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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.