It seems like just yesterday that the RSL season was kicking off and fans were unsure of what to expect after the team missed the playoffs for the first time since 2007, and with just 10 matches left in the season I expect many fans are still finding themselves wondering what to expect.
RSL sits currently in 3rd place in the Western Conference with a 10-7-7 record and 37 points or 1.54 points per match (a good improvement over the 1.21 ppm from last year). A 1.54 ppm would have put RSL in 4th place in the West last year, shield winners New York Red Bulls ended the season with a 1.76 and won a tie breaker with FC Dallas to claim the shield. Currently MLS is lead by the Colorado Rapids with a 1.86 points per match, RSL’s 1.54 is tied for 5th in MLS at this point.
This weekend RSL will travel to Seattle to take on the Sounders who’s fans are probably feeling like RSL’s fans did last year, when things looked real bleak by August. The Sounders are 7-12-3 with a 1.24 ppm and 8 points out of the last playoff spot in the West, but things in MLS can change quickly. Both teams are coming off wins (RSL 3-1 over CHI & SEA 3-1 over ORL) and both have two wins in their last 5 matches. Both teams needing wins to close the gap with teams they are chasing, for RSL it is LA, Colorado and FC Dallas the 3 teams in front of them in the West and their next 3 opponents (all at home). For Seattle it is Vancouver, San Jose and Portland the 3 teams between them and a playoff sport, 4 of their next 5 matches are against those teams. Both teams are 8 points behind that key team (FCD in 1st & PDX in the final playoff spot), so it would be easy to label it a must win for both, but Seattle is clearly the more desperate team.
A 0-0 draw at home against an opponent that you should beat is simply disappointing and that is exactly what RSL fans were treated to. When RSL dominates an opponent and fails to get a result, at least the match can be entertaining, at least fans can draw hope that eventually the goals will come, but when the team simply looks disjointed it leaves one with lots of questions. So 14 shots for RSL, to 12 for New England, 2 shots on target for RSL and 1 for New England, a 52% to 48% edge in possession for RSL but much of that seemed to be in our own end of the pitch.
Prior to the match there was another issue facing RSL, a member of the Salt Lake Tribune’s sports staff was denied access to the Rio Tinto press box and their RSL credentials were revoked. There are statements from both sides that support their stance on the issue and for me the reality of the situation is probably somewhere between the two statements. I have never been a huge fan of Gordon Monson, largely because he writes about the Utah Jazz and I care nothing about the NBA. He has over the past two years written two articles about RSL that I have found interesting, both question how decisions are being made after Dell Loy Hansen took full ownership of RSL. Both take issue with what Monson called the dismantling of those who helped build RSL from a disappointing expansion side to a dominant force within MLS.
Was his take a bit simplistic? Yes in some ways, but were there also some legitimate questions being asked? Yes, one would have to be blind to the rapid pace of change at the top of RSL once DLH took over. First losing Jason Kreis as head coach, due to a lowball offer and then losing GM Garth Lagewey who was looking to take on more responsibility (which seemed to make sense at the time) but then letting Bill Manning go as well, and wondering why not hold onto Garth given that move had to be in mind. These are all questions that many fans have asked me online and offline over the last 3 years.
Draws at home aren’t good enough, never have been and never will be in MLS this year the home teams are 98-32-59, in the West 4 teams haven’t lost at home, 2 more have lost just once. RSL’s has had draws in 3 of their last 4 home matches after winning their first 5 home matches, so while we can take pride in not having lost at home, we need to get back on that winning side of things and on Saturday facing the New England Revolution who are 1-5-3 on the road and who have never won at Rio Tinto, there should be no better time to get a home win.
It may not be fresh on the minds of RSL players or fans, but last year at New England we did one of those mixed lineups and got thrashed 4-0. Of course RSL has had a few of those big wins over New England as well, a 6-0 and 5-0 wins in their matches at Rio Tinto back in 2009 & 10. This is actually a series that RSL holds a distinct advantage in with 9 wins, 5 losses and 4 draws and only twice in those 18 matches have we had a 0-0 draw and none since 2007. In fact 11 times RSL has scored 2 or more goals against the Revs, and have 34 overall goals against them. Being shut out last year was the first time since 2007 that RSL hadn’t scored against New England. Toss in the fact that the Revs will be without Charlie Davies, Juan Agudelo and others and it’s starting to sound like this one should be a cakewalk right?
