When RSL was 2 matches into the MLS season, I doubt most people thought that when the team had 20 matches under their belt that they would be at the top of MLS. If you look at the stats, RSL has the most points 37 in MLS, their 1.85 points per match average is also tops in MLS, as is the +14 goal differential, their 11 wins, their 5 road wins. With 32 goals scored they are tied for the top total in MLS with the Philadelphia Union, RSL’s 18 goals allowed is tied for second fewest in MLS with Portland, while New England have given up just 16 goals so far this season.
All of this came to a bit of a head on Saturday as RSL headed into Texas, missing 4 normal starters on national team duty, missing a couple other players with injuries or suspension, so was it a bit surprising when the team picked up their first every win in Texas with their 3-0 defeat of FC Dallas? Not really, RSL has had to play with their lineup and even their formation often since the start of the season for various reasons, it is why 20 players have over 500 minutes of MLS action already this year, and 6 others have also gotten time in MLS matches. Both of those are more than the entire season for RSL last year, a rather amazing stat if you ask me.
On Saturday it was the same thing as we again saw different players step up, as Abdoulie Mansally stepped into the starting lineup, another match with Nat Borchers and Carlos Salcedo as our centerbacks, alongside Chris Wingert. In goal we saw Josh Saunders get the start and play really well, only to pick up an injury late in the first half that eventually would take him out of the match early in the second half, we should know more early this week about the extent of his injury, but I sure hope it isn’t a serious one that will keep him out of action long. That allowed for Jeff Attinella to get his first MLS minutes, and he looked like it was just another day, making some great saves and helping RSL keep the clean sheet.
Well a four match home stand provided RSL with a perfect chance to gain ground on their Western Conference opponents but a late goal given up to the Chicago Fire leaves RSL with just a 1-1 draw to show from what on paper was a dominating performance. I like stats as much as the next person but in soccer I have found that few stats really matter, the couple that really do are scoring first (RSL is 5-1-2 this year when scoring first, 14-1-0 last year) and the home team will most often win in MLS (RSL is 64-28-34 all time at home), beyond those two there is little on the stat sheet that matters. Take Saturday as an example, RSL had a 67.5% to 32.5% edge in possession, RSL had 572 passes, Chicago had 251, RSL completed 87% of their passes, Chicago just 73%, RSL took 20 shots to 12 for the Fire, had 9 of those on goal to just 2 for the Fire, but the final scored didn’t reflect that, instead it showed 1-1. It is what it is, and while it is a bitter pill to swallow for players, staff and fans, it shows that there is no such thing as an easy match, no such thing as a sure thing in soccer. Now it is about moving forward.
On Tuesday night, RSL will again attempt to advance in the US Open Cup, they will face a NASL side in the Atlanta Silverbacks, a team that they should by all accounts defeat with any 11 of their players in the lineup. Of course this is soccer and there are no sure things, last year RSL went out on a limb and bought the hosting rights for their opening US Open Cup match. In return the visiting Minnesota Stars thumped RSL 3-1 in a match that could have been much worse on the scoreline as RSL looked flat and the Stars had nothing to lose in a match where few would have picked them to win. So be it a year later or 3 days later from disappointing results, it is about how you pick yourself up, about how you respond.
Sometimes out of a crisis comes something good and unexpected, this could be the case for Real Salt Lake and their injury issues. I would never wish for a player to be injured but as we have seen that when doors are opened for others, sometimes we get very pleasant surprises. I think perhaps the best half of soccer that RSL has played in a couple of years came earlier this year when we were missing a couple of the normal key pieces. It was a match where Devon Sandoval and Robbie Findley looked as good up top as Robbie and Yura used to, where the combination play of Luis Gil and Sebastian Velasquez featured as much energy as Andy Williams used to bring.
So now RSL faces Alvaro Saborio being out a couple weeks and several others (Robbie Findley, Olmes Garcia) having some injury issues as well, and it was interesting to hear RSL head coach Jason Kreis mention the possibility of having to adjust our formation to meet what players are fit and ready to go. It got me thinking, could RSL go with a 4-5-1? Maybe, but for me, I would love to see a try of a 4-3-3, now it is a bit risky, and I am going to put a couple players in some positions that they might not normally think of themselves in, but heck given the result last week, is there much to lose?
