Real Salt Lake has been here before.
The Claret-and-Cobalt has taken a two-goal lead into the second leg of a tournament semifinals series once already, in the 2010-2011 CONCACAF Champions League Semifinals against Costa Rican club Saprissa. RSL topped Saprissa 2-0 in the first leg of the CCL Semis at Rio Tinto Stadium in March 2011, then went down to Alvaro Saborio’s former club for the second leg, losing 1-2 to win 3-2 on aggregate and move on to the CCL Final against Monterrey.
That CCL second leg was played on artificial turf in the incredibly daunting atmosphere at Estadio Ricardo Saprissa, affectionately known as The Monster’s Cave. Conditions will be similar for this Sunday’s Western Conference Championship finale at Portland, with RSL again taking a two-goal lead into a second leg, again heading into a very tough atmosphere – the Timbers are 14-1-5 at JELD-WEN Field this year – and again playing on turf.
Let’s hope the Claret-and-Cobalt can advance from this one, too. Kick is at 7:00 p.m. MT on ESPN.
NBC Sports Network's MLS Insider show featured Real Salt Lake on Friday night, diving in for an in-depth piece on the Claret-and-Cobalt's run to the 2010-11 CONCACAF Champions League Final. NBCSN spoke with a number of RSL notables for the piece, talking to Claret-and-Cobalt Head Coach Jason Kreis, Captain Kyle Beckerman, midfielder Javier Morales, goalkeeper Nick Rimando and defender Nat Borchers, among others.
Check out the entire piece above. Click here to watch the entire MLS Insider episode.
Tuesday night’s scoreless draw against C.S. Herediano may have eliminated Real Salt Lake from this year's CONCACAF Champions League, but the team still has plenty left to play for before the MLS Cup Playoffs begin next week.
RSL will take on Vancouver Whitecaps FC at Rio Tinto Stadium in the MLS regular season finale on Saturday (Kickoff at 7 p.m. MT on CW30), and playoff seeding, potential MLS Cup hosting and qualification for next year’s CCL could very well all be on the line.
We’ll start with playoff seeding. The Claret-and-Cobalt currently sits in third-place in the Western Conference, tied on points with Seattle but trailing Sounders FC by virtue of the goals scored tiebreaker. Barring a big blowout win on Saturday, RSL won’t be able to make up the five goals it trails Seattle by to win the tiebreaker. That means that the Utah side needs to get a better result than Sounders FC does this weekend – the Cascadia club plays at L.A. on Sunday night – in order to finish with the West's second-seed.
Finishing second in the West would mean that RSL would host the second-leg of its Western Conference Semifinal series against Seattle. Finishing third would mean the team would host the first-leg and travel to the Pacific Northwest for the second.
Hosting MLS Cup
The league made a change to the MLS Cup format this year, switching the host site from a neutral venue to the home stadium of the team with a higher point total. If RSL should make it to Cup, it would need to have a higher point total than the Eastern Conference champ in order to host the final at Rio Tinto Stadium.
The only team in the East that RSL cannot finish above is Sporting Kansas City, which is seven points ahead of the Claret-and-Cobalt. Things are a lot tighter with D.C., Chicago, New York and Houston, all of which could finish above or below Real Salt Lake depending on how things go this weekend.
Here’s how it breaks down: If RSL beats Vancouver on Saturday, it will finish the season with 59 points. That will automatically put the team ahead of New York and Houston. It won’t, however, necessarily put the team ahead of Chicago or D.C., which play each other at Toyota Park on Saturday.
D.C. would finish one point ahead of RSL if both teams win, Chicago – which right now has one fewer goal scored than RSL – would tie RSL if both win, and RSL would finish ahead of both D.C. and the Fire should those two teams draw.
RSL could finish behind all five Eastern Conference teams – thereby eliminating any chance of hosting MLS Cup – should it lose on Saturday.
Two of the four American slots for the 2013/14 CONCACAF Champions League have already been filled. The first was taken by Kansas City, which qualified by winning the U.S. Open Cup in August. The second was filled by the San Jose Earthquakes, which nabbed a spot by winning the MLS Supporters’ Shield.
The two remaining American CCL spots will go to the teams that qualify for MLS Cup. Because San Jose and Kansas City have already qualified for the CCL, if either/both of those teams make it to Cup, the remaining CCL spot(s) – one or two, depending on if one or both make it to Cup – would go to the team(s) that finished with the next highest regular season point total.
All of that means that RSL - currently fifth in the league table - can qualify for the 2013/14 CCL by: A) Making it to MLS Cup B) Finishing third in the MLS regular season standings with one of San Jose or Kansas City making MLS Cup or C) Finishing third or fourth in the MLS regular season standings with both San Jose and Kansas City making MLS Cup.
