Real Salt Lake puts undefeated streak on the line in Rocky Mountain Cup Showdown

If on March 7th you had said that you thought RSL would be undefeated after their first 10 matches, people would have laughed at you, but here we are.  It has been no small feat either, 6 of those 10 on the road, having 3 matches against the last two winners of MLS Cup, facing familiar foe Portland, revamped Toronto FC, oh and heading to Houston and Chicago two places RSL traditionally haven’t done very well, but here we are.  Now comes the first leg of the 2014 Rocky Mountain Cup, and while I have been rather dismissive of this “rivalry” with the Rapids in recent years the majority of fans still love it, and with RSL losing it for the first time in 6 years last season I guess it has picked up some steam again.

The Rapids entered this season with a lot of hopes, but then weeks before the season started they lose head coach Oscar Pareja to FC Dallas and the guy who provided such great motivation to a young over achieving roster last season is gone and the confusion about who would replace him went on for weeks until almost without other options they named Pablo Mastroeni as their head coach, a fierce competitor who saw his career cut short with numerous injuries.  Still as any player turned coach will tell you it takes time to transition, and while dealing with injuries and still a very young team they have started the season OK, 4-3-3 from their first 10 matches, but are just 1-2-2 in their last 5 matches.  We know that no motivational speeches are needed for either side, as players have embraced the fan driven rivalry, and I have little doubt that the Rapids don’t see a RSL side without Nick Rimando, Kyle Beckerman, or Alvaro Saborio as prime for the picking.

The Rapids however will have to deal with a very in form Javier Morales, who put up a hat trick against Houston last week, a Joao Plata who is looking like the most improved player in MLS this year with 5 goals and 3 assists.  RSL fans will likely get our first extended look at Devon Sandoval this year, he has played in 5 matches so far but just 77 minutes for one of the big surprises of last year, now healthy and ready to go.  The expectation that Cole Grossman will step in to fill in the very big shoes of Kyle Beckerman is interesting for me, Cole is a very good player who has been hampered with injuries since joining RSL, and with just 49 minutes this season is he ready for this?  One big question mark for me is with Luis Gil getting fit after an injury how do we get him back involved in the midfield with both Ned Grabavoy and Luke Mulholland playing so well.  The problems of having what most consider the deepest or one of the deepest rosters in MLS, is a great problem for Jeff Cassar to have.

While RSL have remained undefeated to start the season, there have been big question marks at times, giving up late goals in San Jose and Philly, doing so at home against Vancouver and even their struggles at times against Houston last week despite the 5-2 scoreline.  This is the price you pay when you have year after year of success the bar gets raised so high and the expectations that you should win every match are set, no matter how unrealistic, but again this is a great problem to have.  If RSL is this good, this solid when they still haven’t hit their full stride on the pitch, what will happen without 3 of those core guys?  Last year and even earlier this year we have seen guys step up when others are injured, and not only do well but excel, Mulholland, Plata, Jeff Attinella, and Aaron Maund to name a few have jumped on those chances and RSL is better for it.

The Rapids are young and talented, names like Clint Irwin, Chris Klute, Deshorn Brown, Dillon Powers, Dillon Serna, Shane O’Neil have shown they can play at this level and when you add in a guy like Vincente Sanchez who can provide world class quality then you get a team that can be very dangerous.  Their speed can cause real issues, and no stat is more telling of that than the fact they have been awarded 5 PK already this season, converting 4 of them which accounts for 1/3 of their goals, and something our defenders will have to be very aware of.

RSL position for position is simply better than the Rapids, and that should result in a win for RSL but soccer is a strange game and when rivalries and high emotion come into play you just never know what will happen.  The elevation that often helps RSL late in matches is a non-factor against Colorado, but a sell out crowd at Rio Tinto Stadium should be able to lift the home side, and provide a boost of emotions and energy to the home side.  I expect this one ends up a 2-0 RSL win and I am picking Devon Sandoval and Luke Mulholland to get the RSL goals.

That’s How I See It

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