With the announcement of Jeff Cassar as Real Salt Lake head coach, we've all waited with baited breath to see what his first move would be. That first move came Wednesday as Cassar named four assistant coaches - Daryl Shore, Craig Waibel, Andy Williams, and Paul Dalglish. Obviously a lot remains to be seen, but on the surface these look like very intelligent hires by Cassar.
Cassar continued Real Salt Lake’s philosophy of having position-specific coaches (think coordinators in American football), finding assistants with professional coaching and playing experience to help out at all four levels of the field.
Daryl Shore (goalkeepers) was a professional goalkeeper for six years, a head coach in the lower leagues, and was goalkeeper coach with the Chicago Fire for 11 years, mentoring several great shot-stoppers while in Chicago. Craig Waibel (defenders) was a solid MLS center back during his 11-year career, best known as a key piece of that great Houston Dynamo era of the mid 2000's. His background should remind RSL fans of past defensive coaches Robin Fraser and C.J. Brown. Andy Williams (midfielders) is likely the most familiar name in the bunch for RSL faithful as he's been involved with the team since the beginning, and he was a pretty good MLS midfielder to boot. Paul Dalglish (strikers) had a long career at forward in England and Scotland before moving to MLS where he won two MLS Cups alongside Waibel in Houston. Since then he's done a stint as an MLS academy coach and had two head coaching gigs in the NASL and USL PDL.
With these hires, Cassar has sent a clear message about his philosophy and vision of RSL. As players, the four assistants fit well into the RSL mold: Down-to-earth, hard-working, team-first guys who were respected and liked within their teams. What these hires tell me is the core principles that have made RSL such a successful small-market team aren't going to change much. The team will continue to be the star, and the chemistry in the locker room will continue to be paramount.
Obviously Jeff Cassar still has a long ways to go toward proving himself, but the assistant coach hires he just made are an excellent first step.
It's been quite the week for RSL, hasn't it?
First, a trip to Kansas City for MLS Cup, where the team stood toe-to-toe with the Eastern Conference champions at their house in polar conditions for 120 minutes, only to end up going down by the slimmest of margins. About the time the team got home, we hear the words we knew were coming someday but hoped they wouldn't: Our revered head coach, Jason Kreis, is moving on to the next phase of his career in the bright lights of the Big Apple. On top of that, assistant coach C.J. Brown is heading back to Chicago where he is a living legend among Fire faithful. Yes, it's been a trying week for our RSL Family.
But in spite of all that's gone on lately, I have to tell you that I still feel very positive about the future of Real Salt Lake. Just like the final result of MLS Cup somewhat masks what was honestly a very impressive performance by RSL, the news of Jason Kreis' departure somewhat masks the fact that there are still a lot of positives for the organization moving forward. Now I don't want to downplay the importance of Jason Kreis or what a great coach he is; he inspired me personally and professionally and I will miss him more than I can write. But in spite of the loss of such a key figure, there are still many reasons to believe this club will be successful in 2014 and beyond.
- The technical staff, including the General Manager, is still here. Garth Lagerwey, widely regarded as one of the best GM's in MLS, was a significant force in the transformation of RSL into one of the league's elite and keeping it there. One of the reasons Salt Lake surprised everyone this year is the crop of new players performed much better than the historical average. Pretty much every healthy first-year player contributed in a significant way, and that is almost unheard of in MLS where you can expect a sizable percentage of new players to not pan out. That's a reflection of the hard work done by the technical staff, President Bill Manning, the General Manager, and Head Scout Andy Williams.
- The team is young, deep, unified, and should return largely intact. Thanks to all the contract work done last offseason, RSL is in a great position from a salary perspective, meaning there won't be a need to offload core players like last year. That doesn't mean all 30 will be back - that's not realistic - but it does mean that next year's team will largely resemble this year's team. With the young guys one year older and vets like Nick Rimando, Kyle Beckerman, and Alvaro Saborio chasing spots on World Cup rosters, I expect RSL 2014 to be as good – or even better – than RSL 2013. Regardless of who takes over the vacant coaching roles, this team figures to make a lot of noise next year.
