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.
Last year it was RSL that scored a couple of early goals against the LA Galaxy at Rio Tinto, but were unable to hold on, this year it was the Galaxy who were able to get two early goals but despite an onslaught they were able to hold on. The first 20 minutes of the match reminded me a lot of the match against the MN Stars last year, when several players appeared to think that they could get by with something less than 100% readiness and sharpness. It is easy to understand at one level, you are a top level athlete and you see the starting lineup for your opposition and missing are the biggest names, and in their place are several guys getting their first ever MLS start, and several others have played a bit but aren’t guys that you know much about.
The first goal LA scored was a textbook set piece play for them, they looked beyond their big targets and found a hard charging, wait for it, wait, Mike Magee who was able to get over Tony Beltran and in front of Nat Borchers to head the ball past Nick Rimando. RSL tried to answer back but it was, Charlie Rugg who would get the next goal, and less than 15 minutes into the match RSL was down 2-0. That score would hold as the LA Galaxy simply changed to a deny tactic, they would occasionally make a run on a counter attack but they simply sat back and clogged the passing lanes. LA also got some great saves from Brian Rowe, who made a couple of fingertip saves and got the benefit of the crossbar and post to help out on some saves.
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.
So I have been AWOL for a couple of weeks, this is what can happen when life and work collide with passion and hobby. Anyhow a lot of thoughts about the last couple of weeks, but all of that will be covered and more, to get started I thought I would offer my thoughts on the last 3 matches during which RSL has looked good at moments but too often mistakes have left us without the desired and often deserved result.
Starting with the 1-0 loss at the Rapids to kick off April, a match in which a simple failure to clear a ball out of the area allowed it to ping pong around and past Nick Rimando, and a failed PK attempt by Alvaro Saborio were the key plays in a match where RSL otherwise was the superior side. It isn’t often on the road in MLS where you see a side dominate possession by a 60% to 40% edge over the home side, or where the visiting team has 130 more passes than the home team, but those are the facts of what happened. The match reminds us that soccer can be a cruel mistress and it leaves RSL in a hole heading into the final match of the Rocky Mountain Cup later this summer. Perhaps the only good things to come out of the match were the performances by Devon Sandoval (his first MLS start) and Olmes Garcia, both of whom did very well for first year players and have forced themselves into a real dogfight for minutes at the top of the RSL formation.
We can all face facts, first these two teams don’t like each other much, their fans don’t like each other, and well Colorado is a desperate team. They have no wins so far this year, they haven’t held the Rocky Mountain Cup in 6 seasons, and well they are the Rapids. The fact that these two teams are meeting for the second time in the first 5 weeks of the season seems a bit nuts to me as I would think they would spread rivalry matches over the course of the season, and maybe feature them on holidays or other big weekends. We know how big this series is to each team, and the series is as even as they come with each side having 9 wins, and their being 8 ties between the two sides. RSL has scored 27 goals and the Rapids 24 goals, the Rapids do hold and edge when the match is played in Colorado, they have 6 wins to RSL’s 2 with 4 draws. The Rapids have won just 2 matches against RSL in the last 4 seasons, but RSL haven’t won at Dick’s since 2007, if RSL want to keep the Rocky Mountain Cup, they most likely will need to figure out a way to get a win in Colorado this year. So let’s take a look at the match:
Javier Morales – for RSL there is no denying the fact that a healthy Javier Morales makes them a better team, when he is 100 percent he is one of the best creative players in MLS. He marked his first minutes of 2013 coming on for the final 28 minutes against Seattle last week, he got a huge standing ovation from the crowd at Rio Tinto Stadium from the fans who appreciate what he means to the team. While I have no doubt that he will see action against Colorado, could this be the time he gets his first goal against them? I think expecting anything special from him while he is working his way back to full fitness is unrealistic but with Javi you just never know.
Sorry for bailing on all of you last week, it was a crazy work week combined with a bought of the stomach flu, which resulted in very little other than those two things getting dealt with. So a catch up post is in order, and lets get started with the RSL home opener on the 16th.
The afternoon the sun was shining, the pitch was green, the stands were full of fans, it was a perfect day for the 2013 Home Opener for Real Salt Lake. The match was a physical one, which saw Matt Pickens break his arm within the first 10 minutes of the match, and while there weren’t a lot of fouls (19) or cards (3, all yellows) it was one of the more physical matches I can remember seeing in some time. With just a few minutes left in the first half, a bad play by Chris Schuler was taken advantage of my Colorado’s Deshorn Brown to give the Rapids a 1-0 lead heading into half time.
If you looked at the stats of the match, you would see that things looked rather typical for a RSL home match, things like 69.2% of the possession, a 603 to 262 edge in passes, a passing accuracy edge of 88% to 68%, but in few areas RSL’s numbers were a bit puzzling, like the 40% of duals won, or the fact of just 4 of 19 shots being on goal.
Well it is the busiest time of year at work for me, and for the second straight year it matches up with the RSL home opener. Still how can you not be excited for the first home match of the season? Then add in it is a Rocky Mountain Cup match, and the only one that will be at Rio Tinto this year, so the stakes for the team and fans are huge. It is nice to see that RSL was smart enough to schedule an early start time to take advantage of the daylight hours early when the weather conditions can still be a big issue. I expect it will probably be a sell out or close to it, which should make for a great way to kick of what I think will be a huge home season for RSL this year. So all that being said, let’t talk about the match.
Lovel Palmer – One of the real high spots for me in the DC United match last weekend was the energy and effectiveness that Lovel had on both sides of the ball when he came on. With Abdoulie Mansally suspended for the match, we could see Palmer put into the starting lineup and even if not, I expect that with how he showed last weekend that we will see him at some point during the match. The RMC matches are a tough one to make your starting debut for RSL, but maybe it could be the start of something great for RSL & Lovel Palmer.
Kyle Beckerman – The only player who has never lost the Rocky Mountain Cup will be in his normal place at the back of the diamond for RSL on Saturday, Kyle won two RMC’s with the Rapids, and now six with RSL. It is a testament to Kyle’s physical and mental toughness, as well as his never say die attitude on the pitch that had him go from hated rival to one of the most beloved players in RSL history. It is only fitting that Kyle is the player featured on the home opener ticket. I expect another classic performance from Kyle.
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.