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?
Listen the reality is that RSL blew as bad as they have ever sucked on Saturday in their 5-1 home loss to expansion side LAFC. In a season where the team needs to find a way to be dominant at home, they were anything but and at some point it looked like guys didn’t give a crap anymore. The gaps are clear and while it may seem easy to point blame, enough people have pointed to Demar Phillips, but the reality is he was one of the guys getting the ball forward and nobody filled in when he went forward. You can point a finger a Luis Silva who did nothing, you can point fingers at every single player at some point of the match.
So here is what we can do, we can admit that there is more than enough blame for the players and the coaching staff to go around. What I care about is what happens on Saturday when we have to face an actually good team, a team that is doing well in Champions League, that in their home opener they beat Portland 4-0 in a match that wasn’t even close.
There was a single highlight of the match for RSL, it was the fact that Joao Plata was fortunate enough to be in the right place to put his blocked PK effort back into the back of the net. He celebrated by doing push ups:
While this was a cute goal celebration, it was the only thing worth being happy about.
For Real Salt Lake the 2018 season opened with a road draw at FC Dallas that was both rewarding and frustrating, but a point from the road is a point from the road. Now it is time to talk about the home opener on Saturday afternoon when RSL will play host to expansion side LAFC. LAFC are an interesting side who were able to shock the Sounders and beat the defending MLS Cup champs in Seattle on opening day last weekend. LAFC is an interesting expansion side, while their roster is a mix of MLS vets and new international players, the fact they are using just 22 of their roster spots is unusual to say the least. In their first match they only dressed 17 players leaving on spot completely open.
There are some faces RSL fans will recognize, top on that list is Benny Feilhaber, followed closely by MLS journeyman Steven Beitashour, Laurent Ciman, Jordan Harvey, Walker Zimmerman and a few others. The big names signings are Carlos Vela and Diego Rossi, with plenty of room for more as the season progresses. They also have an open one year International spot which they got from Atlanta United, you have to believe that will be used sooner rather than later. In their first match against Seattle they looked like an expansion side, a lot of energy, a lot of mistakes but they play with pace and they love to get the ball into the area to create chaos but they were only able to get 5 shots off during the match. It was an 11th minute goal by Diego Rossie that will go down as the first goal in LAFC history and it was enough to ruin the home opener for the Sounders.
Real Salt Lake looked to be a similar villain and ruin the 2018 home opener for FC Dallas, but the 25th minute goal by Joao Plata wasn’t enough as the late pressure from FC Dallas resulted in a rare RSL own goal by Marcelo Silva. Forcing RSL to settle for just a single point in their first match of the season, but also allowing them to bring home a rare road point from the state of Texas. It was far from a perfect match, but RSL did show some good signs of life and Nick Rimando reminded us that he is really, really good.
Expansion teams haven’t done too well in Salt Lake over the years, only one has won on their first every trip to Utah. It just happens that was last year when Atlanta came to town and picked up a 3-1 over RSL, we were able to pick up a home win last year over ATLs expansion brothers MN United and that is what we will be looking for again 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?
It is time to start a new season of MLS action and for Real Salt Lake it is about delivering on the pitch, Mike Petke has had almost a full season to adjust the roster and tactics of the team and now we need to see that the run at the end of last season wasn’t a fluke.
So, what is that expectation? For me it remains the same each regular season, 15 wins and 50 points. If you make that happen you will make the playoffs. If we had hit that last season we would have ended at the 4th seed in the playoffs, making the playoffs has to be the goal of the regular season, doesn’t it? How do we get there?
Better at home, only one team that made the playoffs in the West last season did it without double digits wins at home (Vancouver). So, can RSL get 11 wins at home? One thing they will need to do is score more goals, while a +10 goal differential may seem good at home with 26 goals scored and 16 allowed, PDX and SEA both had a home +20, Houston had a crazy +26 at home. So to pick up an additional two wins at home, RSL will need to find a way to score more, 7 teams in the West scored more home goals than RSL. The reality is that we failed to take advantage of the elevation at home, we didn’t push other teams to deal with the elevation and it came back to haunt us, I expect that the team’s fitness from day one will be much better in 2018 than what we saw last year.
Real Salt Lake sits above the red line and while their positioning there is based on tie breakers against teams with matches in hand, the reality is those teams Dallas and Houston have been struggling. On Saturday another huge Western Conference showdown will take place at Rio Tinto and RSL will need to do something that no team has been able to do in the last three months, beat Seattle. While RSL has lost just two of their last eleven matches, it has been thirteen matches since the Sounders were last handed a loss.
You expect the Sounders, winners of last year’s MLS Cup, to be a top team in the West. They spend the money, most often wisely, which gets them the big names that should carry a team to the playoffs and beyond. Still this league is anything but a sure thing and the Sounders sat in eighth place at the end of June with a 5-7-6 record, they will enter Saturday’s match at 11-7-11 and in front of RSL by six points with a match in hand.
So while RSL can claim the same numbers of wins as Seattle at 11-14-5, it is the seven loss gap that is why Saturday becomes another “must win” for RSL at home, a swing of six points could be the difference in getting some security in staying above that red line. RSL’s recent form has been a reflection of their season with huge swings of consistency in matches and from match to match. So while you will get a dynamic first 45 minutes like they had against the Timbers in the first half last weekend, you then get a second 45 where they very often look like a team desperately looking to hold on to a result, which they did.
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.
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.