How the West will be won, step one beat the Timbers, for Real Salt Lake it is simple, win and then win some more. The Western Conference is tight and with all of our remaining MLS matches against teams in the Western Conference, well the easiest way to stay ahead of everyone is to “just win baby”. As I looked at records (home and away) of the top teams in MLS it looks as if everyone finishes off the season the same way they have played to this point, well RSL should be sitting pretty at the end of it all, but things rarely go the way you would expect. So if RSL can pick up all 12 points at home, it would go a long way towards securing that top spot.
First up is a foe that now is very familiar to RSL, the Portland Timbers, who like RSL haven’t exactly been cruising to victories the last month or so. Portland has just two victories in their 8 matches since July 7th, while RSL has 3 wins in their 9 matches since July 3rd, RSL however is building off a comeback 3-3 draw at Portland just 9 days ago and a huge 4-0 win at home over the Crew last weekend. The Timbers blew a late lead against RSL and then fought bravely but lost 1-0 at Seattle last weekend.
For RSL this year it has been the late goal that has been one of the keys, with 12 goals in the final 15 minutes of the first half of matches, and 19 in the final 15 minutes of the second half, 31 of our 48 goals scored come near the whistle. Against the Timbers we saw a late RSL goal earn the draw in Portland but the Timbers have only given up 6 goals in the final 30 minutes of matches all season (RSL has given up 14), their most vulnerable time is the start of the second half, where they have given up 11 goals in minutes 46-60. One thing is for sure I don’t think this one will end without at least a couple of goals being scored, as both sides a hungry for points.
Nick Rimando – I think at this point of the season we can all be fairly honest with each other, without Nick both in goal and as a team leader, we probably would be one of those teams fighting to get into a playoff position rather than leading the conference. It was great for everyone to get to see Nick with the USMNT as it allowed him to showcase what us RSL fans have known for years, he simply is the best keeper week in and week out in MLS. He is putting up another career year in MLS with a 0.95 GAA, 8 shutouts and 12 wins. When Nick finally decides to hang up his boots and gloves I believe that he will hold so many goal keeping records in MLS that maybe then people will appreciate him for the qualities he brings to the pitch, I know that fans in Salt Lake and DC already know that Nick is simply clutch.
Alvaro Saborio – There are few pure goal scorers in MLS, but when you have a conversation about them, you better include Sabo, who over the past few years has simply been a force up top for RSL. The 49 goals in regular season MLS action only tells part of the story, as Sabo has been a force in Champions League action as well and proven time and time again that if you get him the ball in the area he is likely going to either force a great save by the opposing keeper or he will put the ball in the back of the net. This year he has battled a couple of minor injuries and a very busy schedule representing the Costa Rican national team, to the point that in just 12 matches played in MLS action this year he already has 9 goals. Now to be fair 3 of them have come from the PK spot but that is all part of the game. If the past is any indication of what might happen on Wednesday, expect Sabo to score, with 4 matches played against the Timbers he has 5 goals. In the Open Cup match a couple of weeks ago he had a goal and an assist, but it was the goal that was perhaps one of the best headed goals I have seen in the last couple years, with Sabo coming back from another minor injury and getting ready to head out for national team duty we could see him play to send a message to his teammates and to the fans that despite the setbacks and call ups that he is ready to help out whenever he gets the chance.
Ned Grabavoy – Often overlooked outside of Salt Lake City, but clearly if you want to label a player as the most improved in league play, I would say that Ned is that guy. On offense he has 5 goals and 4 assists, both of those are career highs for him and while many players are looking back on their best days after 10 years of playing, Ned is looking forward. It has been interesting listening to Ned and head coach Jason Kreis talk about what the difference might be this year and I think the personal life changes they often mention are a huge part of it, turning 30 can be an eye opening experience as I am sure can becoming a father. I do believe that the roster changes also played a role, on Friday Ned will get his 24th start of the season, it will tie the most starts in a single year of his career so more playing time and without Will Johnson in the midfield more responsibility and more opportunity have come Ned’s way. Think about the progression the last couple years, in 2011 Ned had 0 goals and 0 assists for RSL in 25 matches played, last year he played in 26 matches and again had 0 goals but he had 3 assists, to the 5 and 4 of this year. Change is often a very tough thing for people and organizations, but in the case of Ned Grabavoy, change has been a very good thing with amazing results. For years RSL fans and even our TV announcer team have sung the praises of Ned’s hard work on both sides of the ball, this year Ned has made it impossible to ignore what he is doing on the pitch.
