confidence won't be lacking either way following last week's 1-0 win over Seattle, and especially not after earning a 1-1 draw in Houston on June 20.
Even though RSL surrendered an 89th-minute goal in that match, it played the final half hour in the Texas heat with only 10 men and nearly pulled off the victory.
"It would have been huge, but at the same time I think we look at that as a pretty good effort. It was disappointing in the end we let up a goal that late, but to go to Houston in the heat in the middle of the summer and get a well-earned point when we were down a man for a decent while is a pretty good result," said Chris Wingert.
With a 4-2-2 record in its past eight matches, RSL is feeling pretty good about itself heading into the stretch run of the season. Houston is coming off a 4-3 win over Chicago, though, and obviously feeling pretty good about itself also.
"They're going to feel like they can come here and win, so we have to come out better, with better intensity," said Kyle Beckerman. "We just need to impose our will on them, and hopefully it's good enough to get a win."