Got all that? Great.
We'll be back next week with a full rundown of how everything shook out.
Tactics are only a piece of the puzzle in a soccer match, but in the case of Real Salt Lake’s scoreless draw with Herediano on Tuesday that eliminated the Claret-and-Cobalt from the CONCACAF Champions League, they were perhaps the most important piece.
The first 45
The first half of the match was riddled with shots from RSL. Forward Fabian Espindola had golden opportunity bounce off the crossbar for the team’s most prominent chance. It was perhaps frustrating that none of the seven shots on target translated into goals, but that's less a tactical concern and more an execution concern.
Herediano had left RSL with space around the outside of the box, and with this, they were able to make connecting passes and burst inside. More than half of RSL's passes were in the attack half, and from this, a plethora of shots were on hand. Six of the 12 shots came from inside the box, and four of those were on the left side. Fabian Espindola was having a screamer, despite his crossbar-struck shot.
Additionally, RSL did really well to pick up on any danger provided by Herediano, who hadn't yet begun the bunkering process. Aware that a goal would do them well, they got forward, sometimes in numbers. But eight interceptions and 20 clearances in the first half alone is indicative of a home side playing to its defensive strengths.
The second 45
The second half saw the entire dynamic of the match shift. Herediano tucked into an even more narrow shape, surrendered possession until very late, and resorted to a bunkering approach. With anywhere between six and ten men in the box at any given moment, they had a distinct advantage in defending approach play.
When RSL's options were limited by injury — Will Johnson and Chris Schuler both exiting — Kreis's substitution options were significantly limited. Sebastian Velasquez was the sole truly attacking substitution, and while he was able to work into some excellent positions, one or two more attacking subs would have certainly helped.
As time started to run out, Herediano shifted its approach slightly: The players took opportunity to retain possession and move toward the corner flags. It was very much a standard approach of a side looking to retain a scoreline, and it certainly played into their hands. RSL was forced to send men back to regain possession, and from there, the attacking setup was broken up.
By the time RSL could transition back into attack, Herediano had eaten valuable time off the clock. It was a strong way for the visitors to end the match, and it scuppered any thought of a late goal from the home side, ending RSL’s CCL dream.
Real Salt Lake put in a good effort, but couldn’t find the back of the net on Tuesday night, tying Costa Rican side C.S. Herediano 0-0 in the Group 2 finale to fall out of the CONCACAF Champions League.
Here are a few interesting numbers from the match:
The number of fans who braved the cold and the rain to come out to Rio Tinto Stadium on Tuesday night. It was the fifth-consecutive sell-out and 10th full house of the year for RSL, both club records.
Thanks so much for your support, RSL fans.
Minutes since RSL last gave up a goal. The Claret-and-Cobalt hasn’t conceded since allowing L.A. forward Robbie Keane to score in the 17th minute of RSL’s 2-1 win at the Galaxy on Oct. 6.
The number of key passes – defined as a pass that leads to a shot – for RSL midfielder Javier Morales on Tuesday night.
The number of shots RSL took on Tuesday night compared to the number of shots Herediano took on Tuesday night.
The difference in the number of successful passes for RSL – which had 473 completed balls – and Herediano – which had 172 – on Tuesday night.
The number of weeks until RSL begins its Western Conference Semifinal series against Seattle Sounders FC. Specific dates, times, seeds and broadcast info for the home-and-home series have yet to be determined.
The players see it. They know how you’ve embraced this team and they know how you’ve – unlike any other fan-base in the league, perhaps unlike any other in the entire region – embraced this tournament.
They know how badly you want Tuesday night’s must-win CONCACAF Champions League Group Stage finale against Costa Rican club C.S. Herediano. They want it just as much, both for themselves and for you, too.
“This needs to happen for our fan-base,” midfielder Will Johnson told reporters a few days ago. “They have adopted the CONCACAF Champions League like no other fan-base in the league. They believe in it. They love the tournament, as we do. So for us to continue on in that tournament for our fans is very important."
If RSL is to win either 1-0 or by multiple goals on Tuesday night to win Group 2 and advance to the CCL Quarterfinals, they’ll need all of your support. Believe it or not, it really does make a difference.
“With our fan base behind us, I really feel they’ll be the ones that can push us over the top,” Johnson told media.
For those of you coming out to Rio Tinto Stadium for the 8 p.m. match, show up early. Be loud. Propel RSL on to victory. Remember that this is the team’s biggest game of the year - possibly the biggest since the 2011 CCL final against Monterrey. They need you tonight.
