Sounders FC

Sounders visit Salt Lake in a clash for best in the West

Real Salt Lake considers Rio Tinto Stadium its fortress, and has the numbers to back it up.

Yet the challenge of visiting there could increase Saturday, when the Sounders meets RSL with first place in Major League Soccer’s Western Conference on the line.

For one thing, the game starts at 11:30 a.m. Pacific Time — The time that matters to the Sounders’ body clocks. That converts to 12:30 p.m. local time, which mean the teams will play in the sunshine and high heat of a Utah afternoon with temperatures expected to top out around 90 degrees.

“Both teams are going to have to play in the heat,” coach Sigi Schmid said. “… I think it’s always easier to go from hot to cold weather or to stay in hot weather. It’s more difficult for teams that are training in cooler weather. But we’ve had some warm days in Seattle, too.”

Schmid and some of his players indicated the relatively early start also will force some flexibility to normal game-day rituals.

“You just want to be sure that you get up at a decent time,” goalkeeper Stefan Frei said. “Usually when it’s (an evening) kickoff, you sleep in, you can take your time, you can do almost a brunch and whatnot. Now we have to be sure that we get our game meal in at like 9 o’clock or something like that. It changes things a bit. But we all know what we’re in for, and I think we’re ready for it.”

Even without the added challenges, Rio Tinto is a tough place to visit. There is a dependably enthusiastic crowd — the Saturday match is expected to be Salt Lake’s 10th straight shutout. And players and coaches admit some challenges from the 4,450-foot elevation.

Altogether, Real Salt Lake is 82-17-28 at home since the start of the 2008 season, outscoring their opponents 240-96. So far this season, RSL is 6-1-5 at home.

Those numbers also reflect the most basic of factors: RSL is a consistently good team. Their run of six consecutive playoff appearances is the longest ongoing streak in MLS — one ahead of Seattle.

Both of those streaks seem likely to extend this season, as Seattle and Salt Lake come into this match ranked first and second respectively in the West. The Sounders remain up top, two points ahead of Salt Lake. That means RSL would move past them with a win Saturday, although Seattle have two games in hand.

“Salt Lake is on a good run again,” Schmid said. “They had a good run at the beginning of the year, struggled a little bit, and now they’re on a good run again. They’re a good team. They’re an especially tough team at home.”

Both clubs are coming off shutout home wins in their most recent MLS games: RSL 3-0 over D.C. United and Seattle 2-0 over the Houston Dynamo.

Each also played midweek nonleague matches. RSL played to a 1-1 draw in a friendly with Mexican club Xolos de Tijuana on Tuesday, while the Sounders demolished Chicago, 6-0, in a U.S. Open Cup semifinal on Wednesday.

For all the X-factors in this match, that quick turnaround seemed to concern Schmid the most.

“It’s about 60 hours since our last game,” he said. “You’d like to have at least 72 hours at the very least, so it’s a little more difficult on us. It just means we’ve got to be smart, make good decisions with the ball. We’ve got to attack at the right moments, and hopefully the heat will have the same effect on both teams.”