Six players on the NYCFC roster have worn the Claret and Cobalt of Real Salt Lake in the past, and two of their assistant coaches are former RSL staff members and of course their head coach is Jason Kreis, who’s history with RSL is written on the wall of Rio Tinto Stadium as the only MLS player to have his number retired by a team. NYCFC is an expansion side that Real Salt Lake should beat with ease, but this hasn’t been a normal season for RSL so far, in fact very few things about the team make any sense this year.
A 3-3-5 record would be more than good enough to make the playoffs in the Eastern Conference, but in the West that record isn’t good enough. In fact even if RSL wins on Saturday vs NYCFC it wouldn’t move them into a playoff position unless they can win by at least 3 goals, something that is very unlikely given have only scored 3 goals once (that crazy match against Philly) and each of our 3 wins so far have been by a single goal. However given our 4-1 loss last weekend at Montreal, the only team in the East below NYCFC in the standings, a win of any sort isn’t a sure thing.
There will likely be a welcome surprise to the RSL 18 man roster for this match, the return of Joao Plata a player who last year was perhaps as much of the heart and soul of this team as anyone else on the roster. However with Javier Morales still likely to be out as he recovers from his concussion and Jordan Allen off with the US U-20 team, our midfield will be a bit light if RSL sticks with their modified 4-1-3-2 formation. I do think the combo of Sabo and Sandoval up top poses real problems for the NYCFC defense, their size and strength will force Jason Hernandez and Chris Wingert to likely have to stay back more on defense and close to keeper Josh Saunders in order to deal with them. The RSL defense which looked oh so shaky last weekend will have their own hands full as NYCFC try to figure out what their offense is all about, you would think with names like David Villa, Patrick Mullins and Mix Diskerud that they would have things figured out, but when your leading scorer is Mehdi Ballouchy, well things probably aren’t going as planned.
I have heard from several sources that the players are as upset and in many case more upset than the fans at the way the season has started for Real Salt Lake, and who can blame them it hasn’t been pretty.
9 points from 8 matches isn’t how RSL usually starts a season, but for me the points are less important than the eyeball test, in which RSL simply hasn’t looked very good for a full match, heck for a half, or if we are being brutally honest for a 15 minute stretch. Yes there have been passing combos that have inspired, saves that have made the highlight reel, but overall this has been simply ugly. It has been a very, very long time since I remember seeing RSL rated just #15 in the USA Today Sagarin ratings.
In recent RSL history, this is our worst start at 2-2-4, last season we were 3-0-3 after 8, 3-3-2 in 2013 and 5-3-0 in 2012. For me the question on my mind is what happens in the next 2 matches? I believed and still do that the key to making the playoffs and hitting that gold standard of 15 wins/50 points is to win you home matches and to get results against teams from the East. 4 points from these next two matches would put us at 14 points the same as 2013, but lagging behind our 20 points of last season or 19 points after 10 matches in 2012. A pair of wins would put us at 16 points from 10 matches and that wouldn’t be a bad place to be.
So it has been a crazy week and perhaps no week is bigger in sports than this weekend with the big fight in Vegas, the Kentucky Derby, the NFL draft and of course RSL hosting the San Jose Earthquakes on Friday night. So heading into the season I don’t believe that most people expected much of San Jose as Dominic Kinnear returned to take over the team and rebuild it into the title chasing franchise it used to be, RSL on the other hand had the same expectations as they have for the last several years, be competitive at the top of the West and battle with LA and Seattle for playoff positioning. However as we enter the 8th match of the season neither side has been impressive and for RSL the lack of scoring after moving to the more offensive minded 4-3-3 has been a bit surprising.
If you follow MLS closely you saw a few things coming, first you saw that the Vancouver Whitecaps were on the verge of becoming a powerhouse team. They were very young, very talented, very energetic, and playing as if they had nothing to lose, in fact the more I watch them play the more I am reminded of the evolution of RSL in the last part of 09 and the 2010 season. It as then run to MLS Cup when things just clicked for RSL, and it was exciting to watch, and it launched RSL into being one of the best teams in MLS over the last 7 seasons.
The flip side of that is RSL trying to reinvent itself, gone is Jason Kreis, gone is Garth Lagerwey, gone is the diamond midfield, the result has left some fans (including myself from time to time) scratching their heads about the new formation. Still there is the very solid defense, Rimando in net is still the top keeper in the league, the backline is faster, more athletic, and so far this season they have been just as stingy as they were last year. With 4 goals allowed in our first 5 matches this season, we are at the exact same place as last year, 3 clean sheets in the first 5 last year and yes 3 in the first 5 this year. Last year a flukish 3-3 draw with San Jose accounted for a majority of our goals allowed, this year a flukish 3-3 draw with Philadelphia has accounted for a majority of the goals allowed.