- The front office has placed a lot of weight in making sure the new coaching staff preserves the culture that has made RSL so successful. You've heard the sayings: Fantastically together. RSL Family. Fortune favors the bold. Believe. These aren't just flowery statements; they are mottos the club has lived by and used to turn this small-market wonder into a national soccer power. Whoever the new coach is, the expectation will be that the club continues to operate with the same culture that has been the source of the team's success. In other words, I expect the "feel" of RSL going forward will be more similar to the feel of the last few years than different.
No doubt it's been a tough week as we've mourned the loss of MLS Cup as well as our beloved coach, but looking forward to 2014 and beyond, I see plenty of bright days ahead.
Every MLS Cup is special. More so than any other game on the domestic calendar, this is the one where reputations are built and legends are born. With mere hours left before MLS Cup 2013, it's high time we looked at what winning this year's Cup would mean for RSL, its coaches and its players in terms of history.
- A win would make Real Salt Lake only the fifth team in MLS history to win multiple MLS Cups. This feat would be made even more impressive by the fact that RSL didn't have the chance to win nine of the 18 MLS Cups by virtue of not being in the league until 2005. Of the teams who have multiple MLS Cups to their name, only two of them (L.A. Galaxy, Houston Dynamo) have accomplished the feat since RSL entered the league. The other two multiple winners - San Jose Earthquakes and D.C. United - won their last MLS Cups in 2003 and 2004 respectively.
- A win would make Jason Kreis only the fifth head coach in MLS history to win multiple MLS Cups, joining Bruce Arena, Dom Kinnear, Sigi Schmid, and Frank Yallop as the only ones to accomplish the feat. Even more remarkable is that it looks like Kreis could still lace 'em up and play on a few MLS squads – the RSL manager will turn just 41 later this month.
- A win would make three MLS Cup championships for RSL goalkeeper Nick Rimando and midfielder Ned Grabavoy, putting them in the rarefied air of MLS legends like Landon Donovan, Brian Ching, and Marco Etcheverry. In addition to their MLS Cups won with RSL in 2009, both players have a title with another team - Rimando won the 2004 MLS Cup with D.C. United, while Grabavoy hoisted the Anschutz Trophy in 2005 as a member of the L.A. Galaxy.
- A win would give RSL goalkeeper Josh Saunders three consecutive MLS Cups. Saunders started, played the full 90 minutes, and won the Cup final in 2011 and 2012 as a member of the L.A. Galaxy. RSL’s backup goalkeeper won’t have a chance to keep that streak alive this year, having torn his ACL in July.
While the 2013 MLS Cup could cement legacies and add hardware to the mantles of several RSL veterans, it's also tempting to think that this could be the first award for several RSL youngsters. How many trophies can you envision in the future for young talent like Devon Sandoval, Carlos Salcedo, Sebastian Velasquez, Luis Gil, Joao Plata, Olmes Garcia, and others? Maybe we'll see the beginning of some MLS legends being made. Just hours to go until we find out.
Real Salt Lake was eminently familiar with its first two MLS Cup Playoff opponents, having played LA three times prior to beating the Galaxy in the Western Conference Semifinals and facing Portland on four occasions before squaring off with the Timbers in the Western Conference Championship series.
RSL and MLS Cup 2013 opponent Sporting KC are far less acquainted, with the sides meeting just once this year, a 2-1 SKC win at Rio Tinto Stadium on July 20. It's difficult to learn much from that game, which was played without four RSL regulars who were away on international duty and with Sporting using a makeshift lineup.
With that, let's take a look at Kansas City and what makes them tick:
Sporting typically plays a 4-3-3 formation, lately playing U.S. international Graham Zusi and C.J. Sapong on the wings with Dom Dwyer in the middle. The midfield suffers from a numerical disadvantage but there's plenty of talent. Oriol Rosell is one of the best young defensive midfielders in the league, Paulo Nagamura is a box-to-box workhorse, and Benny Feilhaber can be a creative force. But the defense is where KC really makes hay - Chance Myers and Seth Sinovic are solid outside backs, and Aurelien Collin and Matt Besler are one of MLS' best center back pairings. In goal is the usually reliable Jimmy Nielsen.
