The Colorado Rapids find themselves in a fantastic position this weekend against Real Salt Lake. Win and the Rocky Mountain Cup comes home. Win and it’s three points picked off a team above them in the standings. They don’t need to win 5-0 in improbable fashion like they did in 2020 on that memorable evening in Utah. They just need to win.

2020 is the last (and only) time the club has won at Rio Tinto Stadium (against RSL) in the suburbs of Salt Lake City. It’s recent enough that the 2022 team is still littered with players who were there, remember that night and know how to win there.

My favorite games in the regular season are games that carry extra weight. This goes for any sport or league. College football is notorious for playing for some bizarre trophies (an axe, an old oaken bucket, a golden egg and a statue of a pig called the Floyd of Rosedale, just to name a few.) MLS is at least a little more traditional with the Pacific Northwest clubs playing for the Cascadia Cup and the Rocky Mountain Cup. How cool is it that yea, officially, the standings still matter, but the narrative of the Cup will eclipse everything else in its orbit.

These games get an extra charge, a little extra juice, because there’s literal silverware on the line. It’s more than just three points on the line. There’s bitterness, anxiety and pressure that pushes the nerves to feel deeper than normal. We could probably skip the Keys to the Game this week and just put “bring home the Cup.” Nothing more needs to be said.

The tactics don’t matter, the strategy goes out the window, the logical side of the brain takes a break for 90 minutes and adrenaline holds the reigns. In the booth this weekend, I’ll stand next to Brian Crookham, we’ll bump fists for good luck before we go on air and then spend the whole match leaned forward at unsustainable angles urging on the Burgundy Boys to glory. It won’t make a difference to the outcome, it’s just the way you engage with a rivalry match. It’s the way so many of you will take in the match, whether it’s at the bar, in your living room or driving up I-25. These games alter you, and that’s what makes them great. 

As for the match itself, RSL are currently playing some good ball. They’ve had some low moments, like when they got blitzed in the Bronx 6-0 against NYCFC. But they didn’t let it derail their season when they could have. Credit to them for staying the course.

They’re a team without superstars that’s gelled, and they fight for each other. They’ve got three players who have scored three goals and that’s their internal Golden Boot race. Their best player is Damir Kreilach, and he’s only played 298 minutes; just five games for their captain. And somehow, if the playoffs ended today, they’d be hosting a playoff game. They’ve had a great season that can’t be explained by saying, “Oh they had the most expensive players so of course they were good.”

So here’s how the Rapids can win back the Cup against their rivals.

Defensive Discipline

As I said above, RSL have three players with three goals leading the team. They’ve scored 22 goals in 18 games. LAFC and Austin FC are two teams above them in the Western Conference, and they’ve scored 35 goals each. That’s a 13-goal gap. So first order of business for Colorado is to shore up things defensively. The Rapids have conceded three goals in back-to-back games. Expect that sense of urgency to get back to their defensive identity to be on full display. They’ve been shutout in six games; six of 18 is one third. Getting shutout in 33% of your games isn’t a recipe for success in the longterm. Only one of the shutouts has been at home, but it was in their most recent home game. Keep that clean sheet and give yourself a chance on the attacking end.

As I said above, RSL have three players with three goals leading the team. They’ve scored 22 goals in 18 games. LAFC and Austin FC are two teams above them in the Western Conference, and they’ve scored 35 goals each. That’s a 13-goal gap. So first order of business for Colorado is to shore up things defensively. The Rapids have conceded three goals in back-to-back games. Expect that sense of urgency to get back to their defensive identity to be on full display. They’ve been shutout in six games; six of 18 is one third. Getting shutout in 33% of your games isn’t a recipe for success in the longterm. Only one of the shutouts has been at home, but it was in their most recent home game. Keep that clean sheet and give yourself a chance on the attacking end.

Counter Attacks

The Rapids spent the first half hour of the match against Austin FC showing us just how high the ceiling is for this team. They didn’t have a ton of the ball, didn’t concede any good chances and were absolutely lethal on back-to-back counter attacks to go up 2-0 against an Austin FC side that isn’t often punched in the mouth. Do that again. If RSL have the ball, all’s fine and well. Keep the defensive shape, get a timely turnover and run. The speed is there, the quality is there. The more stretched the game gets after turnovers, the better it is for the Rapids. It means RSL are over-committing forward looking for gaps, and then struggling to get back in transition.

Win the Game

Just win. From an emotional perspective, rivalry games can’t be beaten. They rev the engine. Win this, pass the Cup around on the charter flight home, revel in it. From a logical standpoint, this is three points that could jumpstart the Rapids’ second half of the season. The reality is they’re below the playoff line, but can’t make up their deficit in one match alone. They’ll need to do it in chunks, three points at a time. This is a rivalry match that could create some forward momentum ahead of Wednesday’s home game vs Orlando City SC. So get three points, whatever it takes.