So 8 matches in the book and that represents just under ¼ of the MLS season, so how exactly has RSL done? I keep having to remind myself of what RSL GM Garth Lagerwey said before the start of the season “We will be better in June than we are in March, and we will be better in September than we will be in June” and if that is the case we should all be very happy, RSL currently is one of 4 teams with 11 points and only 4 teams have more than 11 points. That means that 11 teams are currently behind RSL in the standings, and just 4 are in front of us and for a team that has had to deal with losing 3 All Star level players and a bevy of injuries early in the season, it isn’t as bad as some might think. So let’s take a bit deeper look at things.
First the record of 3-3-2 is how we got to our 11 points, now 5 of those matches have been away from home where RSL is 1-3-1 and that simply isn’t good enough. Losses at Colorado, Dallas and DC United all hurt, but only in the Dallas match was RSL really outplayed, and that match also saw RSL missing an additional 5 players due to various national team call ups in addition to injured players. Still our road performance has to improve; I firmly believe that RSL will need to at least duplicate their 6 road wins if not improve as they have done the last few seasons (4 wins in 2010, 5 wins in 2011, 6 in 2012). Last year the team also had a fairly impressive (compared to the past) -1 goal differential on the road with 19 goals scored and 20 goals allowed, after a -6 the year before, currently the team is at a -2. I expect that for RSL to finish in the top 3 in the West (avoiding the wildcard) that they will need to pull an average of 1.20 points per road match (based on their recent finishes), currently the team has 4 points from 15 possible an average of just 0.80 per match.
From a lunch time media session with RSL GM Garth Lagerwey, to the final Real Salt Lake practice before they head to San Jose for their season opener, it was a great way to spend a Thursday afternoon. So here are some thoughts, videos and pictures from the afternoon for you.
One thing is clear, Garth Lagerwey is not only a very smart guy, he is one of the most honest and straight forward people I have ever had the pleasure of knowing. So as a big chunk of the RSL media was gathered at Rio Tinto Stadium this afternoon, it was no surprise that Garth laid out a lot of off the record information about things that have gone into what RSL has done this off season.
I think it is OK for me to say, that every move RSL made, from bringing back Robbie Findley, to bringing in guys like Lovel Palmer and Khari Stephenson, each move was done with a great amount of thought and planning. I think perhaps the best statement of the day was simply RSL will be a better team in June than they will be in March, and RSL will be a better team in September than they will be in June. New players, injuries and team cohesion will all play into that statement, for me I am excited to see what happens. Just before lunch, Luis Gil returned to Rio Tinto Stadium after being a major factor in the US U-20 squad qualifying for the 2013 U-20 World Cup that will take place this summer, here is a video of him taking some questions from the local media:
So it has been a very active off/pre-season for Real Salt Lake, the roster moves top any of the previous off seasons both in quantity and quality of players impacted. The team was forced to take a long, hard look at both how to get under the MLS salary cap, RSL would have been about 1 million over without major changes, as well as how to become a better team on the offensive side of the ball.
The latter goal became evident when the history of “big” games at Rio Tinto Stadium was examined, despite being the better team in the 2008 Western Conference final against the New York Red Bulls, a 1-0 loss. The same could be said of the 2010 playoff match against FC Dallas a home draw but a series loss, the 2011 Champions League final against Monterrey, a 1-0 loss, and the 2012 playoff loss to the Seattle Sounders, another 1-0 loss. 2012 saw RSL score 46 goals, but 7 of the 10 playoff teams has as many or more goals scored than did RSL. It was no surprise that only one striker, Alvaro Saborio, remained with the team after the season, his 40 goals in MLS action over the last 3 years is only surpassed by San Jose’s Chris Wondolowski.
So the talk after last season for Real Salt Lake was the need to get cheaper (a million over the salary cap) get faster (something lacked since the departure of Robbie Findley) and to get younger (RSL had 9 players 29 or older in 2012), and how do we score goals in the big matches, so how did RSL do in the off season?
