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.
In case you didn't notice, the 2013 MLS All-Star team was announced on Monday, with the game taking place on July 31st in Kansas City. With the announcement of the team - headed by Kansas City coach Peter Vermes - there follows inevitable hand-wringing from pundits about snubs - players who deserved to make the All-Star team but didn't.
Some snubs that immediately come to mind are RSL's Ned Grabavoy, LA's Marcelo Sarvas, and Philadelphia's Jack McInerney, but they aren't the biggest surprises. While Vermes did RSL fans a solid by naming Nick Rimando, Tony Beltran, and Kyle Beckerman to the team, the omission of Javier Morales shocked me the most, and his snub is the subject of this post. Nothing I can write is going to get Morales added to the roster, but it does provide the opportunity to recognize a player who is having a phenomenal year.
How good has Morales' year been so far? Consider this: His five goals are tied with Olmes Garcia for the team lead, and his eight assists are far and away the most on the team. At this pace, he'll finish the season with nine goals and 15 assists. In 2009, Morales had one goal and five assists. In 2010, Morales had seven goals and nine assists. Why did I choose 2009 and 2010 as points of reference? Because Javi made the All-Star team both those years.
Granted, 2009 and 2010 were different times in MLS. It seems that lately more teams have seen the value in a true No. 10 and more teams have spent money on that position. So clearly the bar is higher for Morales than it was back in those days.
But in spite of all the young talent and big-name players that now quarterback offenses; the evidence suggests that Morales is still at the top of the class. As mentioned above, Morales has scored five goals and dished out eight dimes so far this year. New York's Tim Cahill has five goals and three assists. Portland (and ex-RSL) man Will Johnson stands at six and three. KC's Graham Zusi is on four and five, Houston's Brad Davis has three and three, and Montreal's Patrice Bernier has two and five. All five of those midfielders made the All-Star team while Javier Morales did not. I'm not implying that these players don't deserve to be on the team; they have all had fine seasons. But after you look at these numbers you can't tell me that there's not room for a player who has produced the way Javi has.
Aside from just the raw numbers, Morales continues to do all the little things that make RSL a winner. Integrating so many new, young faces into the squad is a daunting task, one that usually takes teams’ considerable time. RSL struggled a bit in the early going as most of us expected, but lately they've been on a well-publicized tear. This doesn't happen without veteran leaders integrating the locker room and getting the new talent to buy in to what's being taught. Morales is an instrumental figure in the RSL locker room, especially serving as a bridge between the American and Latino players, and his efforts in that regard are one reason why RSL currently sits at the top of the league table.
It's true that All-Star games are more of a popularity contest than a legitimate selection of the best players, but they also serve as a form of recognition within the MLS community; a form of recognition that Morales certainly deserves this season.
A former RSL beat reporter for multiple outlets, Jeremy Horton is a regular contributor to RealSaltLake.com and helps cover the team for ESPN 700 AM.
As fun as it's been to be a part of RSL's scintillating run of form in MLS play as of late, it's time to put that on hold for a few days. That's because a huge opportunity is knocking for the Claret-and-Cobalt this week: Their Quarterfinal matchup in the 2013 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup. On Wednesday RSL will host the NASL's Carolina Railhawks at Rio Tinto Stadium with a trip to the Semifinals against either the Portland Timbers or FC Dallas on the line. Real has talked about the emphasis being put on the tournament this year - talk which has been backed up by strong lineups thus far - and this game will be no different. Expect RSL to trot out its best available lineup for this one, in spite of this being the team's second of four matches in just 12 days. And if you're Jason Kreis, that makes sense when you consider the following:
- RSL is only three wins away from getting the CONCACAF Champion's League berth that goes to the winner of the U.S. Open Cup. When you consider the various paths that lead to a Champion's League spot, at the moment this one is by far the easiest.
- The stars seems to be lining up for RSL. It's almost like some unearthly force wants Salt Lake to win the Cup. Kreis is fond of saying "fortune favors the bold", but sometimes fortune just favors the fortunate. Real has played all three of their Open Cup matches at home, and if they win, they will also host the Semifinal match. While the odds of winning a coin flip (which is how match venues are determined in the USOC) are 1 out of 2, the odds of winning four straight coin flips like RSL just did are only 1 out of 16. On top of that, Salt Lake also has yet to face an MLS opponent in Open Cup play.
- The Quarterfinals is the farthest RSL have ever advanced in this tournament. A win on Wednesday would break new ground for the franchise.
As I wrote last week, any fan who hasn't experienced a U.S. Open match needs to get down to the stadium for this one. Both teams are going to be highly motivated since a win gets them two wins away from hoisting the trophy and their next match would be at home. Carolina will be a decided underdog against the MLS league leaders, but don't underestimate the RailHawks - they've done well in the tournament before and have already sent Chivas USA and the LA Galaxy packing this year. Carolina's roster is loaded with ex-MLS talent and plenty of young MLS players on loan, and their coach Colin Clarke is a familiar face in MLS circles, heading up FC Dallas from 2003-2006.
For RSL's part, fielding a strong lineup means they will be anxious to take command of the match early and not give Carolina a chance to get a late equalizer or winner. If a criticism can be made of RSL's Open Cup run so far, it's that both previous matches against lower-division opponents have gone to extra time. RSL eventually showed their quality in those matches, but they made for tense moments and extra work to be done. With four games in 12 days, Kreis won't be eager to see his team put in 120 minutes on Wednesday - strong emphasis will be placed and getting ahead and not allowing a comeback.
A former RSL beat reporter for multiple outlets, Jeremy Horton is a regular contributor to RealSaltLake.com and helps cover the team for ESPN 700 AM.