It seems like just yesterday that the RSL season was kicking off and fans were unsure of what to expect after the team missed the playoffs for the first time since 2007, and with just 10 matches left in the season I expect many fans are still finding themselves wondering what to expect.
RSL sits currently in 3rd place in the Western Conference with a 10-7-7 record and 37 points or 1.54 points per match (a good improvement over the 1.21 ppm from last year). A 1.54 ppm would have put RSL in 4th place in the West last year, shield winners New York Red Bulls ended the season with a 1.76 and won a tie breaker with FC Dallas to claim the shield. Currently MLS is lead by the Colorado Rapids with a 1.86 points per match, RSL’s 1.54 is tied for 5th in MLS at this point.
This weekend RSL will travel to Seattle to take on the Sounders who’s fans are probably feeling like RSL’s fans did last year, when things looked real bleak by August. The Sounders are 7-12-3 with a 1.24 ppm and 8 points out of the last playoff spot in the West, but things in MLS can change quickly. Both teams are coming off wins (RSL 3-1 over CHI & SEA 3-1 over ORL) and both have two wins in their last 5 matches. Both teams needing wins to close the gap with teams they are chasing, for RSL it is LA, Colorado and FC Dallas the 3 teams in front of them in the West and their next 3 opponents (all at home). For Seattle it is Vancouver, San Jose and Portland the 3 teams between them and a playoff sport, 4 of their next 5 matches are against those teams. Both teams are 8 points behind that key team (FCD in 1st & PDX in the final playoff spot), so it would be easy to label it a must win for both, but Seattle is clearly the more desperate team.
Draws at home aren’t good enough, never have been and never will be in MLS this year the home teams are 98-32-59, in the West 4 teams haven’t lost at home, 2 more have lost just once. RSL’s has had draws in 3 of their last 4 home matches after winning their first 5 home matches, so while we can take pride in not having lost at home, we need to get back on that winning side of things and on Saturday facing the New England Revolution who are 1-5-3 on the road and who have never won at Rio Tinto, there should be no better time to get a home win.
It may not be fresh on the minds of RSL players or fans, but last year at New England we did one of those mixed lineups and got thrashed 4-0. Of course RSL has had a few of those big wins over New England as well, a 6-0 and 5-0 wins in their matches at Rio Tinto back in 2009 & 10. This is actually a series that RSL holds a distinct advantage in with 9 wins, 5 losses and 4 draws and only twice in those 18 matches have we had a 0-0 draw and none since 2007. In fact 11 times RSL has scored 2 or more goals against the Revs, and have 34 overall goals against them. Being shut out last year was the first time since 2007 that RSL hadn’t scored against New England. Toss in the fact that the Revs will be without Charlie Davies, Juan Agudelo and others and it’s starting to sound like this one should be a cakewalk right?
The Revs could be getting back Gershon Koffie, who has been out for over a month, they also recently added Kei Kamara who has 3 goals since joining New England from Columbus. Add in Lee Nguyen and Digeo Fagundez, and the results can change, the Revs won just 2 of their first 13 matches but have won 3 of their last 6 so this is clearly a team that is putting things together. So can RSL follow the example of LA and FC Dallas, both who beat the Revs 4-2? I expect a full strength lineup from RSL (some questions about Joao Plata and Demar Phillips who have minor injuries they are nursing). Still with LA winning last night, and both Sporting KC & Vancouver able to leap in front of RSL in the standing with wins this weekend, 3 points is critical for the Claret and Coblat.
So at the midpoint of the season before last weekends 1-1 draw with Montreal and then Wednesday’s 2-0 loss at Vancouver I started writing a blog post wondering if the glass was half full or half empty when it comes to RSL. I have my own opinions on this that I will share but I think we have to step back a bit first and ask what are we judging this based on?
Do we compare this year’s RSL vs RSL of years past? If so what year, 2009 when we had a mediocre year but were able to make a successful run at MLS Cup, remember we were 11-12-7 and our run in large part was boosted by being moved to the Eastern Conference for the playoffs? Or do we compare to 2013, a huge year where RSL was just 3 points shy of the Supporter Shield, made it to the final of the US Open Cup and lost in heartbreaking PK’s in MLS Cup? Perhaps the most accurate would be to compare it to last year, the first time since 2007 that we missed the playoffs, where often when faced with adversity it seemed the team simply gave up at times? Is it fair after our 19th match to judge the team at all?
A lot of valid questions, for me I will try to compare the team to both our combined past, as well as the rest of the league at this point of the season.
A break in the season is always a nice thing for both fans and players, but the schedule Real Salt lake faces in the next 6 weeks is brutal, with 9 MLS matches (6 at home), at least one US Open Cup match (vs Seattle) and a friendly with Inter Milan tossed in, that is 11 matches before the end of July.
