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Real Salt Lake has a score to settle with Columbus Crew

SANDY — Real Salt Lake's players haven't forgotten what Columbus Crew goalkeeper William Hesmer said about them after the Crew beat RSL 1-0 back near the start of the season.

RSL coach Jason Kreis won't let them.

Going into his team's second regular-season meeting with Columbus — a huge showdown that will take place at 7 tonight inside Rio Tinto Stadium — Kreis has had Hesmer's quote tacked up on the wall so that his guys will remember exactly what Hesmer thought of the 2009 MLS Cup champs.

"They're walking around as a champion, saying they're the champion," Hesmer told The Columbus Dispatch after his team beat RSL earlier this year in what was a rematch of a first-round MLS Cup playoff series in 2009. "They were sub-.500 last year. That doesn't sit well with us. We clearly think we've been the class of the league the past two years, and we wanted to prove it."

Clearly, none of that has sat too well with RSL, which was certainly the better team in a home-and-away playoff series with Columbus last fall and has since gone on to compete with the Crew and the L.A. Galaxy for the Supporters' Shield, awarded to the team with the best regular-season record, this year.

Not that Kreis or RSL will be underestimating Columbus, the winner of the past two Supporters' Shields, tonight.

"It's been the class of the league for the past couple years, as they'll readily tell you, so we are looking at a great challenge," said Kreis.

It wouldn't be hyperbole to suggest that tonight's showdown is one of the biggest matches of the season for RSL, but then again, such matches are coming thick and fast for the club these days.

After tonight's matchup, Salt Lake will host Arabe Unido of Panama in its opening game of the CONCACAF Champions League this coming Wednesday, with more big matches to follow throughout the month of September.

But RSL has had this one circled for a while.

Kreis said his club has made preparations over the past week or so in hopes of being fresh tonight. Kreis rested several of his regulars — Nick Rimando, Jamison Olave, Robbie Russell and Ned Grabavoy were rested completely, and Will Johnson and Robbie Findley came off the bench — during RSL's 1-1 draw at Philadelphia on Wednesday to be preserved for Columbus.

"It does quite a bit," Kreis said when asked if this game has factored into RSL's thinking over the past few weeks. "We know where we're at in the standings related to them; we know that they're a very strong team, and we know it's a great challenge and we know it's a home game.

"Games like this are what everybody plays for. Everything's kind of on the line a little bit, compared to where we sit with each other, and we're just looking forward to it."

For the record, RSL sits on 36 points, four behind L.A. (40 points) and one behind Columbus (37 points.) Real has played one more game than those other two teams.

The fact that tonight's meeting will be a near-the-top-of-the-table clash is clearly the biggest storyline, but it's hardly the only interesting one.

Among the others is the fact that RSL is closing in on Columbus' league record for most matches unbeaten at home. Columbus set the record at 22 games over the 2008 and 2009 seasons, but Real Salt Lake has now gone 20 matches unbeaten at home and would pull within a game of the Crew's record with a win or draw tonight.

Not that the record is at or near the top of RSL's priority list.

"I guess streaks and records are nice, but at this point we're worried about trophies, and you don't win trophies for holding the record for most home games (without a loss,)" said defender Chris Wingert.

ENDLINES: RSL leading scorer Alvorio Saborio should be in uniform tonight. Saborio played 82 minutes for the Costa Rican National Team in the middle of the week and didn't return to Utah until Friday afternoon, so how much he'd be able to contribute — if at all — is a big question mark.