It has been over two years since Real Salt Lake last played in the CONCACAF Champions League. Now, after posting the fourth-best record in Major League Soccer for the 2014 season, RSL is on the cusp of receiving a spot into the coveted regional tournament.
There are four spots available for U.S.-based clubs and three have already been accounted for. If the LA Galaxy wins MLS Cup over the New England Revolution on Sunday at the StubHub Center, the fourth will go to Real Salt Lake.
The four allotments go to the winner of the U.S. Open Cup, the Supporters’ Shield, the MLS Cup and the best regular season record in the conference opposite the Supporters’ Shield winners. With Seattle Sounders FC winning the U.S. Open Cup and the Supporters’ Shield this year, they occupy one slot, while the Galaxy takes up the spot earned with the Supporters’ Shield win. D.C. United had the best record in the Eastern Conference and is the third team in.
RSL finished the season with a 15-8-11 record (56 points) in Head Coach Jeff Cassar’s first year at the helm. In earning the third seed in the Western Conference, Salt Lake is first in line for the Champions League berth should the Galaxy win MLS Cup.
This would be a great opportunity for the club to expand its regional brand and get back into the competition after a tough exit in the Group Stage in the 2012-2013 tournament. RSL went 2-1-1 in that year’s Group Stage, falling just shy of 3-0-1 Herediano of Costa Rica to advance to the Quarterfinal Round.
In the 2010-2011 tournament, RSL reached the final on a storybook run through the Group Stage – which featured an epic 5-4 defeat to Cruz Azul in a downpour in Mexico. In that tournament championship, RSL fell one goal short of becoming the first MLS club to win CONCACAF Champions League in its current format. No other MLS club has reached the final, making the accomplishment stand out even more.
So while we all would much rather be in the match itself and having the club’s Champions League fate in the hands of RSL’s players, it instead lies with Robbie Keane, Landon Donovan and the LA Galaxy. And although it would pain many to openly root for one of RSL’s Western Conference rivals, fans could still watch Sunday on ESPN with a bit of a rooting interest knowing that a Galaxy win would greatly benefit Real Salt Lake. Kickoff on Sunday is scheduled for 1 p.m. MT.
Goals change games
That mantra is true in any game, but in this one it is particularly truthful, as RSL and LA both look to break each other’s will. A goal for Salt Lake means that the Galaxy has to score twice to advance because of the away-goals tiebreaker. Meanwhile, if LA scores first Salt Lake can force extra time with one goal.
With two teams as disciplined in their defensive principles as these two teams, those goals could be hard to come by and once either nabs a lead a response becomes even more desperate.
403 and counting
Real Salt Lake is riding a 403-minute shutout streak, just 30 minutes shy of the longest such streak in MLS this season. The longer that streak stays intact, the more likely it becomes that RSL can advance to the Conference Championships for the fifth time in the last seven years.
That becomes difficult against a potent LA Galaxy offense, but that same offense has been a bit punchless of late, going scoreless over the last two matches and riding a streak of 220 minutes without a goal. After taking just three shots total in the first leg of the series and putting just one on frame, LA will be out to show that it is a different team than the one that played at Rio Tinto Stadium last week.
In five previous playoff matches against the LA Galaxy, Real Salt Lake has had four different players score goals, with no player scoring more than once. Last year in the Western Conference Semifinals, Sebastian Velasquez and Chris Schuler scored goals to send Salt Lake through to the Conference Championship series. Neither player scored a regular season goal for RSL in 2013. Could 2014 see similar heroics from unexpected sources? Luis Gil was nearly the hero in the first leg at Rio Tinto Stadium last week and Ned Grabavoy has been known to score some crucial playoff goals for RSL in the past.
If the teams play to another scoreless draw and no winner can be determined by a 30-minute overtime period the match will go to a penalty kick shootout. There, Salt Lake would have to feel like it has a distinct advantage in Nick Rimando. The Wall of the Wasatch, as he is known, has stopped four of five penalties he has faced this season, including one from Galaxy forward Robbie Keane. He has gone to penalties several times in his playoff career, too, with opponents scoring on just 60-percent of their 30 efforts.
If defense wins championships, then Real Salt Lake has reason to be optimistic in the MLS Cup Playoffs.
