On paper, Real Salt Lake's visit to Houston Thursday has disaster written all over it.
For starters, the conditions will be bloody brutal with the heat index nearing triple digits. RSL has never dealt well with Texas humidity as evidenced by its 0-7-1 all-time record in Houston.
On top of that, RSL is missing four starters because of World Cup qualifying and suspensions. It hasn't won on the road since mid-June. And it's facing a team that hasn't lost at home all year.
As far as Ned Grabavoy is concerned, bring it on.
"If anything it's good to go down there and kind of see what we're made of," said Grabavoy.
It was easy to question Real Salt Lake's mental resolve early this summer when it was dropping game after game after game. But lately the team has cleaned up its defensive act and is feeling pretty confident heading to Houston after three straight shutouts.
The 6:30 p.m. MDT kickoff at the sparkling new BBVA Compass Stadium is arguably the toughest road test of the season for RSL.
"We really have to be motivated to get a result. We really have to believe we can do that," said RSL defender Nat Borchers.
It's all about staying mentally strong for 90 minutes, never easy with the humidity sucking the life out of players as the game wears on.
"The most important thing, we know the legs are going to get tired at some point, but our minds can't. We have to mentally stay tough and strong down there 'cause we're going to have to deal with a lot of stuff," said Grabavoy.
All seven RSL losses in Houston have been by one goal, including last year's 3-2 heartbreaker in which RSL surrendered a goal three minutes into stoppage time.
It wasn't surprising to see RSL let in a late goal in Houston.
Real Salt Lake has allowed a staggering 21 goals in eight previous meetings in Houston, including four equalizers or winners after the 80th minute.
"(The heat) just causes some fatigue and lack of focus. We've been in a lot of good positions down there, played really well and then made some critical errors. We just need to get a little bit better with how we perform down there and I think we could be looking at a positive result," said RSL coach Jason Kreis.
Both teams are in intense playoff battles. RSL is looking to hold off Seattle and Los Angeles down the stretch for second place in the West, while Houston is smack dab in the middle of what looks like a five-team race for the East No. 3, 4 and 5 seeds.
Both will be significantly shorthanded for the critical match. RSL defender Chris Wingert is suspended, while teammates Will Johnson, Kyle Beckerman and Alvaro Saborio are away on international duty. For Houston, Boniek Garcia, Andre Hainault, Jermaine Taylor and Je-Vaughn Watson are also with their respective national teams.
Despite the absences, Grabavoy said attention to detail defensively like last week against D.C. United is key.
"Was it great against D.C. United? I don't think it was overall great, but we got a shutout and therefore we find three points. I'm sure there's a game this year where we've played great attacking soccer and leaked some easy goals and lost the game as well," said Grabavoy. "Defense is where it starts for this team and that's where we find our attack from that."
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