RSL traded Jamison Olave (expensive – $250K, old – 32, but very fast) and Fabian Espindola (not expensive – $125K but I believe was due a large raise for 2013, not so old – 27, and not fast but quick and very high energy) to the New York Red Bulls in exchange for a large chunk of allocation money. Then RSL traded Will Johnson to the Portland Timbers (expensive – $245K, young – 25, and like Fabi not fast but quick and very high energy) for allocation money. RSL also released a number of players like Kyle Reynish (expensive for a limited role back up GK – $75K & due a raise, age – 29, speed doesn’t matter much for GK’s), the team also released 3 strikers (Justin Braun, Paulo Jr. and Emiliano Bonfigli) all who were under 25, cheap, and varying speed.
Well that holidays are upon us and as a Real Salt Lake fan I thought it might be fun to put together a list of my RSL wishes in form of a list based on the 12 days of Christmas.
12 – 12 Home Wins, for all the success RSL has had at Rio Tinto Stadium since moving there in late 2008, including the undefeated home season in 2010, the team has never managed to win 12 home matches in a single season. We know that RSL is a tough team to beat at home and with the LA Galaxy, Seattle Sounders, and San Jose Earthquakes all coming to Rio Tinto twice in 2013, winning 12 matches at home would be a huge challenge, but this is a wish list.
11 – 11 Healthy Starters, no year in RSL history has seen the team unable to field their first choice starting XI less than 2012, when they only played in 4 matches and just over 100 minutes across all competitions. In fact our top choice starting XI played less than one hour of MLS action in 2012. RSL has made some moves to get younger in the off season and hopefully that will allow us to get more minutes from our top guys as we move forward.
10 – A real #10, several guys have worn the number with RSL, Robbie Findley, Medhi Ballouchy, and Clint Mathis. Howerver, I am talking about more than a jersey number I am talking about a traditional number 10 player, the guy who creates the chances for others as well as for himself. Javier Morales is as close to a true #10 as RSL has had, but with his status for 2013 still up in the air could a change be in the makings for next season?
So last Monday was perhaps the most active day for Real Salt Lake in roster moves since the team took part in the 2004 expansion draft with trades, releases, and signings all taking place on the first day of MLS rosters being un-frozen, but perhaps the most impactful change is still on the clock. Javier Morales is out of contract and Real Salt Lake has made him an offer to remain with the team, but teams in Mexico have also expressed interest in him as well. RSL has said that they expect an answer from Javi this week, and that answer will have a huge impact no matter what the choice is. So let’s take a look at three things, first what Javi’s history with RSL is, what a future with Javi could look like for RSL, and then what a future without Javi might look like.
So Javier Morales was signed by RSL in late 2007 and began making an impact, almost from day one, now at the end of 2012 he sits as a player who in MLS action has over 10,000 minutes for the Claret and Cobalt, 115 starts, 20 goals and 43 assists. His 2010 numbers had him in the mix for league MVP as RSL was the 2nd best team in MLS and he had 7 goals and 9 assists, and he was one of the best creative players in MLS. There aren’t many who would question what a Javier Morales at his best can do on the pitch, he simply makes those around him better both on and off the ball. How good is he, well every year you will find him on the list of the 10 most fouled players in the league. The “Hack-a-Javi” strategy is one that most teams now employ to try to deal with him.
For the 3rd straight match (2 MLS & 1 CCL) Real Salt Lake have had to settle for a 0-0 draw, and while head coach Jason Kreis addressed the fans after the match to say the team has been saving up goals for the playoffs, I am not sure everyone is buying it.
Like the last two matches RSL has played the team dominated every aspect of the match, except for the scoreboard. Saturday night it was 62.7% possession to 37.3%, it was 514 passes to 291, it was a 85% passing accuracy to 74%, it was 17 shots to 5, but only 3 shots on goal and none of them found the back of the net.
Heading into the playoffs there is no doubt that the RSL defense is up to the task, with just one goal allowed in the last 5 matches, and just 3 allowed in their last 10 matches. A stretch where RSL is 5-1-4, but if you take out the 4 goal performance against Chivas USA a month ago, RSL has scored just 6 goals in those last 10 matches. One of those is a good thing heading into the playoffs but the other not so much.