Well it is match day and that means it is time to take a look at what I think will be the players and match ups that will be the key factors in the match. It has been interesting this week to hear what the players, fans, and coaches have had to say about RSL vs Seattle and if this is a rivalry in the making or something different.
I think it comes down to what you consider a rivalry, for me it probably more about the intensity of the matches both being played and in the stands. I don’t believe I have to hate a team or their fans for them to be a rival, but some do. I think the intensity of matches as well as the importance of the matches between RSL and Seattle have created a rivalry but one that if probably focused more on respect than hate. I consider that both are teams that joined MLS well into the history of the league, each side has taken a very different path to success both on and off the pitch, one is building their history day by day and one has laid claim to a history built in other leagues. More on the rivalry aspect later;
Javier Morales – While I don’t expect Javi to start the match, you never know, but I do think that with several road matches in front of RSL in coming weeks that they will try to get Javi into the match at some point to get him further on his road to full match fitness. This could be a very good thing for RSL, or a very bad thing. Javi has never scored a goal or provided an assist against Seattle in the 6 regular season matches he has played against them, and has often been victimized by a “hack-a-Javi” style of defense. Still it should be interesting to see how he does on Saturday.
So it was a beautiful day in Salt Lake City today, so I hopped on the train down to Rio Tinto Stadium to check out the RSL practice session before Saturday’s big match with the Seattle Sounders.
It was the fairly light practice as is the norm the day before a match, a few drills and then some various small pitch action. There were a couple of noticeable things, first was that Alvaro Saborio who had just returned to Utah after his national team duty the last week wasn’t at practice, but as Jason Kreis would point out after practice, Sabo has played several times for RSL after missing practice sessions. It was good to see Javier Morales back fully involved in all aspects of training, Chris Wingert saw his first practice session with the ball since his foot surgery but is still a couple weeks away. Cole Grossman was out with a concussion and while Carlos Salcedo also is recovering from a concussion he was an active part of practice while wearing a protective headgear. David Viana was working out with trainers but wasn’t involved in many of the activities at practice. It was good to see a much fuller team working together to get ready for a match than at any time all season.
After practice RSL head coach Jason Kreis took a few moments to answer some questions from the media, here is video of that:
After the jump there are some pictures from the practice session.
It was just about two years that I had a chance to spend some time talking with RSL’s Kyle Beckerman, you can read that interview on my old blog rslsoapbox.com, on Friday I was able to ask Kyle a couple of questions after RSL practice. I am impressed with how consistent Kyle is in his maturity about the USMNT and RSL, and it is clear that you can tell that he is a player who is really enjoying his time both with his club and representing the US. I have a feeling that as good as Kyle has been over the years, that the best is yet to come. Here is the video of his interview:
I suggest making it out to as many RSL matches as you can to see Kyle in action, and don’t forget that you will also have two chances this summer to likely see Kyle with the USMNT as they play at Rio Tinto Stadium on June 18th in a World Cup Qualifying match against Honduras, and then on July 13th when the US will take on Cuba in Gold Cup action, which is part of a double header that will also feature Costa Rica (likely with Alvaro Saborio) that will take on Belize.
When a team has managed just a single draw in 20 years against a particular opponent at a particular stadium, getting another one is a big event. When a team normally fills their ranks with players from European leagues but instead stocks the team with players from MLS due to injuries and other issues, it can be a big event. When these things impact what many people consider one of the most heated international rivalries in sport, it is big. That is what happened on Tuesday night when the US Men’s Soccer Team took the pitch at Azteca Stadium in Mexico City to face the Mexican National Team and in the past two days there have been many published thoughts about what happened and what it might mean for both soccer in general and for Major League Soccer and US Soccer specifically. Who am I not to jump on this bandwagon and offer some thoughts?
The biggest thing that has jumped out to me after the match isn’t what most people have focused on, for me it has been the number 7,000,000. That is the number of people in the United States that watched the match on TV, the most ever for a World Cup Qualifying match. 4.6 million of those people watched the match on Uni Mas, while 2.4 watched the match on ESPN. That number on ESPN was 47% more than people who watched the NBA match that was showed at the same time on TNT (LA Clippers vs. Dallas Mavericks), that is a huge accomplishment for US Soccer. I think the appeal of the US vs. Mexico match, along with the excitement of last week’s US vs. Costa Rica match (the snow match in Denver) sure helped boost ratings. These numbers both on of these networks were record highs for this type of programming, a great accomplishment for the networks, the teams, and for the fans of both sides.
Sorry for bailing on all of you last week, it was a crazy work week combined with a bought of the stomach flu, which resulted in very little other than those two things getting dealt with. So a catch up post is in order, and lets get started with the RSL home opener on the 16th.
The afternoon the sun was shining, the pitch was green, the stands were full of fans, it was a perfect day for the 2013 Home Opener for Real Salt Lake. The match was a physical one, which saw Matt Pickens break his arm within the first 10 minutes of the match, and while there weren’t a lot of fouls (19) or cards (3, all yellows) it was one of the more physical matches I can remember seeing in some time. With just a few minutes left in the first half, a bad play by Chris Schuler was taken advantage of my Colorado’s Deshorn Brown to give the Rapids a 1-0 lead heading into half time.
If you looked at the stats of the match, you would see that things looked rather typical for a RSL home match, things like 69.2% of the possession, a 603 to 262 edge in passes, a passing accuracy edge of 88% to 68%, but in few areas RSL’s numbers were a bit puzzling, like the 40% of duals won, or the fact of just 4 of 19 shots being on goal.