Sporting is known for their physicality - they led MLS this year in fouls committed. Their idea is to quickly win the ball back, and if that doesn't happen, disrupt the flow of the game. It's hard to argue with the approach, as KC conceded the fewest goals in the league (30) this year. What they've accomplished is remarkable; looking over the last five years, teams that commit a lot of fouls have tended to allow quite a few goals. But not Kansas City, and their center backs are a big reason why. Both Collin and Besler are great in the air so they get their heads on a lot of set piece crosses. Simply lobbing balls into the box plays right into Sporting's hands and is a difficult way to beat them.
On the ball
When they win the ball, Kansas City wants to get it to the front as quickly as possible. They have plenty of speed up top, and all three strikers are solid on the ball, with Zusi particularly deft. That doesn't mean they're necessarily a counterattacking team like LA, but they're also not necessarily a tiki-taka midfield-dominant team like RSL. KC's midfield only contributed four goals and seven assists this season, so clearly they want to put the ball on the feet of Sapong, Dwyer, and Zusi. And if one of them doesn't have the magic, they have the luxury of bringing Designated Player Claudio Bieler off the bench. Ironically, Bieler is actually Sporting's scoring leader with 11 goals this season.
How RSL gets it done
For me, this game comes down to three things for RSL. First, can Salt Lake establish its passing game? I fear that if the match turns into a free kick contest, it won't turn out well for RSL. Getting the tempo and flow going will give Real the best chance at breaking down that stout back line. Second, can RSL play out of pressure when they recover the ball? KC loves to apply immediate pressure, especially at home, so it will be important that Salt Lake get out of tight spaces intelligently. Third, can Real avoid turning the ball over in bad spots? The way to neutralize KC's forwards is not give them the ball with time and space. Losing possession in their own end will put RSL in uncomfortable situations in the back, and they can only get away with that so many times. If Salt Lake can manage these three keys, I like their chances at taking home MLS Cup come Saturday.
If you're like me, this MLS regular season seemed to go by way too fast. It feels like just yesterday we were perusing the newly-released schedule and that final game against Chivas USA looked to be so far off; now that game is behind us. So as we look back at the 2013 regular season, with a general consensus that RSL exceeded expectations. After Wednesday's finale, Jason Kreis said it was "nothing short of remarkable" that RSL finished the season top-two in the west. And Ned Grabavoy - one of those players who always gives it to you exactly how he sees it - admitted "I can’t sit here and say that I thought we’d be second or possibly first". So let's dive deeper into how RSL managed to do it.
First off, we have to recognize the depth of the losses RSL suffered in the offseason. This year Will Johnson, Fabian Espindola, and Jamison Olave showed that they weren't just "system" players who thrived in RSL's unique style of play; all of them proved they could play in and even carry other teams. How did RSL cope with their loss while hardly missing a beat? Well, there are a few reasons.
- The new arrivals bought into doing things the RSL way. All we heard from the vets and coaches this year is how hard the young guys were applying themselves to learning the system and embracing the "Team is the Star" mentality. The lack of egos went a long way toward getting everybody on the same page.
- The locker room chemistry was very, very good. After the Chivas USA game, Robbie Findley said that this was the best locker room he had ever been a part of. Any athlete will tell you that the team is much more likely to succeed when the personal relationships are good, and that happened this season. And it's not like everybody put on a happy face while they were at the office - these players genuinely like each other and they do a lot of things together when they're off the clock.
- Several youngsters exceeded expectations. Before the season, the word was that guys like Olmes Garcia and Devon Sandoval might not see first-team minutes this year. Instead they combined for 1881 minutes, 8 goals, and 4 assists. Joao Plata started the season well and just got better and better. And how about Carlos Salcedo coming straight out of the Academy and playing well at center back for a long portion of the year? And that's just a few of the young players who contributed in positive ways.
- A handful of veterans took their games to another level. Javier Morales is back. Grabavoy had the best year of his career. So did Nick Rimando, which is saying something, and if he doesn't win Goalkeeper of the Year it will be a crime. Tony Beltran made his first All-Star team. Kyle Beckerman played himself into World Cup contention. Luis Gil stepped it up this year, and Sabo was Sabo.