The Revs could be getting back Gershon Koffie, who has been out for over a month, they also recently added Kei Kamara who has 3 goals since joining New England from Columbus. Add in Lee Nguyen and Digeo Fagundez, and the results can change, the Revs won just 2 of their first 13 matches but have won 3 of their last 6 so this is clearly a team that is putting things together. So can RSL follow the example of LA and FC Dallas, both who beat the Revs 4-2? I expect a full strength lineup from RSL (some questions about Joao Plata and Demar Phillips who have minor injuries they are nursing). Still with LA winning last night, and both Sporting KC & Vancouver able to leap in front of RSL in the standing with wins this weekend, 3 points is critical for the Claret and Coblat.
So at the midpoint of the season before last weekends 1-1 draw with Montreal and then Wednesday’s 2-0 loss at Vancouver I started writing a blog post wondering if the glass was half full or half empty when it comes to RSL. I have my own opinions on this that I will share but I think we have to step back a bit first and ask what are we judging this based on?
Do we compare this year’s RSL vs RSL of years past? If so what year, 2009 when we had a mediocre year but were able to make a successful run at MLS Cup, remember we were 11-12-7 and our run in large part was boosted by being moved to the Eastern Conference for the playoffs? Or do we compare to 2013, a huge year where RSL was just 3 points shy of the Supporter Shield, made it to the final of the US Open Cup and lost in heartbreaking PK’s in MLS Cup? Perhaps the most accurate would be to compare it to last year, the first time since 2007 that we missed the playoffs, where often when faced with adversity it seemed the team simply gave up at times? Is it fair after our 19th match to judge the team at all?
A lot of valid questions, for me I will try to compare the team to both our combined past, as well as the rest of the league at this point of the season.
On Saturday night at Dallas many fans were shocked as the RSL lineup looked more like a Monarchs starting XI than RSL’s but with a busy schedule the changes provided some guys to rest, while younger players got a chance to make their case for more attention and minutes. That busier schedule includes the US Open Cup match on Tuesday against the Seattle Sounders, the winner will need just 3 more wins to claim a trophy and CCL spot.
The Sounders are tied with the Chicago Fire as 4 time winners of the US Open Cup with wins in 2009, 2010, 2011, and 2014, and lost to SKC in the finals of the 2012 version. So there is no doubt that Seattle takes this tournament seriously, they have struggled in their attempt to win other trophies, so this one holds a special place for them and their fans.
Real Salt Lake has made two serious runs at the US Open Cup, in 2013 they leveraged a favorable home schedule to make it to the finals before losing to DC United 1-0 in the final. Last year the team made it to the semifinals before losing to Sporting KC, who would eventually lift the trophy as tournament winners.
A break in the season is always a nice thing for both fans and players, but the schedule Real Salt lake faces in the next 6 weeks is brutal, with 9 MLS matches (6 at home), at least one US Open Cup match (vs Seattle) and a friendly with Inter Milan tossed in, that is 11 matches before the end of July.
With 13 matches played, RSL is sitting in a solid 3 place in the Western Conference with matches in hand against everyone except LA and Seattle. Their 23 points is actually gives them the second best points per match average in the league with 1.77 despite playing 9 of 13 on the road. The Timbers come in after the break needing to improve their form, after 15 matches they are on just 19 points with a 5-6-4 record and without a single win on the road. The defending MLS champs know it is about how you play at the end of the season, but with a very competitive Western conference you don’t want to dig too deep of a hole to climb out of.
These two teams faced off early in the MLS season at Portland in one of those matches where RSL started great and had a two goal lead but with being a man down after a 31st minute red card to Kyle Beckerman, the Timbers got back a goal in the 79th minute and then RSL went down to 9 men as Jamison Olave picked up a red card in the 83rd minute on a foul that gave Portland a PK as well and lead to them leveling the match. One could say RSL was lucky to get out of there with a draw but I considered it one of the matches were RSL left points on the pitch after a late meltdown. Now the two familiar foes will face off once again on Saturday night, in what should be an exciting match.
So in a match that on paper RSL should have had no struggles with they did as for the 3rd straight time hosting a lower division team in US Open Cup action, RSL gave up the first goal, and for the second time in those 3 matches they spotted their opponents a two goal lead. I get that we often see RSL go with a mixed lineup of players, with some bench or reserve guys getting minutes and that can lead to a disruption of the normal chemistry, but there is still little excuse in giving up the first goal in matches like this.
RSL’s starting lineup was: Jeff Attinella, Boyd Okwuonu, Jamison Olave, Aaron Maund, Chris Wingert, Luke Mulholland, John Stertzer, Burrito, Javier Morales, Jordan Allen and Devon Sandoval
There simply is no reason why this group was unable to be successful against a decent Wilmington side, but the failure to use our width and little success getting the ball into dangerous places simply was disappointing. Clearly the Hammerheads had studied up on RSL and they knew how to disrupt our passing lanes and were good at knowing when to apply pressure and where. Too often Burrito was forced back into the midfield to help out, Jordan Allen saw the ball too infrequently and when Devon would hold the ball up, few others got into positions to support the attack. All of this left RSL with limited chances in the first half, mainly set piece efforts and shots from distance.
