Saturday was a cold, wet mess but Real Salt Lake found a way to get a very important home win. The first half was more than a bit disjointed but in the second half we began to see more of what we expect from this RSL team, solid play, smart passing and teamwork. The game winning goal was a perfect example of that as a midfield turnover went from the feet of Damir Kreilach (international newcomer) to Corey Baird (new homegrown player) to Jefferson Savarino (Designated Player) who converted the goal. With a short rest and travel to the East coast, the next challenge will be Wednesday’s match in the big apple against NYCFC.
There are only two teams left in MLS that haven’t tasted defeat yet, FC Dallas (1-0-3) who have been far from impressive and NYCFC (4-0-1) who sit at the top of the Eastern Conference. I have to be honest I have watched about a total of 30-40 minutes of NY2 action this season, so I don’t have a lot to offer on what to expect from them but this, they are averaging two goals scored per match, while giving up less than one. At plus six in goal differential only Atlanta FC has a better number than they do in that category.
With a early 5pm MT start time I expect many folks will be rushing home or to find a TV to catch what should be an exciting midweek match. RSL has only played at Yankee Stadium(are they really still playing there?) once since NYCFC joined the league, it was a 3-2 RSL win. In fact RSL has never lost to NYCFC, never drawn with NYCFC, we are 3-0-0 since they joined the league, can we make it four?
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.
No team took a worse beating in week 2 of the MLS season than did RSL, their 5-1 loss to expansion side LAFC was beyond embarrassing. I kept hearing it was an anomaly, and I sure hope it is true this time, because we heard the same thing at the end of the 2014 season when RSL lost 5-0 in the playoffs to the LA Galaxy and that has been followed by 3 seasons of mediocre at best soccer. Is it harsh to bring that up, yes it is, lots of things have changed but the reality is shocking losses can do more damage than just a single loss. They can lead to finger pointing and distrust in a locker room that can spread like a cancer destroying good teams. So when they take the pitch on Saturday, it may not seem like anything more than just another match, but I expect it will be much more than that.
The New York Red Bulls come into Rio Tinto coming off a midweek win in CCL action that saw them advance to the semifinals by eliminating Club Tijuana with wins in both the away leg last week and the home leg on Tuesday night. That came on top of their 4-0 thrashing of the Portland Timbers last weekend in the Red Bulls MLS season opener at home. Much like RSL the Red Bulls are in the middle of a transition period for their team, with young players and new international players. In their win over Portland four players made their MLS debut (Kyle Duncan, Alejandro “Kaku” Gamarra, Ben Mines, and Hassan Ndam) while 3 others had under twenty MLS matches under their belts (Derrik Etienne Jr.,Fidel Escobar, and Vincent Bezecourt). Perhaps there was no better feel good moment in all of MLS than when 17 year old homegrown player Ben Mines scored his first MLS goal, which would prove the game winner.
This will be a match where RSL’s defense must show up and show up big, the Red Bulls have scored multiple goals in four of the five meaningful matches they have played this season and while Bradley Wright-Phillips remains their main scoring threat he is not alone in that category, here are the players have scored for NY Red Bulls so far this year, (Royer, Wright-Phillips x4, Davis, Rivas x2, Mines, Adams, Rzatkowski, Kaku). If there is a silver lining to that potential dark cloud it is that none of these players have ever scored against RSL before. The only current NYRB player to scored against RSL is a classic villain in RSL history, Aurelien Collin.
So what do we need to focus on Saturday?
Yesterday I posted a bit about some of the organization changes during the off season, and they were impressive to say the least. Now we look at some of the roster additions.
If you want to see the future of RSL it became fairly clear this offseason, a good number of homegrown options with a few key pieces picked up from the international market. A huge move that many fans will be excited about was the full transfer of Brooks Lennon from Liverpool, the youngster will now get to fight for minutes with the RSL first team. Aaron Herrera and Corey Baird became the latest academy products to find their way to the first team roster. That list now includes, Danilo Acosta, Jordan Allen, Justen Glad, Jose Hernandez, Brooks Lennon and Sebastian Saucedo in addition to Herrera and Baird. That is a big chunk of the roster and one that shows that the future has run thru Casa Grande and going forward will run through Herriman.
The other off season pickups are an interesting mix of guys, Adam Henley is a defender born in Tennessee but raised in the UK and having played in both the Championship and Premier league for Blackburn will bring some great international experience to the team. Shawn Barry is an American born player from Florida, who spent his time playing at various levels in Europe and will bring a variety of experience with him to RSL. He will give the backline something it has lacked in the past a player who is adept with both feet, he is a natural right footed player with the ability to play various positions. Clearly with the injury to Tony Beltran that will leave him sidelined for the start of the 2018 season the team needed to pick up some depth on the back line and they did just that with the pickup of Henley and Barry.