Keep on being the great fans you’ve been all year.
And, as always, #Believe.
Real Salt Lake faces an absolute must-win on Tuesday night, when it will take on C.S. Herediano in a decisive CONCACAF Champions League Group 2 match. Of course, few things lead to a loss of tactical cohesion quite like these must-win games. RSL will have to stay supremely focused in several areas if it's to get the result it needs at Rio Tinto Stadium on Tuesday.
Posturing: Defensive or offensive
In order to progress, Jason Kreis's side must win by either a 1-0 scoreline or by two clear goals. It's one of those tough scenarios that requires some intense concentration from all involved. It raises questions about the approach to the match.
As a first option, RSL could score a goal then opt for a more defensive posture, as a single goal by Herediano brings the necessary scoreline to 3-1 — it could be a big ask against a defensively resolute side. With Jamison Olave a doubt, a usually solid partnership of Nat Borchers of Chris Schuler could be tested significantly.
As a second option, RSL could go in guns blazing, secure in the knowledge that regardless, they'll need at least a goal to go forward — and there are few better ways to get a goal than to simply go for it.
Defender Nat Borchers — unsurprisingly — would choose the first option: "We're going to have some patience, just make sure everything's switched on defensively, and the goals are going to come."
Missing puzzle pieces
With Alvaro Saborio out through yellow card accumulation, and Fabian Espindola and Jamison Olave in doubt for Tuesday, Jason Kreis will certainly be wringing his hands over the decisions he'll soon be forced to make.
Saborio's absence is perhaps the biggest: RSL's leading goalscorer — this season, in CONCACAF Champions League, and overall — is certain to be missed, as there are no other real hold-up players on the team. Justin Braun will be hoping to fill that role, but until his on-ball ability reaches a higher level, he may struggle for minutes.
Fabian Espindola's potential absence, compounded with Saborio's, would be doubly concerning: Already, Paulo Jr. is likely to start, but having him in as the available-first-choice striker would necessitate a potential shift in approach. With both Saborio and Espindola absent, RSL would be forced into either changing shape, continuing with Emiliano Bonfigli, or giving Justin Braun a chance.
An absence to Olave would be the easiest to solve: Chris Schuler has shown well since returning from his foot injury, and I suspect if called upon, he'd continue that fine form.
Approach play from the midfield
With some shift in personnel inevitable, the key will likely be in the play of Will Johnson and, should he be deemed fit, Ned Grabavoy. Both would need to get forward at will, burst into the box, and connect with Javier Morales.
This would abdicate some responsibility on the forwards, leaving less need to swing long balls in and providing more work for Herediano's defensive line. As they'll be secure with a draw, RSL will need to apply significant pressure there.
Real Salt Lake’s attention will be turned to Costa Rica for Tuesday night’s CONCACAF Champions League Group 2 match between C.S. Herediano and Panamanian side Tauro FC.
The game has major implications for Group 2. For tiebreaking reasons we’ll get into further on Wednesday, second-place RSL will be hoping that visiting Tauro – which has already been eliminated from contention for the Quarters and will play its last CCL match Tuesday night – will either pick up a result or lose by just one goal at first-place Herediano, which takes on RSL in what will be the decisive Group 2 finale at Rio Tinto Stadium on Oct. 23.
Kickoff for Tuesday’s match is at 8 p.m. MT at Estadio Nacional de Costa Rica in San Jose. You can check out a live stream of the game over at CONCACAF.com.
Update: Herediano beat Tauro 2-1 on Tuesday. RSL will have to beat Herediano either 1-0 or by two goals in the Group 2 finale at Rio Tinto Stadium on Oct. 23 to win the group and advance to the CCL Quarterfinals. Click here for a full breakdown of RSL's CCL situation.
Fully updated Group 2 standings are below:
|Real Salt Lake||3||2||1||0||3||1||2||6|
RSL kept its CONCACAF Champions League hopes alive on Tuesday night, getting a last-minute penalty kick goal from forward Alvaro Saborio to win 1-0 at Tauro FC.
Here are some interesting numbers from the Claret-and-Cobalt’s victory in Panama City.
The minute referee Mauricio Morales whistled for RSL’s penalty, calling Tauro goalie Vladimir Villareal for a foul on Saborio inside the box. It was the second straight RSL game in which a decisive penalty kick was called in the 93rd minute after RSL goalie Nick Rimando was whistled for a PK – which was then converted – in the 93rd minute of the Claret-and-Cobalt’s 1-0 loss at Houston on Sept. 6.
The number of goals Saborio has scored in 91 games across all competitions for Real Salt Lake, the most in team history.