Caleb Porter – I get it, the guy is one smart coach, his success at Akron and now his transition to MLS are proof that the guy gets it and that he knows how to both motivate and apply tactics. I have a huge amount of respect for what he has done both in terms of tactics in Portland where they now have that never say die, never quit attitude that reminds many of the 2009 RSL team that won MLS Cup. He has instilled a culture where anything less than winning is unacceptable, he leverages the Timbers Army to create a home field advantage that is unlike anything seen anywhere else in MLS. Like that 2009 RSL squad he has brought in guys who are athletes as well as soccer players, he also has shown that speed isn’t a bad thing to have lots of as well. The shame for RSL is that despite Jason having a great season as a coach, you have to believe that the newcomer might walk away with the coach of the year award.
Ryan Johnson – It is kinda a shame that he still isn’t in Cobalt and Claret but timing often is everything in MLS and while the move to trade Ryan for Jack Stewart may go down as one of the worst trades in RSL history, it may have been the best thing for Johnson. It wasn’t with Chicago that he started to show what he was capable of, it took a move to San Jose where he started to really develop as a goal scoring threat and offensive threat. 2009 and 2010 were his most productive years with San Jose 12 goals and 10 assists, showed signs of what he could do, and so far this season with Portland he is showing more of the same with 8 goals and 4 assists. Those numbers come on just 37 shots of which 21 have been on goal, he is a strong, physical player who has a bit of pace that can make him a guy that you have to pay close attention to at all times.
Diego Valeri – Oh if MLS could find a couple dozen players like Valeri and put one on every team the league would be much more fun to watch, he has a flair that sometimes is lacking in MLS so it was refreshing to see Portland was able to sign him to a long term deal. 5 goals and 11 assists have to have him in running for newcomer of the year. He is one of those players who is willing to take shots from distance just to make sure the keeper is paying attention, in fact his 62 shots leads the Timbers this season and is more than any RSL player has taken this year. It is his work on the offensive side of the ball that has pushed Will Johnson (hope he recovers soon) into a more defensive role in the Timbers midfield but they are a very good group of players and the matchups with RSL have been very entertaining to watch.
Draws can only get you so far vs. Staying at the top isn’t easy – The Timbers have only lost 4 matches this season, but they have only won 9, which means they have 12 draws the most in MLS and the problem with that is one point is nice but will only get you so far. With 39 points the Timbers enter the weekend in 4th place in the West but the 3 teams below them all could catch of pass them before the next Timbers match, so without a win they could drop to 7th place in the West before they take the pitch again. For RSL they will have a two week break from MLS action, and while they currently sit with 45 points (the most in MLS) they too could find themselves knocked from the top spot before they take the pitch again if they don’t pick up a win on Saturday, but a win would ensure that RSL is still the top team in MLS when they get back to action on the 13th of September.
The Timbers have just 2 wins on the road this year, but they have managed 8 draws and we saw last week that they tend to play a much more defensive minded style on the road and we should expect the same from them on Friday night, despite that fact that they need wins if they want to stay alive in the playoff hunt. RSL at home is a great side, 8-2-3 this year and with this being one of the teams few national TV appearances we should expect a little extra energy from both players and fans and both will be needed to pick up the full 3 points in a match that could break down into a bit of a battle royal type of match as we saw at the end of the US Open Cup and at points in the Timbers last two matches.
My Prediction – While the Timbers will be without “Kah the enforcer” for the match, I expect that they will look to bunker in and try to counter attack when they opportunity presents itself. They saw twice this month that RSL is able to break down their defense if they try to play a more open style, so with injuries and suspensions I think they will try hold and go for a late goal. For RSL the key will be keeping possession and limiting the ability of the Timbers to attack up the wings, the combo of Rodney Wallace and Michael Harrington have shown the ability to cause havoc on the opposition and keeping the ball away from Valeri who is most dangerous player that the Timbers have. If they can do that, then RSL should be able to dominate the possession and convert that into chances, and lately chances have meant goals. 17 shorts against Columbus with 7 on goal and 4 in the back of the net, at Portland RSL had 10 shots with 6 on goals and 3 in the back of the net, and even in the loss at LA we had 13 shots with 3 on goal and two in the back of the net, in each of those matches RSL also controlled the possession as well.
I expect that we will see RSL go for broke from the sound of the first whistle until the last one, the team has already set a record for goals scored, and could close in on the 50 point mark with a win. With a two week break the guys have nothing to hold back for, not that I remember any of our guys holding back much even with the busiest of schedules. I am going with a 2-0 RSL win, as we secure out spot at the top of the table for a few more weeks as we close in on 50 points for the 4th straight season.
That’s How I See It