Starting on Saturday, June 1st Real Salt Lake will face the San Jose Earthquakes, the 2013 Supporter’s Shield winner, at Rio Tinto Stadium it is the first of 4 MLS matches they will play in June. Three of those matches will be played at home, after hosting San Jose, the defending MLS Cup Champions will come to town on June 8th and while the Galaxy will be missing a few players on National team duty, so will RSL. RSL will be looking for some revenge for the 2-0 defeat at the hands of the Galaxy earlier this season at Rio Tinto Stadium.
During the World Cup qualifying break RSL will play host to the Charleston Battery in the 4th round of the US Open Cup, a match that RSL will need to win if their plans of hoisting the US Open Cup and using it to qualify for the CONCACAF Champions League. RSL advanced to the 4th round via a 3-2 win over the Atlanta Silverbacks, a match that required a pair of extra time goals to advance. I expect the team will be up for the match, as it will lead into a 10 day break for the players.
RSL will then pick up the MLS schedule on June 22nd when the Seattle Sounders come to town for their second visit of the year, the first match saw RSL pick up a 2-1 victory, which while nice was far from satisfying after the loss to the Sounders in last year’s playoffs. This match will end the trifecta of home matches against Western Conference foes, all three of which made the playoffs last year. After the disappointment of giving up a late goal to the Chicago Fire last weekend, which forced a 1-1 draw, the goal of getting 10 points from the 4 match homestand became a bit more difficult but still something within the range of possibilities.
A bit more detail about each of the June matches:
Well a four match home stand provided RSL with a perfect chance to gain ground on their Western Conference opponents but a late goal given up to the Chicago Fire leaves RSL with just a 1-1 draw to show from what on paper was a dominating performance. I like stats as much as the next person but in soccer I have found that few stats really matter, the couple that really do are scoring first (RSL is 5-1-2 this year when scoring first, 14-1-0 last year) and the home team will most often win in MLS (RSL is 64-28-34 all time at home), beyond those two there is little on the stat sheet that matters. Take Saturday as an example, RSL had a 67.5% to 32.5% edge in possession, RSL had 572 passes, Chicago had 251, RSL completed 87% of their passes, Chicago just 73%, RSL took 20 shots to 12 for the Fire, had 9 of those on goal to just 2 for the Fire, but the final scored didn’t reflect that, instead it showed 1-1. It is what it is, and while it is a bitter pill to swallow for players, staff and fans, it shows that there is no such thing as an easy match, no such thing as a sure thing in soccer. Now it is about moving forward.
On Tuesday night, RSL will again attempt to advance in the US Open Cup, they will face a NASL side in the Atlanta Silverbacks, a team that they should by all accounts defeat with any 11 of their players in the lineup. Of course this is soccer and there are no sure things, last year RSL went out on a limb and bought the hosting rights for their opening US Open Cup match. In return the visiting Minnesota Stars thumped RSL 3-1 in a match that could have been much worse on the scoreline as RSL looked flat and the Stars had nothing to lose in a match where few would have picked them to win. So be it a year later or 3 days later from disappointing results, it is about how you pick yourself up, about how you respond.
It is an interesting question that plaques fans around Major League Soccer, and one that RSL fans are familiar with, “What matters most”? Each year there are four trophies that MLS teams have a chance to compete for, the US Open Cup, the Supporters’ Shield, MLS Cup, and a select few teams compete for the CONCACAF Champions League trophy. Which of these is the most important for teams and their fans?
I think that the Supporters’ Shield has lost a lot of the prestige it once held, now I know that some people will say that the new format of the season shouldn’t matter as MLS often played what was an unbalanced schedule in the past, and they are correct. What those people miss is that in every season before 2012, every MLS team played every other MLS team at least twice a year, once at home and once away. 2012 marks the first time that the schedule failed to at least have that commonality to it, and while teams often would play more than those matches, they always at least played those. So while the Supporters’ Shield holds a lower spot for many than it once did, it does still hold a couple of huge rewards for the team that wins it. First, the team with the best record can look forward to being the home team throughout the playoffs and that includes hosting MLS Cup if they make it that far. Second, and maybe more importantly is a spot in the following years CONCACAF Champions League tournament.
Then there is the red headed step child of soccer in the US, the Lamar Hunt US Open Cup. I am not sure why this tournament has failed to take grip in the US, but I believe a part of the reason is that while soccer is very popular in the US, the lack of TV coverage both of MLS and the US Open Cup mean few people know the players or teams. Of course some of the soccer purists I know will say that US Soccer’s constant changing of who can play in the tournament and how hosting rights are determined also hurt the legitimacy of the US Open Cup. I am not sure if the US Open Cup will ever become as popular and important to fans and teams as it should be in the US, until there are core changes in the tournament, but while there is prize money at the end of the rainbow again the biggest prize is a coveted CCL spot.