With 13 matches played, RSL is sitting in a solid 3 place in the Western Conference with matches in hand against everyone except LA and Seattle. Their 23 points is actually gives them the second best points per match average in the league with 1.77 despite playing 9 of 13 on the road. The Timbers come in after the break needing to improve their form, after 15 matches they are on just 19 points with a 5-6-4 record and without a single win on the road. The defending MLS champs know it is about how you play at the end of the season, but with a very competitive Western conference you don’t want to dig too deep of a hole to climb out of.
These two teams faced off early in the MLS season at Portland in one of those matches where RSL started great and had a two goal lead but with being a man down after a 31st minute red card to Kyle Beckerman, the Timbers got back a goal in the 79th minute and then RSL went down to 9 men as Jamison Olave picked up a red card in the 83rd minute on a foul that gave Portland a PK as well and lead to them leveling the match. One could say RSL was lucky to get out of there with a draw but I considered it one of the matches were RSL left points on the pitch after a late meltdown. Now the two familiar foes will face off once again on Saturday night, in what should be an exciting match.
So in a match that on paper RSL should have had no struggles with they did as for the 3rd straight time hosting a lower division team in US Open Cup action, RSL gave up the first goal, and for the second time in those 3 matches they spotted their opponents a two goal lead. I get that we often see RSL go with a mixed lineup of players, with some bench or reserve guys getting minutes and that can lead to a disruption of the normal chemistry, but there is still little excuse in giving up the first goal in matches like this.
RSL’s starting lineup was: Jeff Attinella, Boyd Okwuonu, Jamison Olave, Aaron Maund, Chris Wingert, Luke Mulholland, John Stertzer, Burrito, Javier Morales, Jordan Allen and Devon Sandoval
There simply is no reason why this group was unable to be successful against a decent Wilmington side, but the failure to use our width and little success getting the ball into dangerous places simply was disappointing. Clearly the Hammerheads had studied up on RSL and they knew how to disrupt our passing lanes and were good at knowing when to apply pressure and where. Too often Burrito was forced back into the midfield to help out, Jordan Allen saw the ball too infrequently and when Devon would hold the ball up, few others got into positions to support the attack. All of this left RSL with limited chances in the first half, mainly set piece efforts and shots from distance.
RSL scored at least a goal in their first 8 matches, actually RSL scored 2 goals in 6 of their first 8 matches. However in the last 3 RSL has been unable to find the back of the net, so heading into a big match at Sporting KC, they will look to heat things up, scoring, winning, and hopefully not fouls and cards.
For the last 5 years the budding rivalry has been one of the best on the pitch rivalries in MLS, what got heated up in the preseason of 2011 hit a peak on a chilly December day in 2013 as the teams fought for the MLS Cup in a match filled with controversy and eventual heartbreak for RSL in PKs. How tight is the rivalry, since that preseason match RSL and KC have each won 4 matches and there have been just 2 draws. The edge goes to RSL in recent history, as SKC hasn’t beaten RSL since that December MLS Cup match, RSL has actually won the last 3 matches 2-1, including their first trip to Children’s Mercy Park earlier this year.
Both sides are a close to fit as one could expect this time of year, RSL probably has the most question marks in their starting lineup, but there will be no excuses on Saturday. Both sides will lose players after this match as Copa Americana gets started in a couple weeks, for the USMNT 3 players will highlight in the match. RSL’s Kyle Beckerman will join SKC’s Graham Zusi and Matt Besler as part of the 23 man US roster.
Both of these teams are on 17 points, both sides have given up 14 goals and neither side has a positive goal differential. Of course RSL has played 3 fewer matches, which could be seen as both a positive and negative as far as these number go. So who will come out on top on Saturday? and why?
It was a crazy week for me, so I wasn’t able to get a match preview done before the scheduled 6:30pm kickoff on Saturday for the RSL at Houston Dynamo match, but crazy also can describe the weather in Houston and due to severe weather in the area the match was delayed until Sunday morning/afternoon with a 12:00 kickoff.
So that means I have enough time to put together a quick match preview for you. RSL went into Colorado last weekend with a chance to secure the 2016 version of the Rocky Mountain Cup, but the Rapids aren’t a pushover anymore. Despite doing most things right, RSL looked a bit off all night, it may have been the awful weather, a early second half play by the Rapids found a wide open Jermaine Jones in the area and he put the ball in the back of the net for the only goal of the night.
So now RSL needs to put that behind them and take advantage of the struggling Dynamo, who have a 2-6-2 record so far this year and are just 2-1-2 at home. They Dynamo are also coming off a busy week that saw them on the wrong end of a 3-1 scoreline in San Jose on Wednesday, so while an extra few hours of rest may help them RSL should still be the much fresher team.
