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.
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.
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.
Real Salt Lake will head into Portland looking to continue the improvement they showed against Seattle in this critical stretch of 6 matches to begin the season. While there is still room to be better on both sides of the ball, the way RSL reacted after giving up the first goal last Saturday shows a fight that was often lacking in 2015, and the team should be able to build upon that. Without Javier Morales the side was still able to create chances, but Seattle was able to dictate much of the match be played at their pace and style, it sounds like Javi will rejoin the starting lineup for Saturday.
However, Jamison Olave has picked up a knock and hasn’t trained fully with the team this week, add in that the match is on the turf and it could a smart move to rest him this weekend. That could open the door to give Justen Glad his first start of the season, or to move Chris Wingert over to the middle of the backline and bring back Demar Phillips who is done serving his one match suspension. I expect the first option is probably the way things would go given how well Glad did in the preseason, especially the match against the Crew where he and Wingert did a great job in keeping Kei Kamara from being too dangerous.
Real Salt Lake is desperate to remove the stigma of 2015 that crept into their season opener on Sunday, with a red card and then late goals given up to turn a win into a draw. Meanwhile the Sounders are simply looking to take “the step” to MLS Cup, in their 7th season in the league you have to believe that few teams are under more pressure to not only make the playoffs but hoist MLS Cup as the Sounders are. So while it is just week two in a very long season, both sides will be looking to get a win on Saturday afternoon at Rio Tinto Stadium.
One huge story for Saturday could be who doesn’t play, for RSL a rib injury to Javier Morales kept him out of training on Thursday and he is unlikely for Saturday, and RSL will be without Demar Phillips who will be serving his red card suspension. Seattle comes in without Brad Evans who picked up an injury on Sunday, but both Erik Friberg and Tyronne Mears returned to practice for the Sounders and will likely play a role on Saturday. The Sounders will be without Oniel Fisher who will be serving his red card suspension. The loss of two starting defenders could be a huge factor in the match on Saturday if RSL can find a way to take advantage of it.
RSL holds a slight lead in the head to head matches with 7 wins to Seattle’s 6 and 4 draws when the two sides meet. Last year RSL won 2-0 at home and lost 1-3 in Seattle.
I am going to start with a personal rant, if you saw my tweets during the Capital One Cup final you know I am not a fan of cutesy PK attempts, that includes exaggerated stutter steps. Javi has made it work for him more often than not but I have never been a fan of it and tonight it bite RSL in the ass in a moment when a goal was needed most.
OK, with that out of the way. Wow, that was a hell of a match for RSL, a bit of a slow start but soon RSL put their foot on the gas and applied great high pressure causing all kinds of confusion for Tigres and especially for their keeper who seemed on the edge of a nervous breakdown until stoppage time. It was clear that RSL frustrated Tigres in the first half of the match, the insanely high line at times, great pressure on the ball, and players showing no fear of the Liga MX side. While there were mistakes made, none were costly until there was nothing left on the clock and desperation forced RSL to play to either score a goal or give one up, and unfortunately they gave one up.
I am going to start at the back and work my way forward with my thoughts on the individual performances tonight.
Every coach and player will always tell you they are playing for the win, and they are but then you have reality that sometimes says “The better team, the in form team, the deeper team wins most often” and reality is right. On Wednesday night RSL had to play a perfect match to get a win in Monterrey against Tigres and they were far from perfect, so there was no win. That doesn’t mean everything was wrong, or went wrong, there were both positives and negatives that the team can use to improve itself as the series moves to the second leg and their MLS season approaches. Recovering from a 0-2 deficit will not be easy against a quality Tigres side, neither MLS team that played their first leg at home were able to get a win vs their Liga MX opponent as both LA and Seattle ended with draws in their matches.
First a few of the positives that I saw on Wednesday, Sunny Obayan playing in his first real match for RSL looked like he both understood what was being asked of him and was able to work well with the other midfielders. That is a huge step for a player who had only a couple weeks of preseason with the team, and could be a real positive as the season moves forward. While he was playing a largely defensive role for RSL on Wednesday, during the preseason we have seen his work on the offensive side of the ball as well. In the match he attempted 24 passes, connecting on 22 of them for a 92% success rate according to the CONCACAF site, MLS had him completing 20 and missing on 4, still a great number for his first match.
When you think about the reality that Real Salt Lake is still about 2 weeks from the start of their MLS season, and facing a team that many expect to win the CONCACAF Champions League, the hill is steep. It doesn’t mean you don’t try, it means you have to be very smart in how you approach things, but I don’t thing RSL needs to be afraid of Tigres. The reality is that in soccer the better team doesn’t always win, we have been on the losing side of matches in the past where we simply were the better team. So for me it is all about playing within yourself, knowing that you are facing a quality opponent that is in form as they are 7 matches into their season already (3-2-2 with 13 GF and 9 GA).
I fully expect the RSL lineup to be the same as the lineup they went with in their Saturday morning scrimmage with FC Tucson:
Beltran – Olave – Maund – Phillips
Sunny – Beckerman – Morales
Burrito – Yura – Plata
To get a result in Monterrey will require playing simple, not making mistakes and taking advantage of any opportunities that may present themselves.