It is often repeated but nothing can be more straight forward for RSL, the easiest and most direct path to CONCACAF is to win the US Open Cup. RSL will again start a bid to win the USOC on Tuesday night as they host the USL side Wilmington Hammerheads.
No matter what lineup RSL puts out for the match people will ask questions, should we rest starters with a big match with Portland on Saturday, or with 12 days off should all players be ready to go? I would like to see RSL go with as many starters as possible, with almost two weeks off making sure players are sharp and ready for a very busy couple months with 11 matches before the end of July. That busy schedule could be why Jeff Cassar goes with a mixed lineup to get some of the bench guys minutes as it is likely they will be needed to fill in during the busy schedule.
Wilmington brings in a team that has struggled in USL action with just 16 points in 12 matches, their top scorer is Bruno Peone, which is a bit odd given he is listed as a defender. They are a balanced team with 15 goals scored and 13 goals allowed for a plus 2 goal differential. RSL is sitting with a similar +2 goal differential with 23 goals scored and 21 allowed in their 13 MLS matches.
So every summer a good number of clubs from Europe make the trek to the US either to play in the highly suspect ICC tournament, sorry but it is preseason matches for most clubs from Europe and nothing more so calling it a tournament is “meh”. Real Salt Lake has avoided the temptations each summer to bring one of those clubs in for a friendly match, as they often have been focused on US Open Cup or the MLS season but this year that has changed as the team recently announced they would be hosting Inter Milan on July 19th (you can read details here), and it has me wondering why.
The team has only scheduled one friendly in the last 6 years, that against Xolos in 2014, you have to go back to 2009 to see RSL more active in playing host to these often attractive for fans but generally unimportant matches, so why now? Part of it could be our new ownership, with Dell Loy firmly in control and now Andy Carroll handing most operations with the departure last year of Bill Manning, it could just be that they have taken a fresh look at the opportunities that exist.
One can’t blame them, with many teams already scheduled to come stateside for the ICC matches the cost of signing a match like this is likely greatly reduced. Salt Lake also provides teams a chance to practice at altitude something many clubs value during their pre-seasons and with this match a week before Inter’s first ICC match it goes along with Andy stating that part of the goal of the new soccer complex being built in Herriman will be attracting touring European clubs.
“As the Herriman Complex evolves, we expect the Salt Lake Valley to serve as the home base for numerous world powers during their Summer tours of North America; Inter Milan’s visit to Sandy this July is the first step in that process.”
The upside for RSL is simple, first it gives them a chance to show off the plans for the new complex, but it also allows them to sell tickets to fans both of RSL and Inter Milan for a midweek match and get both revenue as well as some good press coverage out of the match.
I don’t often post press releases, but this one is an exception as it is the
REAL SALT LAKE & RIO TINTO STADIUM
first second (thanks Trey for the correction) “friendly” match since 2009 vs Chivas (the real Chivas) a match that I believe was a cornerstone moment for RSL:
TO HOST LEGENDARY ITALIAN CLUB INTER MILAN
ON TUESDAY, JULY 19 AT 8:00 P.M. MTPresented by the Utah Sports Commission, RSL v. Inter Milan
Highlights Summer Schedule in Sandy, Along with June 24 Liga MX Exhibition;
First-Ever European Side to Face RSL at Rio Tinto Stadium
SANDY, Utah (Wednesday, June 8, 2016) – Rio Tinto Stadium will host iconic and legendary Italian club Inter Milan on Tuesday, July 19, presented by the Utah Sports Commission, as Real Salt Lake faces a European side in the world-class Utah venue for the first time. Kickoff is at 8:00 p.m. MT, with RSL Season Ticket Members able to secure their seats until Friday, June 17, with the entire Stadium going on sale at that time to the general public via the stadium box office, RSL.com, RioTintoStadium.com or by calling 844.Real.Tix.
“The arrival of such a storied club as Inter Milan coming here to face Real Salt Lake is a testament to the vision our owner, Dell Loy Hansen, is developing for the sport in our community”, said Andy Carroll, Chief Business Officer for RSL. “As the Herriman Complex evolves, we expect the Salt Lake Valley to serve as the home base for numerous world powers during their Summer tours of North America; Inter Milan’s visit to Sandy this July is the first step in that process.”
Officially known as FC Internazionale Milano, and colloquially outside Italy as simply “Inter Milan” the Milan-based club is recognized worldwide for its iconic black and blue jersey, hence the nickname the Nerazzurri. Inter Milan has competed in Italy’s top flight league, Serie A, for over a century and has never been relegated in its 108 years of history.