Back in the days of Rice Eccles Stadium matches against the Rapids held a very special place in the season for most RSL fans, then came the years and years of domination over the Rapids and the rivalry faded for many of us. We moved on to rivalries with the top teams in MLS and most often that didn’t include the Rapids. Since RSL won the MLS Cup in 2009, the Rapids have only once finished above them in the Western Conference standings, that made it easy to take them for granted. However things aren’t what they have been in the past and while the Rapids have continued to struggle most seasons, the last couple years have seen RSL join them in the bottom half of the table two or the last three years. So perhaps more than most years the Rocky Mountain Cup is taking back some relevance this year as RSL looks to get things going in the right direction.
The Rapids have been a surprise early on this season, their 2-1-2 record isn’t amazing but with nine goals scored and just five allowed in their first five matches, their plus four is tied for second best goal differential in the West. Their best matches have come at home against Eastern Conference foes, with wins over both TFC and the Philadelphia Union and a home draw with Sporting KC. On the road they had an opening weekend loss in New England and they also have a 1-1 draw at FC Dallas. It is still unclear if the Rapids are a much improved side this season or not, but they will be looking to try to get their hands on the RMC.
The Rapids had some early success against RSL when we were an expansion side but the reality is RSL is 13-0-4 against Colorado at Rio Tinto Stadium with 25 goals scored and just 6 given up. So can RSL find a level of consistency in their play and in results? Just six matches into the season and there have already been three multi goal losses for the Claret and Cobalt (or the black this week), is this the week things get on track?
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?
Both sides found themselves on the outside looking in on the 2017 playoffs at the end of last season but the two were heading in very different directions as the final whistle of 2017 blew. For FC Dallas they once again saw a blistering start of the season, they didn’t suffer their first loss until week 10 of the season. A 5-1-4 start had them looking good, but just two wins in their last 15 matches of the season ended up again being the headlines on their season. For RSL the start of 2017 was worse than slow with a 2-6-2 start, which saw the club make just their 4th coaching change in their history as Jeff was out and Mike Petke was in. The end of the season is what gives most RSL fans huge hope as the club ended 6-3-1 over their last ten matches and showed that they would be a team to be reckoned with in 2018.
So here we are, for RSL unless you travelled to Florida to see their final preseason trip to the sunshine state you likely have seen very little preseason action as most of their matches had no streams this year so while we know most of the roster, there are a lot of unknowns heading into this first match for the club. The other side of the coin is better known as FC Dallas both had a fairly well covered preseason but also two matches in Champions League for us to consider as we look at what they may bring to the party on day one of the 2018 MLS season. FC Dallas lost their CCL matchup against Tauro FC, 3-3 but Tauro’s two goals at Dallas on Wednesday night gave them the road goals needed to eliminate the MLS side from the tournament. What were able to see is a FC Dallas team that has some holes in the middle of the pitch, but one that has some dangerous offensive pieces as well.
Historically FC Dallas has a huge edge in the series with RSL, a 19-11-6 edge with 14 more goals scored than the team in Claret and Cobalt, the edge is even more dramatic when you consider that RSL has just a single win playing against them in Texas. 1-13-2 is about as bad as a team can be against a conference opponent away from home, the -21 goal differential on the road against FC Dallas is dramatic and telling, just 12 goals in 16 matches played. It was the two matches in Texas last year that were perhaps the lowest point of the season for RSL a 1-5 loss at Houston followed days later by a 2-6 loss at FC Dallas. So what can we look forward to on Saturday?
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.
RSL’s inconsistency this season is so frustrating when we see a flop match like we had against Montreal followed by a dominating performance against San Jose it can be frustrating. Still with a very young team at many positions and very old at other inconsistency is part of the price we pay for it, so with just a handful of matches left there is little room for mistakes if RSL want to push their way into the playoffs.
No match could come at a better time than this match against the Rapids who have yet to win a match on the road and have more losses than RSL, that is a great thing for RSL. The Rapids have just 4 goals on the road all season and have given up 17, RSL at home has been less than stellar with just a 5-4-4 record and 16 goals scored with 13 allowed. Still on paper this should be an easy match for RSL that is more talented and in better form than their Rocky Mountain Cup rivals.
The Rapids looked lost before the fired Pablo and look even worse since them, but this is the type of match they could look to frustrate RSL and hope to take advantage of a long ball over the top, something Montreal showed as a weakness of RSL. Still there are few real offensive threats for Colorado, Badji has 6 goals and 5 assists, and Doyle has 5 goals and 4 assists and nobody else has more than 3 goals and in fact only 5 players on the Rapids have scored more than 2 goals this season. Compared to RSL that has 6 players with 3 or more goals this season, a year we have struggled for goals.
Real Salt Lake is unlikely to make the playoffs this year, there simply have been too many losses overall and too few wins at home, with 10 matches remaining they would likely need to double their points per match from 1.08 to better than 2 per match to even have a realistic chance and to me that is simply unlikely.
If there is anything close to a silver lining to the remainder of the RSL season it is that their schedule is soft as 6 of our remaining opponents are below the redline and unlikely to make the playoffs as well. That starts with a trip to face off with the worst team in MLS, at least statistically, DC United. DC is one of just two teams with more losses than RSL, one of the two teams with a worse goal differential than RSL, and one of just two teams with fewer home wins than RSL. If there was a road match made to pick up 3 points in it would be this one, DC has just 3 wins in their 11 home matches, have scored just 8 goals at home while allowing 15.
