We are just a month into the long MLS season and most fans and media thought RSL would be a top contender early on this season based on their decent run at the end of 2017. Instead what we have gotten are more questions than answers, at no point in their first four matches of the season has RSL looked like a dominant team. I can take matches in which we are outplayed if the effort is there but RSL have delivered maybe 45 minutes of combined quality soccer over their first four matches. There has been a lack of energy, cohesion, chemistry and at long stretches of match it has appeared the effort level has also been lacking. The reality for me is that beyond the work of Nick Rimando, an out of position Brooks Lennon and rookie Corey Baird, there has been little to get excited about. Can RSL change that against Vancouver on Saturday?
For the Whitecaps the start of the season has been solid with a 3-1-1 record, they did get shell shocked at Atlanta a few weeks ago as they found themselves on the wrong end of a 4-1 scoreline. Still they have already picked up two big road wins at Columbus last week and at Houston in week two of the season. Vancouver won more road matches than any other team in the Western Conference last year with six, only TFC the eventual MLS Cup Champs won more last year (seven). Perhaps no Whitecap player looks forward to the matches against RSL more than Cristian Techera, while in him MLS career he has just 15 goals, a third of those have come in his 6 matches against the Claret and Cobalt. Given the holes in the RSL defense so far this season, I expect he will be looking to add to that total on Saturday.
Rio Tinto has not been a kind place for the Whitecaps, in their nine trips here they have managed just a single win, three draws and found themselves leaving as losers five times. They have scored just five goals, while giving up 13 in matches here, they gave up three last year in a snowy match that saw RSL pick up their first win of the 2017 season in a match that RSL dominated in almost every stat imaginable. It was the first match of the Petke era at RSL and the first goal for RSL scored by Albert Rusnak, and the debut of Danilo Acosta, a match in which RSL captured a bit of what they would find near the end of the season. On Saturday it is unlikely we will see the orange ball again, but one has to expect that Mike Petke will be looking recapture some of those good feelings from a year ago.
Key to the Match:
Teamwork – Four matches into the season and this RSL side has looked as disjointed as anything we have seen in a decade. I get the injuries, I get some new players in new positions but rarely have we seen the team that for so long played up to the hashtag #AsOne with incredible teamwork and collaborative play look so disjointed as a unit. The goal last week in Toronto while it came too late to make a real difference it was one of those goals you expect from RSL, high pressure on the ball resulting in a turnover in a dangerous place and a fairly clinical finish by Baird. It was exactly what we need to see more of on the offensive side of the ball. There have been some huge gaps left in our final third this season as Phillips move forward to kick start the offense nobody from the midfield seems to be willing to fill in that spot. With Damir Kreilach getting all the starts, it appears there is some type of a lack of communications on who is supposed to do what when one of the outside backs gets that far forward. With the pace of the Whitecaps, if those spaces are there on Saturday you can expect RSL to get punished.
Players to Watch:
Brek Shea – Not the name I expected to put here given the antics of Techera against RSL in the past, or Kei Kamara (one of my favorite non-RSL players in MLS) who has three goals and one assist in four matches played this season. It could have been Felipe Martins, who is always a threat in the midfield, or it could have been Alphonso Davies. who looks like a superstar in the making for the Whitecaps. I went with Shea because of all the guys who have been hyped like he was in the early days in Dallas and then heading over to England, it looked like upon his return to MLS that maybe things were over for him. Instead despite starting just 14 matches last year for the Whitecaps and just a single start so far this season, he seems to have found some new life and against Columbus last weekend he was able to do what he is so good at, by putting himself in the right place at the right time to get a huge goal for his team. Against the RSL defense he could be the guy that you don’t pay much attention to with all those other names, but if you sleep on him, well you might just end up paying the price.
Mike Petke – Well twice in the last month we have heard Mike say that he knows that the problem is and that he knows how to fix it, well proof is in the pudding and this weekend we will be looking for some pudding. I love Mike’s passion and I know that he knows how to be successful in MLS, and I have little doubt that he will get things figured out. Of course as we saw last year sometimes it appears he holds a grudge, between how he dealt with some issues with Plata or the meltdown of the club that was the whole Yura Movsisyan situation. Mike has to know when to bottle those emotions up and stay focused on the task at hand, what I loved about him in New York was that his teams never gave up, they never stopped trying. I have to expect that the raw emotions we have seen from him in post match interviews will result in some changes in the locker room and on the pitch for RSL as the season progresses.
The reality is that things have to get better for RSL, while it may be early in the season, things simply haven’t looked good. In MLS the reality is you have to win your matches at home, for RSL with a great crowd and elevation the home pitch advantage is something you have to turn into 3 points. This isn’t going to be an easy match as Vancouver is one of the best road teams in MLS, for me a draw wouldn’t be a bad result as long as we see the work and effort that we expect from RSL and from a Mike Petke lead team. 2-2 draw is my pick.
That’s How I See It!!