COMMERCE CITY, Colo. — The Colorado Rapids (3-12-10, 19 pts) visit Real Salt Lake (10-9-7, 37 pts) at America First Stadium this Saturday, Sept. 2, for the second leg of the Rocky Mountain Cup (7:30 p.m. MT; Apple TV – MLS Season Pass, Altitude Sports Radio 92.5 FM).
First contested in 2005, the Rocky Mountain Cup is a supporter-driven trophy awarded to the winner of the regular season series between the two regional rivals, as determined by a bipartisan committee of supporters from both teams. This season’s winner will be crowned based on total points earned from the series. If the teams are tied in points following their three regular-season matchups in 2023, the tiebreaker will be total goals scored across the series. If the teams are still tied after that, the current holder of the Cup, Real Salt Lake, will retain it.
“It's a big thing for us. It's a big thing for the club. It's a big thing for our supporters,” Rapids head coach Robin Fraser said ahead of Saturday’s game. “We saw it a couple of years ago when we had lost the first game 4-1 and ended up winning 5-0 there and won the Rocky Mountain Cup. Probably prior to that game, I was just about, ‘We need to win games. We need to get to the playoffs. We need to execute. We need to get better.’ But when I saw the reaction to that, and the reaction to winning the Rocky Mountain Cup, it's been of the utmost importance ever since. So we were certainly extremely disappointed to drop the game at home this year and we feel like we have a big mountain to climb given the quality of their team, but it's a challenge that we not only know is there but we have to embrace.”
The Rapids enter Saturday’s match following a 3-0 defeat to Minnesota United FC on the road midweek. A strong start in possession and chances was undone 18 minutes into the match after the Rapids conceded a penalty that Emanuel Reynoso converted to put Minnesota ahead early. The Loons then added two more goals in the first half to put the game out of reach.
“Another disappointed feeling coming out of this game, mostly because in the first half, we actually had some good moments, but our mistakes really buried us early,” said Fraser following the loss on Wednesday. “[I]n the second half, we again showed quite a bit of resolve. We saw some really good work up front that was able to create some turnovers, which led to opportunities for us. And probably the biggest message to the team is the mentality… It needs to be there from the beginning. And in a season that's gone the way this one has gone, we certainly look at bright spots as potential for the next game. Certainly, what we saw tonight—the work out of [Rapids midfielder] Sidnei [Tavares], the work out of [Rapids forward] Rafa [Navarro]—good to get [Rapids midfielder] Cole [Bassett] back… so, as disappointing as it is, we feel like there are positives that we can take from it.”
Real Salt Lake head into the Rocky Mountain clash with one of the most proficient offenses in the league this season, ranking top two in MLS in total shots (second), shots on target (first) and assists (tied for second), while ranking tenth for most goals scored in the league with 36. However, the club has lost its last four games across all competitions. After qualifying for the knockout stages of the 2023 Leagues Cup and advancing to the quarterfinals, RSL was eliminated from the tournament by LAFC in a 4-0 defeat. Salt Lake then saw their 2023 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup run end two weeks later by Houston Dynamo FC in a 3-1 semifinal loss before suffering a 3-0 defeat to the Texan side in their resumption of league play last weekend. The streak continued on Wednesday against the Portland Timbers, losing 2-1 in their trip to the Pacific Northwest. Salt Lake forward Jefferson Savarino leads the team with six goals and is tied second on the team with five assists this season, while forward Danny Musovski has also tacked on five goals and four assists in league play.
Saturday’s match will be the second of a three matches in the regional series this season. The two sides first met this year on May 20 in Colorado, resulting in a 3-2 win for RSL. The Rapids fell into an early deficit in the first half with Salt Lake scoring twice within the first 20 minutes. However, Rapids defender Danny Wilson scored a header to bring the deficit to one before RSL scored a third goal right before halftime. Midway through the second half, Rapids defender Lalas Abubakar scored a second goal for the team, but the team was unable to complete the comeback. Abubakar’s goal marked his third consecutive goal against RSL after scoring tboth of the equalizing goals in the 2022 matchups. Colorado’s loss in the first leg of the series this season means a defeat on Saturday would give RSL the 2023 Rocky Mountain Cup, but a draw or win will keep the Rapids in the running for the trophy.
“It's obviously one of the biggest rivalries in the league,” Rapids defender Andrew Gutman said. “There's a trophy at stake, so that's something right there. To play for a trophy, to be able to win something this year, given [the way] the season's gone, is massive. For me personally, you know, I've played in different rivalries. I've played in the New York rivalry. I think that's one of the biggest ones in the league. So you have to go into that [knowing] that it's going to be a dogfight, that you're going to have to give everything you can. And you know so for me, personally, I'm going to try to motivate myself and motivate the team that regardless of what's going on in the season, this is going to be one of the biggest games of the year and we need to go in there knowing it's going to be a dogfight and be up for the fight.”
The Rapids and RSL have faced each other 54 times in the regular season with the Utah side having an advantage in the series (26-25-12, W-L-D). Colorado has struggled on the road against their Rocky Mountain rival, winning just four of 27 matches played in Salt Lake (4-16-7). Their last road win in Utah occurred in 2020 when the Rapids won 5-0 in Rio Tinto Stadium, the largest margin of victory in the series for Colorado.
Several familiar faces across the rivalry will heighten the intensity of Saturday’s clash. Salt Lake head coach and Rapids club icon Pablo Mastroeni will be facing Colorado for the third time as a head coach. The former U.S. Men’s National Team stalwart spent 12 seasons as a player with Colorado (2002-2013) and holds the club record for all-time appearances (225) and games started (217). Mastroeni captained the Rapids to its first MLS Cup in 2010. Four years later, he was appointed Rapids head coach and helped the club reach the 2016 Western Conference Final while posting a then-club record 58 points in the regular season. Meanwhile, Rapids head coach Robin Fraser is no stranger to RSL, either, having made his coaching debut as an assistant coach for Real Salt Lake in 2007 and later winning the 2009 MLS Cup with the side.