Saborio’s record from the penalty spot in his RSL career. The Costa Rican international had a bit of a scare on his spot kick on Tuesday night, as Villareal got both hands on the ball before deflecting it into the back of the net.
The number of yellow cards Saborio has picked up in the CCL Group Stage after getting cautioned in the second half of Tuesday's match. That total means that Saborio will be suspended for RSL's all-important Group 2 finale against first-place C.S. Herediano at Rio Tinto Stadium on Oct. 23.
The number of days RSL went between road victories before winning at Estadio Rommel Fernandez on Tuesday night. The Claret-and-Cobalt carried a seven-game road winless streak across all competitions into Tuesday’s match, with its last road win being the 3-0 victory on June 16 at Chivas USA.
The number of minutes RSL defender Jamison Olave played on Tuesday night. It was Olave’s first competitive action since he injured his hamstring during RSL’s CCL loss at C.S. Herediano on July 31.
RSL midfielder Ned Grabavoy’s pass completion percentage from Tuesday night. Grabavoy – who filled in for the suspended Kyle Beckerman at defensive midfielder against Tauro – completed 40 of 41 passes and added five pass interceptions.
The number of minutes Real Salt Lake midfielder Sebastian Velasquez played off the bench on Tuesday night. It was his first game action since coming off the bench in RSL’s loss at San Jose on July 14.
Facing a do-or-die scenario, RSL kept things tight until the death: The game-winning goal from Alvaro Saborio (how many times has that phrase been uttered, I wonder?) was the result of hard work from the whole side. That, in itself, wasn't entirely interesting from a tactical perspective, but like so many low-scoring battles, there was so much more to it than that.
No Kyle? No problem
Despite not seeing Kyle Beckerman or Yordany Alvarez, RSL never looked too troubled through the center of the pitch. Ned Grabavoy stepped up to the plate, serving up some good positioning and defensive awareness to scupper attacks through the middle.
Neither Beckerman's absence through yellow card suspension nor Alvarez's through continued troubles with the ever-tricky immigration process ensuing from his refugee status ended up troubling RSL too greatly. Against a bigger, more physically oriented side — the sort seen week-in, week-out in MLS — RSL may have been troubled, but Grabavoy's aerial abilities weren't much tested.
Grabavoy constantly kept RSL ticking, distributing short passes reliably – he was 40/41 passing on Tuesday – and picking up five interceptions.
Shifting sands of defense
Once again, Tauro rolled forward with a fascinating approach to their defending. Perhaps more defensively minded than they might be against lesser opponents, Gonzalo Soto's side ostensibly came out with three center backs and two wing backs, with one of the center backs generally pushing a bit higher in possession — but never beyond the ad hoc line created by the wing backs.
It is an odd system to face for a club like RSL that plays in a league whose sides all basically ape the indelibly British 4-4-2, with wingers and two forwards, one more creative and one more bruising. Although RSL certainly saw a little trouble defensively, that was more down to individual abilities and good combinations from Tauro players.
The heart of Tauro's system on Tuesday night rested in their coping with attacks; a relatively high line at times — one that was at times composed of two outright central defenders and three defensive midfielders (two quite wide), and at other times saw three center backs bound up tightly to prevent runs into channels from Fabian Espindola and Javier Morales.
It was, all told, a fantastic tactical performance that nearly denied RSL the win they so badly needed. But when they were pushed further and further back, gaps emerged. It was those gaps that saw RSL making its best chances of the night, but when Saborio received the ball on the right side of the penalty area in much the same manner as those chances, it came down to an individual mistake from Vladimir Villareal, Tauro's 19-year-old goalkeeper, who had been strong nearly all night.
Lacking in attack
It was in part down to a strong tactical outlay from Tauro and in part down to an odd reluctance to attack from deep, but RSL was found lacking in attack throughout the proceedings — save the last ten or so minutes, during which things took a positive turn and, in the end, produced a positive result.
Perhaps it was reluctance on the part of Wingert and Beltran to get forward — prompting the midfield to move with it — or perhaps it was an imbalance in the midfield's workings. It is difficult to exactly pinpoint where things went wrong, or perhaps it is that many smaller things went slightly wrong, provoking a confluence of concerns that saw RSL struggle.
With Morales struggling to distribute from the edge of the box, where he ostensibly does his finest work, and Espindola blocked from his runs in channels between defenders, the attack was weakened. Further, the full backs and central midfielders couldn't push as far forward, owing to the presence of wing backs, or, if you will, wide defensive midfielders.
Again, part of that was because Tauro were fantastic tactically, and part was just a slightly wary approach from the midfield.