There are other reasons why RSL exceeded expectations this year, but these are the ones that stuck out to me. Now we look forward to what should be a very exciting playoff, and then before you know it, we'll be perusing the newly-released 2014 schedule. And if this team can make similar progress next year, I think they have the potential to achieve even bigger things.
The MLS regular season is winding down and RSL have got yet another compelling stretch of three games in eight days ahead of them – two important league games a week apart with Tuesday's U.S. Open Cup Final wedged in the middle. We’ve seen plenty of 3-in-8’s roll around this season, but it’s doubtful that any of them are as important as this one. If RSL plays out of their minds and wins all three games, they will find themselves with a major trophy in hand, a CONCACAF Champions League berth (and all the ancillary benefits that come with it), and a guaranteed spot in the playoffs. But if they crash and burn, they could find themselves without a trophy and on the outside of the playoff race. So if you’re Jason Kreis, the question is how do you manage these games?
The first consideration has to be priorities – which games are most important to win? I think it’s fair to say that the number one priority is the U.S. Open Final for the reasons the RSL blog crew have hashed out for months. So no matter what Kreis chooses to do in the other games, it’s clear that he needs his first-choice team to arrive ready and rested on Tuesday night. After that game the priorities are not as clear-cut, but for me it’s the FC Dallas game on October 5. It’s a home game and represents the better opportunity to get three points.
That’s not to say that Saturday's game at Vancouver game is a throwaway by any means. It’s still important – especially given the low point that Salt Lake is going through right now – that they at least show up and compete well. Going into the Open Cup Final on a three-game losing streak would be less than ideal from a confidence standpoint. With that in mind, there are going to have to be some lineup changes against the Whitecaps. Considering the Tuesday game and the fact that Vancouver plays on turf, it makes sense to consider resting the legs that have the most miles – season and/or career – on them.
I would consider resting guys like Chris Wingert, Nat Borchers, Kyle Beckerman, Javier Morales and Ned Grabavoy because they’re definitely going to be in Tuesday’s plans, so it might be unwise to risk an injury to one of them. Lovel Palmer, Brandon McDonald, Yordany Alvarez, Khari Stephenson and Sebastian Velasquez are certainly capable of replacing them without a big drop in quality. That’s the beauty of being probably the deepest team in the league.
For the U.S. Open Cup game, there will be no holding back. Perhaps this game could even see the return of injured forward Alvaro Saborio. In any case, there’s no way Kreis fields anything less than his best available group. Nobody should underestimate D.C. based on the admittedly horrible MLS season they’ve had. If anything, the disappointment of their league play will further motivate them since Open Cup is the last thing they have to play for this year. United will be a desperate and motivated team, and last week we saw what a desperate team is capable of.
With the Open Cup game behind them (and hopefully with a trophy in tow), RSL can return its focus to the Dallas game and playoff positioning. In the past Kreis has shown no reservations about trotting out guys who played 90 minutes just days before, so his lineup choices will probably be based on how players are feeling after the previous two games and who’s most in form.
This three-game stretch is one of the last opportunities for the team to get their form right before the playoffs, and some less-used players are going to have to step up and play big.
I've got some bad news for you, Real Salt Lake fans: Your team doesn't play a Wednesday night fixture tonight. Nor do they play this weekend, or next Wednesday. No, RSL doesn't take the pitch again until next Friday, 10 long days away. For whatever reason, MLS decided to give the Claret-and-Cobalt a break for the upcoming international dates while the rest of MLS plays on. Now I don't like the lack of RSL games either, but as we shall see later, if you're going to have a weeklong break, this is the time for it.
