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?
It is time to start a new season of MLS action and for Real Salt Lake it is about delivering on the pitch, Mike Petke has had almost a full season to adjust the roster and tactics of the team and now we need to see that the run at the end of last season wasn’t a fluke.
So, what is that expectation? For me it remains the same each regular season, 15 wins and 50 points. If you make that happen you will make the playoffs. If we had hit that last season we would have ended at the 4th seed in the playoffs, making the playoffs has to be the goal of the regular season, doesn’t it? How do we get there?
Better at home, only one team that made the playoffs in the West last season did it without double digits wins at home (Vancouver). So, can RSL get 11 wins at home? One thing they will need to do is score more goals, while a +10 goal differential may seem good at home with 26 goals scored and 16 allowed, PDX and SEA both had a home +20, Houston had a crazy +26 at home. So to pick up an additional two wins at home, RSL will need to find a way to score more, 7 teams in the West scored more home goals than RSL. The reality is that we failed to take advantage of the elevation at home, we didn’t push other teams to deal with the elevation and it came back to haunt us, I expect that the team’s fitness from day one will be much better in 2018 than what we saw last year.
If RSL is going to force their way into the post season this year there simply is no room for a loss at home with just 3 home matches left RSL will host the Portland Timbers on Saturday and a win is a must. The only other team in the West that has played 29 matches like RSL are the Timbers who sit 9 points above RSL in the conference. The gap may not seem like much all 3 of RSL’s remaining home matches are against teams above the red line, so while we may be able to steal some points at LA or Colorado (our remaining road matches) winning at home is a must. Back to back home wins over San Jose and Colorado put RSL back in a somewhat realistic chance to make the playoffs but with just 6 wins at home this year beating 3 teams above the red line will be what it takes to get RSL above that line.
The Timbers are 3-1-1 in the last 5 matches and 5-2-3 in their last 10, they are 4-7-4 on the road this year making them one of the top road teams in the West. As in recent years the Timbers are all about Diego Valeri, who if they make the playoffs has to be a contender for MVP, his 17 goals and 9 assists have him in the top 10 in each category. A huge question mark for the match will be if Fanendo Adi plays or how much he plays, he has had a recent hamstring injury and is listed as questionable.
For RSL getting back either or both Demar Phillips or Marcelo Silva could really help our back line, but I doubt either will make the starting lineup. We will likely see the return of Danilo Acosta who was out due to a red card last week. Up top the question will be can Luis Silva go, or will it be Yura Movsisyan again this week? Two different players, both of whom RSL will need down the stretch, before getting hurt Luis had found a scoring touch which helped propel RSL to a run that had the team seeing just a single loss since July 4th. Without him last week the RSL offense looked subpar, but was that due to the combination of playing on turf and facing red hot Vancouver team? We will likely never know.
It is often repeated but nothing can be more straight forward for RSL, the easiest and most direct path to CONCACAF is to win the US Open Cup. RSL will again start a bid to win the USOC on Tuesday night as they host the USL side Wilmington Hammerheads.
No matter what lineup RSL puts out for the match people will ask questions, should we rest starters with a big match with Portland on Saturday, or with 12 days off should all players be ready to go? I would like to see RSL go with as many starters as possible, with almost two weeks off making sure players are sharp and ready for a very busy couple months with 11 matches before the end of July. That busy schedule could be why Jeff Cassar goes with a mixed lineup to get some of the bench guys minutes as it is likely they will be needed to fill in during the busy schedule.
Wilmington brings in a team that has struggled in USL action with just 16 points in 12 matches, their top scorer is Bruno Peone, which is a bit odd given he is listed as a defender. They are a balanced team with 15 goals scored and 13 goals allowed for a plus 2 goal differential. RSL is sitting with a similar +2 goal differential with 23 goals scored and 21 allowed in their 13 MLS matches.
So I have to start this by saying I had a great time in Tucson, the weather and people were awesome there. It provided me a good chance to see RSL in action a couple times, Wednesday 3-3 draw with New England, Friday practice session, Saturday AM 4-0 in a 45 minute scrimmage vs FC Tucson, and the 1-1 draw against Columbus Saturday night. It also allowed me to get my new camera set up correctly and ready for the season, which is a very good thing.
Saturday evening was an interesting match as RSL went with almost a complete lineup of “2nd string” guys, and while that might sound like an insult, it sure isn’t meant that way. With the CCL match at Tigres coming up the choice to rest the likely starters on Saturday night seems like a natural move and it was the right thing to do. So instead we got to see some of the future guys for RSL go head to head for 60 minutes with the likely starting roster for the Columbus Crew who were the team who represented the Eastern Conference in MLS Cup in December.
So here is what your starting lineup looked like:
Boyd Okuwonu – Phanuel Kavita – Justen Glad- Chris Wingert
John Stertzer – Danilo Acosta – Jordan Allen
Emery Welshman – Olmes Garcia – Devon Sandoval
So after what was probably the most disappointing season in RSL history, I didn’t expect us to be good in those early years as we built a team, but coming off a 2013 MLS Cup final appearance, and a 3rd place finish in 2014, to finish just above the Rapids at the bottom of the Western Conference in 2015 and to miss the playoff was far from expectations. So lots of things went wrong in 2015, a lot of injuries, a new formation, and simply an ever improving league, it is hard to know what happened and looking back at this point is rather pointless as we head rapidly into 2016.
I think it is important for fans to remember it wasn’t until the 3rd season under Jason Kreis that RSL made their run to MLS Cup, a season in which the team barely made the playoffs on the closing weekend of the season. So as we hit the 3rd year of the Jeff Cassar tenure, the expectations for a much better season and a return to the playoffs is expected. In the offseason the team made several moves to improve, the biggest of which is bringing back Yura Movsisyan, but that isn’t the only move the team has made. RSL picked up well traveled Nigerian midfielder Sunday “Sunny” Obayan, who is expected to fight for that 3rd midfield spot alongside Javier Morales and Kyle Beckerman. Add in a healthy Joao Plata and a full preseason for Juan “Burrito” Martinez and the front 3 look to be set and very dangerous.
So we have come to the final part of our RSL roster review as the team heads into the 2016 season, in part 1 we looked at keepers and forwards, in part 2 we looked at the midfield. Now we will look at the defenders, an area where RSL struggled with injuries, new players and of course our adjustment to a new formation. 2015 was not a good year for the RSL defense, the 48 goals allowed was the 3rd worst total in RSL history and the highest number since the 2006 season.
Defenders – This position has the most questions heading into 2016, here are the current players on the roster
- Tony Beltran – The only thing close to a consistent player on the back line in 2015, Tony actually had one of his best seasons and continues to distinguish himself as one of the best outside backs in MLS. Tony started the most matches(31) and played the most minutes(2774) of any RSL player in 2015, his play was one of the highlights of the 2015 season. I think we can expect more from Tony in 2016 as he continues to be more and more of a leader on the pitch and the on the backline.
- Jamison Olave – Most of us were surprised when RSL brought Olave back, but after losing Nat Borchers the team needed a proven CB and Olave is that. Unfortunately 2015 was a mixed bag with Jamison, he had moments where we got those highlight reel defensive saves and bursts of near superhuman speed, but we also got 3 red cards and with a few injuries. With just 22 matches played in 2015, the 2nd lowest total of his MLS career, we can only hope that after signing a new contract in the off season that we will get a bit more action on the pitch and fewer red cards from Olave in 2016.