CARSON -- Chivas USA returns after three weeks away from Major League Soccer's wars confident that their run of form before the break is the start of something real, not just a nifty little streak.
The Goats posted successive results against San Jose, the Galaxy, New York and Seattle -- as good as it gets in this league -- and then added to them with a pair of gritty victories in the U.S. Open Cup, a six-match unbeaten stretch they take into Saturday night's match against another league superpower.
Real Salt Lake (9-3-2), which sits atop MLS's Western Conference and Supporters' Shield standings, always is an intriguing matchup for Chivas (4-6-3), more so this time, perhaps, because of what occurred March 24 in Utah.
Chivas withstood an RSL onslaught the first half hour, gave a fine second-half performance, then pulled off the upset thanks to a heads-up half volley from rookie Casey Townsend, one of just two real chances the Goats created.
This time Chivas is better equipped: Juan Pablo Angel is healthy and sharp, the additions of Juan Agudelo, Jose Erik Correa and Danny Califf have made for a more talented, better-rounded squad, and the results of the last month and three days have bolstered the belief.
“Something we can use as a confidence-builder and as a steppingstone,” said Califf, who arrived in a trade from Philadelphia right before the May 19 SuperClasico victory over the Galaxy. “Those results, it wasn't like we didn't deserve those results. Having that run of form is a big help when you come into games that you know are going to be tough, but you have the recent results where you can say, 'Look, guys, here are games we've played against the best teams and done well, and there's no reason we can't do that again.' ”
Said goalkeeper Dan Kennedy: “After the last month, we've proven we can play with the best. ... With the Open Cup games, we've gained a little more momentum, a little more belief in the group.”
The Goats are clearly capable of more than they were in March and April, but it's all a work in progress. They've continued to struggle creating chances and scoring goals, but netting at least one in their last seven games (just one in six of them) is a step forward after being shut out five times in the first eight matches.
“We're more consistent in some of the things we're trying to do,” captain Alejandro Moreno said. “We're more in tune with things we want to do as a group, and really the attitude and mindset of the group has been positive. ... We're a lot more competitive and a lot more in tune with what it takes to win games in this league with some consistency. We've done that over the course of the last month, and there's a lot of challenges ahead of us, there's a lot of games ahead of us, there's a lot of points to be won ahead of us, and hopefully we can seize these opportunities as they come to us.”
The victory in March over RSL, how they grinded to three points, played a role in that. Fraser, of course, was Jason Kreis' top assistant for three years, and the Utahns' rise from expansion minnow (worse than even Chivas when both teams arrived in 2005) to champion (in 2009) -- how they've gone about it as much as what they've achieved -- is the model for Fraser's Chivas rebuild.
“To be competitive, you have to bring that fighting spirit,” Fraser said. “As a relatively new group, we're continuing to learn each other and each other's tendencies and grow together as a group, and for sure that's how it started [for Real Salt Lake], with a grind. That's how it started there, and that's how it's starting here.”
WORTH NOTING: Midfielder Nick LaBrocca remains out with a hamstring strain, but Fraser said he could be back by the end of this five-game span. ... Chivas also lists forward Tristan Bowen as doubtful with an ankle injury, but the Goats can't activate him until the transfer window opens June 27. ... Chivas leads the all-time series, 10-8-5, with a 10-7-4 mark in regular-season games and 7-3-2 record at HDC. The next meeting is Sept. 29 at HDC. ... Chivas has only 10 players remaining from last year's team: Moreno, Angel, Kennedy, LaBrocca, Bowen, defender Ante Jazic, and midfielders Laurent Courtois, Blair Gavin, Jorge Villafaña and Ben Zemanski. All but Courtois, LaBrocca and Angel were on the roster before Fraser was hired in January 2011.
REAL SALT LAKE
Head coach: Jason Kreis
Key players: M Javier Morales, M Kyle Beckerman, D Jamison Olave, D Nat Borchers, G Nick Rimando, F Fabian Espindola, F Alvaro Saborio, M Will Johnson.
Local guys: Rimando (Montclair/UCLA), D Tony Beltran (Claremont/UCLA), M Luis Gil (Garden Grove), G Kyle Reynish (Valencia/UC Santa Barbara).
Update: MLS-best RSL (29 points) brings a six-game MLS unbeaten streak out of the break, but it has played just twice in the past month, the last game a U.S. Open Cup meltdown against the NASL's Minnesota Stars on May 29. The Lions have tremendous talent all around the field, and Morales' return from a quadriceps injury -- he played a half in a Reserve League game Tuesday, his first action since May 9 -- would provide a full array of weaponry: Morales makes RSL go. Saborio's confidence is complete following a four-goals-in-two-World Cup-qualifiers stretch with Costa Rica.
Out: M Marvin Iraheta (right ACL tear), M Nick LaBrocca (left hamstring strain).
Questionable: M Ben Zemanski (right MCL sprain).
REAL SALT LAKE
Out: D Chris Schuler (left foot bone stress response), M Luis Gil (right knee strain), D Leone Cruz (left hamstring strain).
Probable: M Javier Morales (right quadriceps strain), M Jonny Steele (right ankle contusion), D Jamison Olave (right calf strain), F Fabian Espindola (left calf strain).
Home Depot Center (Carson), 7:30 p.m.
Referee: Yader Reyes
TV: Prime Ticket (English) and KWHY/Channel 22 (Spanish)
Radio: W Radio (XEWW/690, Spanish)