So what's a Real fan to do with no game to watch for the next week? Well, there are plenty of great World Cup qualifiers going on around the world, including those featuring RSL men Abdoulie Mansally (The Gambia), Alvaro Saborio (Costa Rica), Nick Rimando (USA), and Kyle Beckerman (USA). Thanks to this break in the schedule, none of these players are going to miss any club matches due to international duty. But there are plenty of MLS clubs that do have games, and many of these games will affect the Supporter's Shield and playoff races that RSL is right in the thick of. So I would suggest that there are still matches worth watching and/or following, and I've got your guide to the ones that most impact RSL below:
Chivas USA at Seattle Sounders (Wednesday 9/4, 8:00 MT, MLS Live)
The Sounders are eight points behind RSL, but thanks to scheduling quirks they have played four fewer games than Salt Lake. That means they have 12 points worth of games in hand, which means any points they drop as they play those extra games would be very helpful to Real's Supporters’ Shield chances. That starts tonight as Chivas USA visits. You may be tempted to think this is a guaranteed three points for the Sounders, but not so fast: They are missing both starting strikers (Clint Dempsey and Eddie Johnson) to international duty, and midfield stalwart Brad Evans is injured. On top of that, the Goats are playing some decent soccer at the moment, and their striker Erick Torres is one of the hottest players in the league right now. They could snatch a point against a depleted Sounders side.
Chicago Fire at Seattle Sounders (Saturday 9/7, 8:00 MT, NBC Sports Network)
Here we have another Seattle game that may be tougher than you might think. Those internationals will still be away for Seattle while the Fire are unaffected. Mike Magee has scored goals aplenty for Chicago, and Seattle will be playing on three days’ rest. Tune in to see if all those factors conspire to work against the Sounders.
Colorado Rapids at LA Galaxy (Saturday 9/7, 8:30 MT, MLS Live)
The Galaxy are the hottest team in MLS along with RSL, and currently RSL's greatest Supporters’ Shield threat. It would help Real greatly if somebody could slow them down a bit and Colorado has first crack at it. Like Seattle, LA is missing some key pieces due to international duty; Robbie Keane, Omar Gonzalez, and Landon Donovan will all miss this one. When Donovan missed games earlier in the year, the rest of the Galaxy struggled to score goals and win games. And with Colorado fighting for their playoff lives in the midst of a brutal schedule, the outcome here is definitely not a given.
New York Red Bulls at Houston Dynamo (Sunday 9/8, 3:00 MT, UniMas)
New York sits in second place in the Eastern Conference, but their chances of overtaking Montreal took a hit this week as they learned that midfield wizard Tim Cahill will miss several weeks due to injury. This week they take on the Jekyll-and-Hyde Dynamo, who seem to alternate between jaw-dropping and cringe-worthy soccer each week. Regardless, it's never easy to play in Houston, and it would help RSL if the Dynamo could send New York home with nothing.
Montreal Impact at New England Revolution (Sunday 9/8, 5:30 MT, MLS Live)
Montreal is currently RSL's greatest threat in the East, but they recently got some bad injury news of their own. New Designated Player Hernan Bernardello is out for multiple weeks with an ankle injury which will make it harder for Marco Di Vaio and company to score. In this fixture they travel to take on the upstart Revs who are clinging to the final playoff spot in the East. New England knows three points at home are a must, so look for them to try to keep the Impact on the back foot all night.
So there you have it - even with no Real Salt Lake, there's plenty going on that will be of interest to RSL fans. The Supporters’ Shield race is still murky but it will get much clearer over the next week, so tune in and see how it all unfolds.
As the MLS season enters the homestretch, it's time to start thinking about end-of-season awards. Much of the soccer media has been talking about this pretty much since the beginning, but the discussion is largely academic until the end is in sight. To Real Salt Lake fans, one of the most compelling awards this year is Coach of the Year, given that Jason Kreis is probably among the few in serious consideration. Kreis' resume in 2013 is impressive - top of the league table, U.S. Open Cup finalist, and most goals scored in franchise history, just to name a few. RSL's play this season has many talking about this possibly being the best RSL team ever, despite trading away three All-Stars in the offseason. Clearly, this season has shown Kreis' true ability as a head coach.
But what are his chances of actually winning the coveted award? It's an uphill battle for recognition for coaches in small markets like Salt Lake, but what Kreis has done this year can't be ignored by even the biggest-market pundits. Now, before we can answer the question, let's take a brief look at the other coaches who I think should be finalists for Coach of the Year.