I have watched about a combined 60 minutes of DC United matches this season and none of it has looked good, for DC fans the only thing that comes close to a positive is that they finally see a light at the end of the RFK tunnel. They are not a very good team but they did sign a few folks in the transfer window but it is unsure if the additions of Paul Arriola, Bruno Miranda, Russell Canouse or Zoltan Stieber will be ready for action on Saturday but they clearly were the most active team looking to salvage some self respect this season and start building the squad that will open that new stadium next year.
Since the Gold Cup break RSL has put together a nice little unbeaten streak of 3 matches but as nice as their road win in Portland was the back to back draws at home have to be considered points left on the table. Leaving points on the table is something RSL can’t continue to do, with just 11 matches left they are still a long way from a playoff spot. Bigger than the 5 points between them and Vancouver is the fact that RSL has played more matches than anyone in the West (other than Portland who has has played 23 times). RSL’s points per match are still well below their playoff components at just 1.09, the lowest ppg of any team above the red line is 1.35 of Portland. So when Houston comes to town with a bad 1-7-3 road record it is as golden of an opportunity to close those gaps as any.
Then add in that RSL may want a bit of revenge for the 5-1 thrashing they took in Houston at the end of May, and the stakes get even a bit higher. The Dynamo who haven’t made the playoffs since 2013 are a very different team than the one who finished at the bottom of the West last year. They have already notched two more wins with twelve to go than they did all of last year, and with 39 goals scored nobody in the West has scored more than they have.
RSL got to debut their latest signing Marcelo Silva during their friendly with Man U and since then he has played every minute of RSL’s last two MLS matches and he looks to be a better than average CB who has a great understanding of the game. We have also seen the offense look sharper with Plata picking up 3 goals in the last 3 matches and Jefferson Savarino seems to have found his groove as well. Lots of questions about the future of Yura Movsisyan with RSL as he has only seen 12 minutes of action over the last 3 matches.
You can blame the coaching change, you can blame the injuries, you can blame whatever you want to blame but none of it will change the simple reality that RSL is on the rocks more than any time since 2007. Thirteen matches in with just three wins, two draws and eight losses, at home RSL is two – three – one. We lost 4 home matches during the entire 2015 and 2012 seasons the most of any season since moving to Rio Tinto in 2008 and now in just six matches we sit on the edge of tying that mark. I would say if RSL fans wanted to help their team out a flurry of paper snowflakes might help out given it seems the most likely trend we have is winning in snow this season.
Can RSL fins any sign of life on Saturday when the red hot Philadelphia Union come to town? The Union were winless in their first eight matches but now have four straight wins under their belts and look like a contender for the first time this year. Scoring woes continue to haunt RSL with just 11 goals scored in 13 matches while giving up 24, even at home RSL has a minus two goal differential with nine goals allowed and just seven scored. It is likely that RSL will get back Tony Beltran at least to the 18 man roster but with the suspension of Kyle Beckerman and continuing injuries to several players along with the U20 World Cup callups the roster will be thin once again.
Key to the Match:
Score – If you need any more explanation than that, well you simply haven’t been paying attention. Yura is mad at not starting, but hasn’t produced the way it was expected but to be fair his play comes from good service and the reality is there hasn’t been much of that this year. Plata is confusing, we know he has talent but his head and feet seem elsewhere since the middle of last season. That puts a ton of pressure on newcomers Davarino and Rusnak, both have shown the spark the team needs but we have to have a consistent effort on both sides of the ball to give the offense room to attack, nobody fears our offense so they can press as high as they want.
If you think RSL fans have been upset over their slow start to the season, you should see how the fans of defending MLS Cup champs Seattle are reacting. I mean hell it is as if they invented early season disappointment, oh wait that was last year before they made their big summer move and went on to win it all. If you only looked at the numbers you would think Seattle probably was off to a better start than RSL. I mean Seattle have scored 15 goals in 11 matches to RSL’s 11 in 12. They give up fewer goals just 19 allowed in 11 matches to 23 in 12 matches by RSL. Yet with just 10 points in 11 matches it is Seattle just below RSL in the table but honestly their 0.91 points per match and RSL’s 0.92 are both pathetic for teams that historically have been some of the best in the West over the last 8 seasons.
So what will happen when “lovable losers” meet off against “under-performing megastars”? Yeah that is a bit harsh but 9 vs 10 is rarely a highlight match in most leagues but the reality is this one could be exciting for a number of reasons.
Keys to the Match:
Scoring – Yup, I will keep beating this drum as long as needed the reality is that when you score an average of less than 1 goals per match and your average of allowing almost 2 goals per match you simply must score more. Now if you watched the midweek match (any chance it will snow in Seattle today, we play better when it snows) you know RSL is giving up a lot of early goals off defensive mistakes. RSL has allowed 6 goals in the first 15 minutes of matches so far this year and historically in MLS is you give up the first goal you most often lose. RSL is 2-5-0 in matches where they allow the first goal, Seattle is 2-0-1 when scoring first. So the biggest key to the match, score. Score first, score often but just score.