Well the regular MLS season is winding down and while RSL sits near the top of the Western Conference and overall MLS table, questions still remain for me. When will the real RSL show up and stay? For the 15th time in 28 matches RSL gave up the first goal to their opponent on Wednesday night, and for the 9th time they managed to grab at least a point after giving up that first goal. That number speaks to the fact this club never stops fighting, but it also speaks to the fact that we give up the first goal way too often. Is it tactics? Motivation? Mental lapses? Questionable defense? Or a combination of some or all of those? I am not sure but it sure drives me nuts (and I expect others as well), as does the 40 goals allowed, only two teams in the West have given up more goals this season, and thankfully we play one of them next.
The Portland Timbers, the defending MLS Cup champions, have seemed to be a team on a season long celebration hangover. They are clinging onto the final playoff spot in the West with a 9-11-8 record and 35 points from 28 matches. The Timbers have just 3 wins since the 4th of July and a 3-5-3 record during that time period. Those 3 wins all came at home and all in what would appear to be convincing manner, 3-1 over Seattle, 3-0 over SKC and 4-2 over Seattle again.
RSL visited Portland in third week of the season and it ended up being a contentious 2-2 draw that saw RSL get a 1-0 lead early, go down to 10 men in the 31st minute, go up 2-0, give up a goal, go down another man and then give up another goal to end up with a 2-2 draw. The sides faced off a second time in June at Rio Tinto and again RSL got off to an early 1-0 lead, then gave up 2 first half goals but managed to come from behind to secure another 2-2 draw vs the Timbers.
So the rubber match will take place in Portland on Saturday, it is huge for both teams as RSL look to keep pace at the top of the Western Conference playoff race while the Timbers look to keep the 3 team close behind them for the final playoff spot beneath them.
RSL’s form has been improving over the last few weeks and peaking at the right time is what it is all about in MLS. With wins over FC Dallas, Colorado and Chicago at home last month we saw what we knew RSL was capable of, domination over weaker opponents, fighting hard against quality opponents and defeating rivals.
Wednesday night I believe RSL’s biggest match of the rest of the regular season will happen at Rio Tinto as they play host to the LA Galaxy. RSL and LA both have played 27 matches and both teams have 43 points from those matches, both would love to finish in the top 2 in the West and avoid a playoff first round match. LA won their first match in over a month this weekend with a 2-1 win over the Columbus Crew, to be fair it was a solid win but like RSL’s win over Chicago last month it was an expected win.
For RSL we may be getting LA at a time they are ripe for the picking with Van Damme, Gerrard on short term injuries and unlikely to play, Gyazi Zardes out for the season and Robbie Keane a question mark after he made his farewell from international duty with Ireland last week. Still as RSL has seen almost any lineup that Bruce Arena puts out is dangerous and with weapons still like Lletget, dos Santos, Boateng and Mike Magee, this is a team that can score a lot of goals and a defense that is only giving up 1 per match.
I know I am one of the few fans who consider LA our greatest rivals, given our history with them in the playoff and the fact that despite the occasional blowout the two teams almost always put on a great show when facing each other. LA holds a 1 match lead in regular season matches where they have 13 wins to RSL’s 12 with the two sides drawing against each other 7 times. At home RSL has been dominant with a 6-3-6 record and a 26 to 19 goal advantage. RSL will be looking to make amends for the early season 5-2 disaster back in April, a match in which RSL scored first but couldn’t close the door on their opponents. This year is a real anomaly with RSL having just 6 wins from the 12 matches in which they scored first, but also having 6 wins from the 14 matches in which they gave up the first goal. Which RSL will we see on Wednesday night?
In a early Friday night match, RSL will play host to the Colorado Rapids in a key matchup in the Western Conference. The Rapids sit in 2nd place with 43 points in 24 matches, while RSL is just behind them with 40 points in 26 matches. This match will also decide the winner of the 2016 version of the Rocky Mountain Cup, RSL won the first leg 1-0 at home, while the Rapids won by the same margin in the second leg in Colorado. RSL must deal with the fact that the Rapids simply don’t lose often, just 3 losses in 24 matches the fewest in MLS with most teams having at least double the number of losses. Playing into RSL’s favor in this match is the fact that the Rapids have just 2 road wins this year and all 3 of their losses have come on the road. The Rapids have a -4 goal differential on the road, while RSL enjoys a +8 at home and are undefeated with a 7-0-5 record at Rio Tinto.
With just 8 matches remaining in the RSL season, there is little time left to close the gap between the teams above them in the standings and try to avoid a playoff play in match. Four of the next 5 matches, including this one will be played at home for RSL so there is a great chance to extend their unbeaten streak at home and move up the table at the same time as both. In order to take advantage of their home matches RSL will need to find their scoring touch again, after an early season run of multiple goal matches, RSL has scored 2 or more goals just twice since mid June.
The Rapids come in just one win in their last 5 and have ended up with draws in their last two matches at LA and last weekend vs Orlando at home. The Rapids have scored just 27 goals this season and their scoring is very balanced with 9 players having multiple goals and none of them having more than 4. The arrival of Jermaine Jones this off season has helped change the mentality of the Rapids on the pitch to that of a team that battles and fights for everything and the mid-summer arrival of Tim Howard gives them a true leader in goal. They also picked up MLS journeyman Sebastian LeToux in the summer window to give them an added physical presence up top to help with scoring. We may not see Jones due to an injury, but this is till a very good team that plays huge defense and takes advantage of their scoring chances.
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.
A 0-0 draw at home against an opponent that you should beat is simply disappointing and that is exactly what RSL fans were treated to. When RSL dominates an opponent and fails to get a result, at least the match can be entertaining, at least fans can draw hope that eventually the goals will come, but when the team simply looks disjointed it leaves one with lots of questions. So 14 shots for RSL, to 12 for New England, 2 shots on target for RSL and 1 for New England, a 52% to 48% edge in possession for RSL but much of that seemed to be in our own end of the pitch.
Prior to the match there was another issue facing RSL, a member of the Salt Lake Tribune’s sports staff was denied access to the Rio Tinto press box and their RSL credentials were revoked. There are statements from both sides that support their stance on the issue and for me the reality of the situation is probably somewhere between the two statements. I have never been a huge fan of Gordon Monson, largely because he writes about the Utah Jazz and I care nothing about the NBA. He has over the past two years written two articles about RSL that I have found interesting, both question how decisions are being made after Dell Loy Hansen took full ownership of RSL. Both take issue with what Monson called the dismantling of those who helped build RSL from a disappointing expansion side to a dominant force within MLS.
Was his take a bit simplistic? Yes in some ways, but were there also some legitimate questions being asked? Yes, one would have to be blind to the rapid pace of change at the top of RSL once DLH took over. First losing Jason Kreis as head coach, due to a lowball offer and then losing GM Garth Lagewey who was looking to take on more responsibility (which seemed to make sense at the time) but then letting Bill Manning go as well, and wondering why not hold onto Garth given that move had to be in mind. These are all questions that many fans have asked me online and offline over the last 3 years.
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.
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.