I really haven’t considered the Colorado Rapids much of a rival over the last few years as they have struggled to be competitive in both the league and Rocky Mountain Cup. Last year the Rapids won the RMC for the first time in 6 years, but still finished as the bottom team in the Western Conference. So on Saturday, RSL will start their first of 5 straight on the road at Colorado, where a win would move them to the top of MLS as well securing the 2016 version of the RMC.
If you had picked RSL and Colorado to be at the top of the Western Conference after 8 matches, well you probably also had Leicester City picked to win the EPL back in August of last year. OK maybe it isn’t that big of a longshot, but clearly both sides have found their form quickly in 2016, so this match should be an exciting one. The RSL offense is one of the top in MLS with 14 goals scored, while the Rapids have one of the best defenses with just 8 goals allowed in their first 9 matches. RSL holds the all time lead between the two sides with a 14-11-10 record, and RSL has 4 wins and 5 draws vs the Rapids on the road including a 1-0 win in 2014.
Early on in the season it was Marco Pappa pulling the strings for the Rapids but he has been out a couple weeks with an injury, but several others have stepped up. First of them is Jermaine Jones who has served his suspension and in his 3 matches back he has 2 goals and 2 assists. There is also their new DP Shkelzen Gashi, who also has 2 goals and 2 assists this season. It is started to become clear last year with the signing of Kevin Doyle, that the Rapids were starting to take things a bit more seriously. The question is will their fans notice or care? Attendance is still barely averaging 14,000 and if you have seen there games you know that is being very generous.
So what will RSL need to do in order to get a result in Colorado?
Did we all think after coming in mid year that this year we would see more from Juan Manual “Burrito” Martinez, sure. Did we all hope that Joao Plata would return to his 2013 form after injuries last year, sure. Did we all think bringing back Yura Movsisyan would help the RSL offense, sure. Did we all think that younger guys like Jordan Allen and Justen Glad had a ton of potential to make RSL better, sure. Did any of us think Sunny would step in and make this much of a difference right away, nope. Did all of us think we had serious issues at CB heading into this season, yup. Do most of us still think we have those issues at CB, probably
The first 8 matches of RSL season have come as a surprise to just about everyone, but I doubt many people are disappointed given the team has the best PPM 2.13 in the league and our 5-1-2 record is mighty good given some of the early season injuries, suspensions and mistakes. I think a lot of us noticed something different about the team early on, the amount of fight when faced with things going wrong seemed much better than last year.
While all of us are impressed with where RSL is after the first 8 matches, things could have been better a couple of bad red cards in two of the first 3 matches, along with a couple of mental and physical breakdowns late in matches left RSL exposed late and the team ended up with a couple of draws in matches that could have and probably should have been wins. Imagine what people would be saying about a 7-1-0 start by RSL. Still you have to deal with the hands you are given sometimes and I believe the team learned a lot about itself in those tough situations, something that will pay off over the long MLS season.
On Saturday night in their 2-1 win over Houston we saw RSL do something rare in MLS, get a win after giving up the first goal. For RSL it is actually the second time this season they have done it, they also did it again Seattle in our 2-1 win over them. The only team that has shown the ability to come from behind better than RSL has been the LA Galaxy who have won 3 and gotten 2 draws after giving up the first goal.
With the turf coming up at Rio Tinto after Saturday’s match RSL will look to rebound from their loss at LA with a win over Houston. The biggest question is what Houston team will they face, the team that scored 11 goals in their first 3 matches, or the one who has scored just 2 in their last 4? The one thing in common that both RSL and Houston have is that they both were recently spanked by the Galaxy (the best team in MLS the last few weeks).
So RSL will need to find a way to quickly put last weekend out of their minds and focus on getting the full 3 points against Houston before they head out on the road. They will do so without Plata, could be without Burrito, and have a Javi and Sunny that are still working their way back to full fitness, and facing a team that has looked to play more conservatively than they did at the start of the season. After being thrashed at home by the Galaxy, they went on the road at Columbus and played a much more defensive style and while they still ended up on the losing end of the match, they did play much better. I expect against a RSL team that has scored goals in every match, that once again on the road Houston will be looking to play defensively and hope to counter or take advantage of any RSL mistakes. While they picked up a red card early in the match against Columbus, it was back up keeper Tyler Deric who saw red and was replaced by their regular starter (so far this season) Joe Willis.
So one area of focus all year in MLS matches has been the officials, and it has been for good reason as many strange calls have been made or not made so far this year. Nima Saghafi will be the ref in charge of the match, it will be just his MLS match as the main official. In his previous match there was a red card and two PK’s given, the red card looked very legit but the PK’s had a bit more question about them. We will see how this new official handles the match on Saturday.