Marco Schallibaum - Montreal Impact
Some foreign coaches have trouble adapting to the nuances of life in MLS and never really get the hang of it. Marco Schallibaum is not one of those coaches. This is Schallibaum's first season in MLS after a long career coaching around Europe, and he has wasted no time making Montreal one of the league's elite teams. A largely-overlooked squad with a largely-overlooked roster, Montreal is now best in the league in points per game (1.71). They will likely finish No. 1 in the Eastern Conference playoff race, while just a year ago they were seventh. Credit goes to Schallibaum for the renaissance of Marco Di Vaio and for getting Montreal playing as a true team.
Oscar Pareja - Colorado Rapids
As lovers of RSL it's hard to admit it when the Rapids do something well, but Oscar Pareja was a great hire. After a seventh-place finish in the Western Conference last year, Pareja gambled big by trading away both his starting strikers Omar Cummings and Conor Casey. What he got was a more balanced team that's now in the thick of the Supporter's Shield race. He's getting out-of-this-world play from his bench (goalkeeper Clint Irwin, anyone?), and had maybe the best 2013 draft class of anyone. What team wouldn't want Deshorn Brown and Dillon Powers right now? Like Jason Kreis, Pareja got it done during the offseason and is continuing to do so on the sidelines this regular season.
Caleb Porter - Portland Timbers
Caleb Porter is another rookie MLS coach who has made an immediate and unmistakeably positive difference to his squad. The Timbers were one of the worst teams in MLS in 2012, and just a year later they are one of the best. Porter came in from the college ranks with Akron and immediate pushed Portland into a possession style of play similar to the one Real Salt Lake plays. Ever a student of the game, Porter has become one of the better tacticians in the league, but perhaps his greatest accomplishment to date is getting the locker room to believe. Oh, and the offseason acquisitions of guys like Will Johnson and Diego Valeri weren't too bad either.
So is Jason Kreis going to win Coach of the Year when up against these three? It may come down to hardware. If RSL is able to win the Open Cup, that may vault him into the lead. If he can also win the Supporter's Shield, I would say he is pretty much a lock. Winning two major trophies with so many new faces, and doing it in a year that many thought would see RSL struggle, would be unprecedented and cement Kreis' legacy as one of the best to ever coach in this league.
It's no secret what Jason Kreis and Garth Lagerwey wanted to do this past offseason. In addition to getting younger and creating some salary cap room, RSL’s technical staff needed to find some scoring punch after the club finished the year with zero goals in their final five matches across all competitions. What Kreis, Lagerwey & Co. undertook is no easy task. Bringing in younger and lower-priced players seems to be diametrically opposed to improving offensive output; just consider how much other teams are spending to bring in big-time scorers. So now that we're a considerable distance into the 2013 season, let's take a look at how the focus on more goals has panned out. If you think you've seen opponents' nets move a lot this season, you're right - the evidence suggests the "new" offense is working out very well.
- After being shut out four times in their first nine games across all comps, RSL have now scored in 19 straight games. That's a franchise record.
- With a league-leading 39 goals in 24 MLS matches played, RSL is on pace to score 55 goals this season. That would blow away their previous best by nine goals.
- Five players have scored at least five goals so far in MLS play. RSL has never had more than four players do that in the same season, so that's already a club best. And two more players (Luis Gil, three goals, and Kyle Beckerman, two goals) could end up joining that list.
- RSL currently has a road goal differential of +4 after 12 road games. No other incarnation of RSL can touch that, even that phenomenal 2010 team (+/-0 after 12 road games).
- And keep in mind that RSL is doing this despite trading or waiving 39 percent of the goals scored in 2012.
I don't think anyone - even those wearing the thickest Claret-and-Cobalt-tinted glasses - could have predicted how potent this offense would be in such a short period of time. Most of us thought RSL would struggle to score at first, and they did, but at some point in late April a switch was flipped and Real has been cooking with gas ever since. So what - and who - has been responsible for this offensive onslaught we've been witnessing? Here are a few parties that stand out:
- Alvaro Saborio has been deadly efficient this year. He has nine goals this season but he's played in less than half of RSL's games. He's averaging 1 goal for every 103 minutes played. For reference, in his amazing 2012 season where he finished as the second-leading scorer in the league, he averaged 1 goal for every 141 minutes played.