Currently the hottest defensive team remaining in the postseason, RSL has a difficult task ahead in overtaking the LA Galaxy for a spot in the Western Conference Championship series. However, with four straight shutouts and a 403-minute shutout streak, it’s no wonder the team is confident heading into the second leg of the Western Conference Semifinal series on Sunday at the StubHub.
RSL has not allowed a goal in the last four matches, including a scoreless draw against Galaxy in the first leg on Saturday. No Western Conference team has allowed fewer than four goals in the last four matches, with the Galaxy letting in six goals and going winless at 0-2-2 in that stretch.
That defensive prowess should come as no surprise. Salt Lake’s back six – including goalkeeper Nick Rimando, defenders Tony Beltran, Nat Borchers, Chris Schuler and Chris Wingert and holding midfielder Kyle Beckerman – have played together since Schuler joined the league in 2010.
That group has contributed to RSL earning three different shutout streaks of at least 285 minutes this season. The current run of 403 minutes is second only to the 433-minute run that Vancouver Whitecaps FC went on to close out the regular season and into the Knockout Round match against FC Dallas.
In addition, the team has proven a tough beat in postseason play.
Rimando has allowed just five goals in his last eight playoff appearances, including four shutouts and two 120-minute matches, making for a 0.58 goals against average dating back to the 2012 season. His 13 career playoff shutouts rank second on the all-time MLS list, just two behind Kevin Hartman in the top spot and even with Zach Thornton.
This season, he posted a league-best mark with a 1.04 goals against average to go with a 13-4-7 record and seven shutouts.
Kickoff in Sunday’s match is scheduled for 5:30 pm MT from the StubHub Center in Carson, Calif. The match will be televised live on ESPN2 with local radio coverage on ESPN 700 and La Gran D 102.3 FM (Spanish).
Real Salt Lake is a veteran-laden team with loads of playoff experience. That much is known.
But just how much more experienced in the rigors of the MLS Cup Playoffs than any other team in MLS was on display in the first legs of the Western Conference Semifinal Series that were played over the weekend.
After play in the first legs, Nick Rimando’s 32 career postseason matches was more than the 11 starters from FC Dallas (30), the Columbus Crew (30) and the New England Revolution (29), even after Dallas had played two playoff games this year.
Of the eight Conference Semifinalists, no team comes close to touching the 171 total playoff games from Real Salt Lake’s starting 11 against the Galaxy. LA was the nearest competition with 130 career playoff matches, followed by D.C. United with 94 and Seattle Sounders FC with 87.
Real Salt Lake’s back six alone – Rimando, Tony Beltran, Chris Schuler, Nat Borchers, Chris Wingert and Kyle Beckmeran – combine for 127 career postseason matches. That is significantly more than any other team’s starting 11 outside of the Galaxy.
Below is the full chart of the playoff experience for the starting lineups from the Western Conference semifinal first leg matches.
Real Salt Lake – 171
LA Galaxy – 130
D.C. United – 94
Seattle Sounders FC – 87
New York Red Bulls – 78
FC Dallas – 30
Columbus Crew – 30
New England Revolution – 29
After a scoreless draw on Saturday in the first leg of the Western Conference Semifinals, Real Salt Lake is in a good position heading into the second leg against the LA Galaxy on Sunday at the StubHub Center in Carson, Calif.
On the surface, that may not make sense. The Galaxy is a good team at home, going 12-1-4 at the StubHub Center this season. And while Real Salt Lake’s 4-7-6 road record doesn’t jump off the page as outstanding, it does provide some reason for optimism entering the second match of the two-leg playoff series because of the institution of the away goals tie-breaker. In the event that the series ends in a draw, the first tie-breaker will go to the team that scored the most goals in their road match in the series. If both teams scored the same amount on the road, the match extends to a 30-minute overtime, then a shootout.
In 10 of RSL’s 17 road matches this season, the team got the result it needed to at least force overtime in the series. In eight of them, they got the result to win outright, as two of the road draws finished scoreless.
Simplified, RSL will advance with a win or a draw in which goals are scored in the match. It will go to 30 minutes of extra time if it ends in a scoreless draw. If LA wins the match, the Galaxy will advance, regardless of the scoreline.
Want more reason for optimism?