On the offensive side of the ball things have been a bit different for RSL, those first 5 matches last year saw RSL score 8 goals, we are down 2 with just 6 this season. Interestingly enough 5 matches in last year Joao Plata had 2 goals, and of course he has been out injured to start the season, also a bit telling last year Alvaro Saborio had 3 goals in RSL’s first 5 matches and he has just 1 this season. Still the change in formation, the injury to Joao, both are reasonable explanations on why the offensive side of things might be lacking just a bit. Still it isn’t the results that have left people (including myself) scratching our heads it has been the departure from what was considered by many the most attractive style of soccer in MLS, our dominating possession, overwhelming passing numbers and precision to what is to the eye a much more frantic style of the 4-3-3.
For Real Salt Lake Saturday night will provide one of measuring stick moments of the season, when they head to Sporting Park and take on SKC. Most folks acknowledged that moving SKC and Houston to the West made a very tough conference even tougher, for RSL that is especially true given their history with both sides. Tough hard fought matches are the norm when these two meet, last year saw a 0-0 draw but more often than not the guys from KC have gotten the better of RSL, a over all 8-5-4 advantage for SKC, with a very good 5-1-3 when the match is played on their pitch.
Both sides have been kinda neurotic in how they have played so far this season, RSL adjusting to the 4-3-3 and national team callups, SKC dealing with some big roster changes (gone are Collin, Saad, Bieler, Sapong and both Kronberg and Gruenebaum) then toss in a hamstring injury to Zusi and you see a very different looking side than you have been used to. To the credit of both sides they have adjusted fairly well, with 2 wins and 2 draws, SKC did lose one match while RSL still have to taste defeat this season.
The teams have two opponents in common early on in the 2015 season, both sides had 0-0 draws against Portland, and both sides faced Philly, while RSL were lucky to get a 3-3 draw in a very strange match. KC came from behind with two stoppage time goals to get a 3-2 win in a match were they were really outplayed for the vast majority of the match. Those results lead me to believe that both sides are really looking for their new identity in 2015, be it personal or formation changes.
Perhaps no two established teams in MLS have more questions being asked of them this season than RSL and TFC, can RSL in the 2nd year of Jeff Cassars leadership continue to be a dominant force in the West? Can RSL make the transition to the 4-3-3 work? For TFC can they make the playoffs? Will another year with huge signings and what is likely to be the highest payroll in MLS result in success or will the oft chaos in the organizations leadership lead them to the rocky shore yet again?
It is hard to believe that both of these teams are heading into just their 3rd match of the season but have so very much at stake, it is ridiculous that this match is being played this weekend at all. See both teams had a bye week last week when both teams had full rosters, but no we get a match missing several key players on both side. For RSL there will be no Nick Rimando, no Alvaro Saborio, no Luis Gil, and no Elias Vasquez, and for TFC there will be no Jozy Altidore, no Michael Bradley, no Marky Delgado, no Quillan Roberts, and no Chris Mannella, all on national team call ups. Then add in the injuries to Joao Plata, and Pecka on the RSL side, and Steven Caldwell, Mark Bloom, Eriq Zavaleta, on the TFC side which will also deal with the suspension of Justin Morrow. The reality is this match will be played with 11 combined likely starters missing between the two squads, and that is never a good thing and probably has the folks at Fox scratching their heads as this is their prestige national TV match for the weekend.
Still the match is going to be played, and the match is a hugely important one for both sides, as RSL are looking for their first win of the season after a pair of draws in their first two matches of the season. Toronto will be looking to figure out which team they really are, the one that dominated in their opening match a 3-1 win over a improved Vancouver side or the one that got handled 2-0 at Columbus?
After a 0-0 draw at Portland last weekend, RSL will look to secure 3 important points at home Saturday night against the Philadelphia Union. Yes, I called these important points, the reality is the Eastern Conference is the weaker conference in MLS so every time RSL faces a Eastern Conference team at home 3 points are important and against a Union team that is really still looking for an identity and were very unimpressive at home in week 1, the points are very important.
The Union picked up a couple of DP’s last year to boost their roster, former USMNT player Maurice Edu to be their defensive leader and Cristian Maidana to be their offensive leader, they added a 3rd DP in forward Fernando Aristeguieta who is on loan to them, but if you watched their match last week against the Rapids, you saw a team that still has more questions than answers on the pitch. It is to be expected as Jim Curtin continues building the team he wants, I believe they have a lot of interesting pieces on their roster but as a team they seem to still be more interested in no losing than in winning matches. They will be looking for their first ever win over RSL they are 0-2-5 in matches against RSL, and are 0-2-1 at Rio Tinto Stadium.
