Rio Tinto Stadium has always provided a good home for RSL, while not every match sells out the team draws a good crowd no matter the conditions or opponent being played. Since the team moved to their home stadium, the club has never really suffered from a bad season, they have made the playoffs every year since the move. That is 6 straight seasons for those of you counting, the longest streak in Major League Soccer, and getting close to the league record. Four times in those 6 seasons RSL has made it to a conference final and on Sunday they will start their bid to play in and win their second MLS Cup title, which is a very good record for a team not even 10 years old yet. On Thursday night, something interesting happened at Rio Tinto, something that has happened a couple times before but not nearly as often as some of us would like. The crowd and team both seemed in sync with an energy level and passion that is rare in sports, that combined desire to help the other in whatever way possible. You could see it in the eyes of the players on the first couple attempts on goal that went unsuccessful, you could hear from the fans in the stands who were perhaps as loud as I have ever heard them (despite it not being a sellout crowd), it kept building all night. Sometimes it was positive and passionate, like the Seba goal and a few times not so positive, like the wrongly called off goal (even if you want to call Borchers offside, it was passive at best), but it was loud for the vast majority of the match and at points louder than I ever remember it being in the past.
The end result was a very entertaining 2-0 RSL win, or pair of wins. It is hard enough to beat the Galaxy in an elimination match but last night RSL had to do it twice as Toledo made a mystery call on what should have been a Javier Morales goal that would have ended the match in regulation. Instead RSL was forced to play 30 additional minutes and get another goal to end up with the deserved result, and while some may say it all comes out in the end, we saw Alvaro Saborio pick up an injury in that extra time, and had a majority of our players forced to play 30 minutes more with their next match just 3 days away. We may never know what really happened on that call, or what impact the extra 30 minutes will have on RSL as they host the Timbers on Saturday, I do know my heartbeat was faster in those extra 30 minutes than it probably should have been.
I spend a few minutes today looking back at the stats from Thursday night, and the one that shocked me a bit was the possession number, RSL usually dominates possession and usually LA focuses on their counter attacks, but last night LA had 51.9% of the possession to RSL’s 48.1%. It was also strange to see a team have more passes than RSL, but the Galaxy had 470 passes completed at 73% to RSL’s 437 at 69%. As I think about the match these numbers make sense as once RSL had scored the Galaxy opened up and played more aggressive soccer, and as the regulation time came to a close they raised their workrates again but each time RSL was up to the task. In extra time as RSL took the lead, the Galaxy got desperate and then in those final 10 minutes when RSL was a man down LA owned almost all of the possession. Still on the night RSL was sharper at almost every position, it was RSL who not only put the ball in the back of the net 3 times but also hit the frame a couple of times as well. Rarely have I seen a team shut down Robbie Keane two matches in a row, but RSL did. Nick Rimando reminded people why he should be winning the Keeper of the Year trophy, but that isn’t what will stick out in my mind from this match, nope 3 things will:
Sebastian Velasquez’s coming out party – Most RSL fans have seen glimpses of what he is capable of, but the young player has struggled to get minutes for several reasons but I don’t think any of that will matter after seeing what was an incredible performance on both sides of the ball last night. Beyond the goal, which was classic (and got me on ESPN’s SportCenter- in the background) was the defensive work that he put in. What had been seen as an area in his game that needed improvement, he showed last night that he has the skill and chops to go at the pace and level needed in the biggest matches. If he can keep working that hard and producing results like that, we will hear a whole lot more “rufio” chants around the stadium.
Alvaro Saborio’s workrate – RSL fans often don’t get Sabo, I think we have this issue with a lot of forwards actually, but in Sabo’s case they see him sometimes slow to get back onside after plays, or walking when others are running, those things make it look like he is lazy or doesn’t care. I know that isn’t the case but it looks damning at times, but if you watch Sabo closely you will often see him doing work that nobody notices (like on defensive set pieces). Last night however I saw a side of Sabo that I haven’t seen in years, I saw him playing “balls to the wall” for huge stretches of the match, I saw him working both on offense and defense like a man possessed and I loved it. I am hoping that the injury he picked up late in the match ends up being a minor one, because when he plays like last night he is damn fun to watch.
Chris Schuler being a beast – I remember when Chris joined the team and someone mentioned that he was like a Jr. Olave, they meant he was a player who could and would be a dominant physical presence on defense. While injuries have slowed his development, you have seen in the last two matches what he is capable of when healthy, simply changing the game for RSL. From adding a target player on set pieces to helping shut down perhaps the most talented duo (Donovan and Keane) in MLS, he gets my vote for man of the match on Thursday. I have heard Brian Dunseth say for a couple years that a healthy Schuler could be a guy that gets national team attention, I always believed him and have to think that while Jurgen is fairly far into the World Cup cycle right now, it may not be long before Chris gets a call.
Now we are left with the next hurdle, the Portland Timbers, and before you raise your eyebrows and think that this year’s 2-0-2 record against Portland in all competitions or the fact that Portland has just a single victory over RSL since joining MLS will make this easy, remember this Timbers team has lost just 6 matches all year (in all competitions). This is a Timbers team that believes in itself and has nothing to lose, of course they also have struggled against RSL, in part because the sides while different are also similar. Both like to play soccer but aren’t afraid to get physical if they need to be, both have guys who are high energy/ high speed players who can bust open a match at any moment, both have keepers who are the elite of MLS, and when both sides are healthy they have two of the more talented midfields in MLS. I will try to do a full match preview on Sunday morning so keep your eyes open.
That’s How I See It