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.
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.
I get that it might lack the prestige to some of Seattle vs Portland, or New York vs New York, but for my money there simply is no better rivalry in MLS than RSL vs LA. It is as much about how things are done within the organizations as it is the battles on the pitch for me.
You have LA, the team that probably writes most of the MLS roster rules over the year, and given the investment AEG has made in MLS over the years it almost is understandable. The DP rule was created to allow the Galaxy to sign David Beckham, he wasn’t the first player the league discussed changing the rules for but he was the one that made it happen. Their current roster are mega DP’s like Steven Gerrard, Gio dos Santos and the best DP in MLS history Robbie Keane, with that they have European imports Nigel de Jong, Ashley Cole, Jelle Van Damme. They also picked up MLS stars Jeff Larentowicz and Mike Magee, which compliments guys like Robbie Rogers, AJ DeLaGarza, Gyasi Zardes, Jose Villareal, Baggio Husidic and Sebastian Lletget. I am always amazed how they keep this type of roster within the cap, but that is the magic of allocation money.
On the other hand, RSL have brought in players but never break the bank guys, the biggest signings in the club’s history have come in recent months with the arrival of Juan Manuel “Burrito” Martinez late last year and the return of Yura Movsisyan this year. The core of the team are the guys who were brought in almost a decade ago, Nick Rimando, Javier Morales, Kyle Beckerman, and Tony Beltran even returning guys like Chris Wingert and Yura. Then toss in some of the young players, like Glad, Plata, Allen, and guys who have yet to make an impact like Kavita, Holnes, Acosta, Attinella, and others. RSL has pushed the salary cap not with the huge signings but by raising the salaries of their veteran core, which probably takes as much work as the mega DP route that LA takes.
So let me be clear, there were some very pretty moments in the match for RSL and one only has to listen to Brian Dunseth remind us that Juan Manuel “Burrito” Martinez is “Killing careers one vine at a time” or read what RSL head coach Jeff Cassar had to say after the match
“I wish I knew what he was going to do every time because he does some really special things. He (Martinez) got out of some really tricky situations. All of our attacking players are extremely talented and when they’re playing with each other you can do special things you can do some things that you don’t necessarily think are going to happen because you trust the player that is giving the ball to you. I think that we can still get even better. That is what is exciting.”
to understand there were some simply amazing moments on Saturday night. Still if you watched the match you know how bad the first 20 minutes or so looked as Vancouver came out like it was a playoff match and were pressing high and causing chaos for the RSL defense. Still despite the early mistakes and pressure, RSL didn’t give up a goal in fact RSL created a few good chances on counters early on but were unable to get the early goal. I think the biggest difference between last year and this year (so far) is that in ugly close matches last year we lost leads and often lost matches. So far this year even when we have lost leads, we have managed not to lose those matches, we have recovered or withstood adversity early on this season and as things get better (play, form, fitness, injuries) results should stay very good.
I sure didn’t pick RSL to be this good, this soon but heading into a long road trip in a couple weeks it sure will be helpful to have gotten off to such a positive start to the season. The reality is but for a few last minute mistakes RSL could be sitting at 5-0-0, despite already having given up 2 PK’s and having been given a league leading 3 red cards. So a 3-0-2 start is a very good way to have started the season, despite the injuries and suspensions.
Perhaps the strong start is actually a result of these things, RSL has already had 19 players see first team minutes, has gotten goals from 6 different players. No player has gotten off to a hotter start than Joao Plata, with 4 goals and 3 assists, but the performances of several guys has been noteworthy, including how quickly Sunday “Sunny” Stephen has adjusted both to RSL and MLS. The second serving of Juan Manuel “Burrito” Martinez has been better than the first as he has shown the ability to be as creative as any player in MLS with the ball at his feel, and as Javier Morales returns from injury the options for RSL simply make the job of picking just 11 starters difficult for Jeff Cassar.