- Javier Morales is having a career year, already hitting paydirt five times. That's right up there with his best pre-injury years.
- Ned Grabavoy has dramatically upped his scoring by putting in five goals so far this season. He had only scored eight goals in his previous nine MLS seasons.
- Not to be outdone by the resurgent vets, Luis Gil has chipped in three goals this year. In three pro seasons prior to 2013, he had three goals combined.
- Another youngster who has exceeded expectations is Olmes Garcia. During the offseason, word around the team was that Garcia was a long-term project and would likely contribute to the first team a little if at all in 2013. But he's been too good to keep off the field, scoring five goals in just 13 appearances. Last year, playing in Colombia for Deportes Quindio, he scored five goals in 33 appearances. In 2011 he had two goals in 14 appearances.
Clearly this team is rolling when it comes to moving the scoreboard and it doesn't show signs of stopping. RSL has always been the MLS team to follow if you like possession-based soccer, but now it's also the team to watch if you like to see opposing goalkeepers fish the ball out of the net.
Here’s a bold statement to start your week: Wednesday's U.S. Open Cup Semifinal between Real Salt Lake and the Portland Timbers at Rio Tinto Stadium is RSL's biggest game of the year so far by a wide margin, and could end up being the club’s biggest match of the entire season.
Make no mistake about it; Wednesday’s game is serious business. Here are a few reasons why the semifinal is RSL’s most important match in a long time:
There's a trophy on the line
Excluding trophies from rivalry games and whatnot, American soccer teams are only eligible for three domestic trophies. The U.S. Open Cup is one of them. The RSL players, coaches, and staff have repeatedly said that they want to win more trophies for this club, and that they should have more trophies given the quality of the team for the last four years. I can't disagree with them - RSL has consistently been one of the top teams in the league but they don't have enough hardware to show for it. The Open Cup is a golden opportunity to add to the tally, and while Real is still very much in contention to win the other two trophies this year (Supporter's Shield and MLS Cup), those two are much farther off and there is much more competition for them.
A Champions League berth is up for grabs
RSL Head Coach Jason Kreis has said in no uncertain terms that he badly wants to get this team back to the CONCACAF Champions League. That's easier said than done, as a maximum of four American MLS teams qualify for the competition each year. The only guaranteed ways for U.S. squads to earn a berth are to make it to the MLS Cup final, win the Supporter's Shield, or win the U.S. Open Cup. As mentioned above, the first two options are currently very complicated. But there are only four teams left standing - and only two games remaining - in U.S. Open play. Clearly this is the shortest path to that coveted Champions League spot.
It's a major tournament semifinal
These kinds of opportunities (for players and fans) don't come along every day. Being this deep in a tournament is a big deal. Believe it or not, with all the success RSL has enjoyed over the last few years, only once before has Real contested a tournament semifinal at home. That match was the 2010-11 Champion's League semifinal on March 15, 2011 with RSL cruising to a 2-0 win over Deportivo Saprissa (Editor's Note: RSL also hosted the 2008 Eastern Conference Final, which the team lost 1-0 to New York. We regret the eariler error). There were no semifinals played in Utah before then and there hasn't been once since. That all changes on Wednesday.
Win, and RSL will host the Open Cup Final
The winner of Wednesday’s RSL-Portland match will host the winner of the Chicago Fire-D.C. United semi in the U.S. Open Cup Final later this year. That’s a huge incentive. Home finals are even rarer than home semifinals, and – should RSL win on Wednesday – it’ll be a heavy favorite in the title game. The winner of the United-Fire semifinal will have to make a long trip to play the final in a difficult environment. Also - and no disrespect intended here - Salt Lake (38 points in MLS play) is a step above the Fire (28 points) and D.C. United (13 points) in terms of quality.
Of course, RSL still has to get by a tough Timbers side to get to the final. That will be a tall task, and the Claret-and-Cobalt will need your voice if they’re to advance. Hope to see you all at the RioT on Wednesday.