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.
So with Vancouver occupying the top spot in the Western Conference, to be honest the gap between them and RSL is about matches played more than anything else. Vancouver is 4-2-1 with 13 points (1.86 per match), they have scored 9 goals (7 at home, 2 on the road) and allowed 7 (6 at home, 1 on the road). RSL is 2-0-3 with 9 points (1.8 per match) 6 goals for (5 at home, 1 on the road) and 4 goals allowed (all at home). Based on points per match these are the top two teams in MLS, so Saturday will be a big match.
Last year these teams faced off in April at Rio Tinto and in a match that RSL dominated for 85 minutes and held a 2-0 edge at that point, then allowed two late goals including one in stoppage to end the night with a disappointing 2-2 home draw. This time around, in a much more competitive Western Conference this is a match that could have season long ramifications for both sides as points will be very tight in the West. The Whitecaps come in without their main playmaker as Pedro Morales is suspended due to a red card in their last match. RSL is still without Joao Plata due to injury, and will be missing Jordan Allen who was called up for U20 national team action. This could mark the return of Demar Phillips to the starting lineup, he saw limited minutes in KC last weekend, and after a small break in his leg Seabstian Jamie could be back in the 18.
Last week the defense had to deal with Dom Dwer, this weekend it will be a faster and more unique attack with Octavio Rivero up top who already has 5 goals on the season, playing wide of him will be Darren Mattocks (1 goal, 1 assist) and Kekuta Manneh (1 goal, 1 assist) and most likely it will be Nicolas Mezquida pulling the midfield strings in place of Morales. This is a very quick group of players that will test the ability of the backline to get back in defense as well as to push forward to help the offense. If you think the matches to this point have been fairly frantic on both sides of the ball, I expect this one will give you a mild heart attack for 90 minutes.
On offense I think things could be really interesting for RSL, their CB combo of Kendall Watson and Pa-Modou Kah(the destroyer) could be ripe for Saborio to frustrate and Kah is a red card waiting to happen in most matches. The outside of their backline features Steven Beitashour and Jordan Harvey (of Sam Adekugbe) they should have their hands more than full with Olmes Garcia and most likely Luis Gil, could be some interesting moments for both teams as the outside backs try to get forward in support of the offense.
If you look at common opponents between the two sides things get interesting, RSL drew 0-0 against Portland, Vancouver picked up a 2-1 win, RSL beat both San Jose and TFC, while Vancouver lost to both of them. So far this season these two teams have scored 5 of their combined 15 goals in the final 15 minutes of matches, while allowing 4 of their combined 11 in the final 30 minutes. So much like that match last April, this one isn’t going to be over until the final whistle and given the offensive potential of both of these teams I don’t see either side getting a clean sheet, both sides want to attack and attack often, both will play wide open, both will give you a mild heart attack.
For me the difference will likely be leadership on the pitch, Javier Morales, Kyle Beckerman, Alvaro Saborio and Nick Rimando, have seen it all and then some in soccer action, so this matchup will again feature the experience of RSL vs. the youth of Vancouver, but without their creative playmaker and leader on the pitch I think a slight edge goes to RSL at home, but don’t blink because the Whitecaps offense can sneak up on you like a weeping angel. I am going to go with a 2-1 RSL win at home, but this match could go so many ways it is foolish to try to guess what might happen.
That’s How I See It!