Well it is the busiest time of year at work for me, and for the second straight year it matches up with the RSL home opener. Still how can you not be excited for the first home match of the season? Then add in it is a Rocky Mountain Cup match, and the only one that will be at Rio Tinto this year, so the stakes for the team and fans are huge. It is nice to see that RSL was smart enough to schedule an early start time to take advantage of the daylight hours early when the weather conditions can still be a big issue. I expect it will probably be a sell out or close to it, which should make for a great way to kick of what I think will be a huge home season for RSL this year. So all that being said, let’t talk about the match.
Lovel Palmer – One of the real high spots for me in the DC United match last weekend was the energy and effectiveness that Lovel had on both sides of the ball when he came on. With Abdoulie Mansally suspended for the match, we could see Palmer put into the starting lineup and even if not, I expect that with how he showed last weekend that we will see him at some point during the match. The RMC matches are a tough one to make your starting debut for RSL, but maybe it could be the start of something great for RSL & Lovel Palmer.
Kyle Beckerman – The only player who has never lost the Rocky Mountain Cup will be in his normal place at the back of the diamond for RSL on Saturday, Kyle won two RMC’s with the Rapids, and now six with RSL. It is a testament to Kyle’s physical and mental toughness, as well as his never say die attitude on the pitch that had him go from hated rival to one of the most beloved players in RSL history. It is only fitting that Kyle is the player featured on the home opener ticket. I expect another classic performance from Kyle.
So on Saturday night RSL lost a tight 1-0 match to DC United, and to be honest neither team looked nearly as good as I expected them to, a part of that might be the way the respective midfields match up, a part could be that we are still very early in the MLS season and teams are still adjusting to new lineup, teammates, and such. Still, remember back to what Garth Lagerwey has said for a few months now, RSL will look better in June than they do in March and they will look better in October than they do in June.
So there were some real upsides on Saturday night, perhaps none more than the late match energy of Lovell Palmer who was a ball of energy on both sides of the ball and could be pushing for a start on Saturday against Colorado if he is fit enough to go the full 90. I think Chris Schuler and Kwame Watson-Siriboe were rock solid in the match and worked well in tandem of who was going forward and who was covering space, the teamwork and communications between them seemed to be spot on.
On the downside, I think RSL lacked a bit of energy early on in the match, it seemed to lack the intensity of the San Jose match, but that is somewhat understandable on a short week, a long trip to the East coast and your second road match in 7 days. You also have to remember that we were taking on two teams that finished in the top 3 last year, the two finished with a combined home record last year of 22-2-10.
I thought I would try a new theme for this year’s match previews, so you will have to let me know what you think of it.
Alvaro Saborio – Nothing is better for RSL than to have a fit and on form Sabo, beyond the two goals last weekend there was the work rate, the hustle that lead to him getting 4 shots with 3 on goal, that is the accuracy that we expect from one of the best finishers in MLS.
Khari Stephenson – What a very welcomed surprise was the newcomer to RSL in week 1, he put in 80 plus minutes of quality in the midfield, took two shots with one on goal, but it was watching him being able to integrate so quickly to the way RSL plays along with his new teammates that was very impressive.
Nick Rimando – Nick is always rock solid, it is probably that fact he has been so good for so long that many people take him for granted. Still with a back line that was fairly inexperienced together, he was able to pick up his 100th clean sheet. Now with Tim Howard hurt, Nick could be called into more action as part of the USMNT.
Chris Schuler– Big matches call for players to step up big, going into this season perhaps the expectations aren’t any higher than they are on Chris Schuler. This is going to be a long season, with lots of challenges to come, but if Chris continues to improve and show what he is capable of it is going to be a good year.
So when you open the season on the road against the defending Supporter’s Shield champion, it isn’t an easy task. When you do so in an off-season that say you lose 3 All Star level players, plus all but one of your strikers, the task gets harder. Then if you factor in, losing 4 other starting players (Chris Wingert, Nat Borchers, Javier Morales, and Ned Grabavoy) for the match, yeah it almost becomes mission impossible. Yet that is exactly what happened to RSL on opening weekend, and the end result was a 2-0 victory over San Jose, and while there are plenty of areas for improvement, it was a very impressive win for a couple of factors.
First to me it showed something that sometimes has been missing over the last 18 months, it showed that old fight until the very finish mentality. Now don’t get me wrong, RSL scored a good number of late goals to get draws or win matches the last couple of seasons, I am talking about a mentality of believing you can win, of believing that you will get one more chance. Think back to 2009, the final match of the regular season and the unlikely goal from Yura Movsisyan that started the run to MLS Cup, or even of the comeback goal in MLS Cup by Robbie Findley, or the PK stops of Nick Rimando? There was something about that team that kept everyone, fans, staff, and players believing. Last year we heard the chant around the stadium, and I loved it, but on Sunday as I watched the work rate, the effort, and the heart of RSL on the pitch, I believed that we finally have gotten it back.
Now I am not going to claim to know nearly enough to make any of these more than educated guesses but, I do try to pay attention to the whole of the league and can probably name a half dozen players or more for every team in the league. Still trying to predict anything in MLS is a bit of an adventure if you ask me, but here I go.
Supporter’s Shield – Seattle Sounders
Now that pick bothers me a bit, not because I don’t think they have a very good team, not because they are a rival of RSL, but because with Champions League this spring, and their dedication to the US Open Cup it may be a bit of a stretch at times for them. Still they have a great roster, deep pockets and I think are most likely the team to beat in the regular season this year. Other contenders would be (in no order); LA Galaxy, Sporting Kansas City, and the Chicago Fire.
Eastern Conference Playoff Teams – New York Red Bulls, Sporting Kansas City, Chicago Fire, DC United, and Houston Dynamo
I still think the Eastern Conference is a bit weaker than the West, only because there are clearly some teams like New England, Toronto, and Philly who have a lot of issues and I expect Montreal will struggle more this year than they did last year.