For Real Salt Lake, the transition to the 4-3-3 continues and as we saw often in the Desert Diamond Cup and last weekend in Portland, that formation can mean a lot of frantic action on both sides of the ball. Or does it just look that way? RSL had the edge in possession, overall they had a passing completion rate of 76% (a bit low for traditional RSL) but they 364 to 297 edge in passes over Portland. Where the formation may have fallen short of expectations was on the offensive side, where RSL managed 9 shots (Portland had 18) but only had 2 on goal. If RSL is going to be a more offensive team with this new formation, those numbers will have to go up.
It came down to the wire, but a new CBA has been agreed to, so the MLS season can get under way. What exactly does that mean for RSL heading into the 2015 season?
With some big off-season changes both in the front office as well as on the pitch, this clearly is now Dell Loy’s team with his choice for coach Jeff Cassar entering his second season and Craig Waibel as the Technical Director in place. So what are your expectations for RSL heading into the 2015 season? Remember this year we will see MLS action, CCL action, USOC action, as well as the addition of USL Pro side Real Monarchs, construction of a new stadium for them, the possible addition of a NWSL team, that is a whole lot of soccer (and yes we love it).
So let’s start with the bread and butter of RSL, the regular season, over the last 5 years 3 clubs in MLS have been the definition of regular season success, the LA Galaxy, the Seattle Sounders and Real Salt Lake. For the last 5 years both LA and RSL have won at least 15 matches and ended with at least 50 points, Seattle has done it the last 4 seasons. RSL has made the playoffs every season since 2008, the longest active streak in MLS.
So most of us in our lives have had several jobs, for me I have many in several different fields in several different states and for varying lengths of time. As I think about what MLS players face it really does seem as if the current system (unique from almost every other sports league in the world) is horribly wrong. Even in this day of NDA’s and No Compete clauses, the following simply would not be acceptable to any worker, so there is no reason why MLS players should have to deal with scenarios like this:
Imagine that you were working at company A but you really wanted to go to work for company B, but you could only do that if company A said you could and company B was willing to give company A something in return, and then that could only happen if company C agreed to let it happen. Or if you were working at company A and they decided they didn’t want you as an employee anymore so they let you go, you found another company that wanted to hire you but if they were in the same industry in the same country that company A had to agree to let you work there, would again want some type of compensation and again company C would have to approve it. Now you could leave the country and go work for company D, but if you ever came back to the US and wanted to work for company B, you would still need the permission of company A, who would probably want some type of compensation and you would need to involve company C. Of course all of this is subjective to if company C wants those rules to apply or not, you could find that company C wants you to work for company E and while you don’t want to work for them, your ability to choose is limited to what company C decides.
MLS was formed using a single entity, in part so owners could partner together to minimized potential losses and in larger part to allow for controlled costs. As players were signed, they were signed by MLS who then determined or approved where that player would play and to be honest that probably was needed in 1996 and was probably still needed 10 years later, but since 2005 the league has grown, expansion teams, new DP level contracts and now heading into the 20th season the league is in a very different position. The players know this, they have had enough of Don Garber claiming the league and teams are $100 million in debt while the league had no problem shelling out over $30 million in transfer fees and salaries for just 2 players last year, or in a season when two new teams that paid more than $150 million combined to join the league, or in a year that will see the start of their new much more financially rewarding TV deal. So when Don and others step up on their soapboxes against Free Agency saying it would drive up salaries, everyone rolls their eyes. See Don and the owners have had no problem spending huge amounts of money for their big name DP’s so the average salary has climbed in response to that, but the reality is rather simple.
So for the last decade I have watched with keen interest as several attempts to bring a Major League Soccer team to Las Vegas have come and gone, rarely have they gotten as far or been as serious as the latest efforts. Still I feel that when the city council votes on Wednesday they will kill the dream, it has been interesting watching this latest round of circumstances in Vegas as for the first time they actually had a chance to make it work.
I guess I should start with this, I would love to see MLS have a team in Las Vegas, I may not live in Las Vegas but I love that city for so many reasons. There are few places on earth where people can go and be able to do so many things no matter the date on the calendar or time on the clock. In the last 30 years I have moved to Las Vegas twice, and each time I end up with a job that after a couple years moves me away from the city. I make several trips a year down to Vegas since settling in Salt Lake City, sometimes for conventions, sometimes for work, but most often just to get away and relax. Few cities can offer the world class rooms, food, entertainment, and shopping that Vegas can, adding MLS to that mix would make it even more attractive to me.
So I have had a lot of people ask me over the years why I am so passionate about a MLS team going to Las Vegas, and while some of it is clearly selfish (an easy away match for a RSL fan like me to attend) the bigger part of it is that over the years I have seen what a MLS team has done to Salt Lake City and I believe it would do even more in Las Vegas.