Vancouver owned RSL last year, winning all 3 matches against us by a combined 7-1 scoreline, in fact RSL hasn’t beaten Vancouver since Jeff took over as head coach we are 0-4-2 against them. This year’s Whitecaps side has struggled to start the season, after a pair of losses to start the season, Pedro Morales carried them to wins at Seattle and over Houston, but he left injured against the LA Galaxy a match the ended in a 0-0 draw and then last weekend at DC United they got beat badly by a pair of former RSL’ers as both Fabian Espindola and Alvaro Saborio put in two against them in a 4-0 loss. To be fair the Whitecaps have battled injuries since the start of the season, and of their 6 goals 4 have come from the PK spot. In fact each of the 6 goals they have scored this year have come from a set piece, something RSL will want to avoid giving them.
It is now beyond RSL’s depth as suspension and injuries force the team to bring up a couple of Monarch’s players just to fill out their roster when they take on Sporting KC on Saturday night. Let’s start with the things that were avoidable, the red cards and suspensions:
- Kyle Beckerman – Red Card vs Portland
- Jamison Olave – Red Card vs Portland
- Juan Manuel “Burrito” Martinez – MLS disciplinary action vs Portland
It is hard enough to beat a rival, even harder when it is a pretty good SKC team, but to do so without 3 starters all suspended for what one has to consider silly and pointless fouls it doesn’t do the club any favors. Now for RSL when you add in what all of a sudden is a rash of injuries:
- Javier Morales (broken ribs)
- Emery Welshman (hip flexor)
- Olmes Garcia (ankle)
- Omar Holness (shoulder)
- Boyd Okwuonu (concussion)
- Phanuel Kavita (knee)
The issues were so bad and deep that RSL used a hardship clause to bring up both Emilio Orozco and Andrew Brody for the match. I don’t expect either to see action but one never knows.
So with CCL in charge media access to RSL practice consisted of 15-20 minutes of watching the guys stretch (across the field from where we were stationed) a 45 minute wait and then a quick interview session with HC Jeff Cassar and Captain Kyle Beckerman (and Joao Plata if you knew Spanish).
What did come out is that there is a bug making it’s way thru the RSL locker room, 3 players missed practice today due to it and all of them were starters in the first leg and likely starters in the second; Javier Morales, Juan Manuel “Burrito” Martinez and Demar Phillips. Coach Cassar said he believes all 3 would be probable for Wednesday’s match but one never knows. On the upside Luke Mulholland was a full participant in practice today so he may be a player that could make the 18 man roster.
Should those 3 players not be able to go one would have to expect some easy subs for Burrito, by bringing in Olmes Garica who has had a good preseason, for Demar Phillips you bring in Chris Wingert, but Javi’s shoes are very hard to fill, do you bring in Jordan Allen who is training to be that backup but is fairly new to the position? Do you bring in Luke and put either him, Kyle or Sunny at the point of the attack? You could bring in John Stertzer and push Kyle or Sunny forward to be the playmaker?
I wouldn’t want to be Jeff if any of those three are unable to go, but hopefully each will get some fluids and be back in action on Wednesday.
I will post my prematch thoughts tomorrow morning.
That’s How I See It
So this morning in Tucson the first team for RSL, likely starters for next weeks CCL match, played a 45 minute scrimmage vs FC Tucson and while I got there a few minutes late it was clearly the Plata and Burrito show as Joao found the back of the net 3 times and had an assist on Martinez’s goal (Burrito had the assist on Plata’s first goal).
Now one should expect that RSL’s top guys should have been able to handle the amateur side fairly easily, and they did but FC Tucson pressed hard and played well as to give RSL a good workout. RSL focused on their positioning and communication as you could hear Nick Rimando constantly reminding guys to communicate.
A couple things stuck out to me, one was that Demar Phillips looked very involved on both sides of the ball, his positioning seemed very in flow with the match, going forward at the right time and being in position on defense whenn second was that Joao is ready to pick up where he left off in 2014 when he had a breakout year. Joao’s runs were well timed and he was able to find gaps to work in often with some great balls played to him by both Juan Manuel and Javier Morales.