Salt Lake is riding a 252-minute shutout streak against the Galaxy in the playoffs that includes the scoreless draw on Saturday, a 2-0 extra time win in the second leg of the West Semifinals in 2013 and 42 scoreless minutes in the first leg of that series. Defensively, RSL has been masterful of late too, with a 503-minute shutout streak that dates back to Oct. 5.
That bodes well for a team that can turn the tides of the series with one away goal.
Time will tell, though, as the second leg approaches on Sunday and RSL looks to take the next step toward a return trip to the MLS Cup Final.
Find out how MLSsoccer.com's Matt Doyle and Nick Firchau see Saturday's Western Conference clash going. Give their Scouting Report preview a watch above
Real Salt Lake last met LA Galaxy on March 22 in its 2014 home opener at Rio Tinto Stadium, drawing 1-1 with the southern California side. But now the tables are turned and RSL will be facing the Galaxy on its home turf at StubHub Center for the second time this year. The Claret-and-Cobalt pulled off a 1-0 win in its season opener at LA on March 8. RSL will be looking to remain undefeated against the SoCal side in the regular season for just the third time in RSL history when they clash on Saturday.
The last meeting between the sides saw a beautiful half-volley scored by RSL forward Alvaro Saborio and a nice finish from LA forward Robbie Keane to top off an excellent individual effort. Saborio will be unable to do a repeat performance as he is still recovering from his foot injury, but that leaves room for one of the other Claret-and-Cobalt strikers to step up and deliver. Get pumped for tomorrow’s match by reliving RSL’s 2014 home opener.
Real Salt Lake hits the road on Saturday, taking on Western Conference rival LA Galaxy at StubHub Center at 8:30 p.m. MT. Saturday’s match will be broadcast live on CW30, ESPN 700 and 102.3 La Gran D FM.
Here are a few storylines to watch ahead of Saturday’s clash:
Real Salt Lake looks to go undefeated v. LA in 2014 regular season
Saturday’s match in California will be the third and final regular season meeting between RSL and LA Galaxy. The two sides met twice in March this year with the claret-and-Cobalt pulling off a 1-0 win in its season opener at StubHub Center on March 8, and then drawing 1-1 two weeks later at Rio Tinto Stadium. If RSL gets a positive result this weekend, it will mark only the second time in Claret-and-Cobalt history that RSL has gone undefeated in the regular season against LA.
Nick Rimando in pursuit of the all-time MLS shutout record
Real Salt Lake veteran goalkeeper Nick Rimando is one clean sheet away from tying retired goalkeeper Kevin Hartman for the all-time MLS shutout record with 112. If the 35-year-old ties the record this weekend, Rimando will have as many cleans sheets as Hartman in 60-less games. Hartman achieved 112 shutouts through 416 games played; Rimando has currently played 355 MLS regular season games. The California native will likely surpass the record this year, with 17 MLS matches left to play in the 2014 regular season.
Morales and Donovan look to continue success against each other
RSL’s Javier Morales and LA’s Landon Donovan have torched each other’s teams in their MLS careers. Morales has put up five goals and eight assists in 16 career regular season games against the Galaxy. Those numbers are impressive, but Donovan has done Javi one better, registering nine goals and nine assists with LA in 20 career regular season games against RSL. Donovan’s nine goals and nine assists are the second-most against RSL of any player in MLS history in both categories.
Beckerman and Rimando remain undefeated in 2014 MLS play
RSL Captain Kyle Beckerman and goalkeeper Nick Rimando are still currently undefeated in MLS play in 2014. The U.S. international duo left for World Cup duty after the club’s 5-2 win at Houston Dynamo on May 11, and up until that point the Claret-and-Cobalt were still undefeated in MLS play. Upon the duo’s return to Salt Lake last Friday, RSL pulled off a 2-1 victory over New England Revolution to keep RSL undefeated in 2014 when both players are in the lineup. Beckerman’s only defeat this entire year came at the hands of Germany, in the U.S.’s 1-0 loss in the group stage of the World Cup. Even if the club is no longer undefeated (RSL went 1-3-2 in their absence) Beckerman and Rimando can still keep their individual streak alive this weekend.
What you might not know is that Beckerman’s and Rimando’s call-ups mark the third-straight time that RSL has put at least one player on the U.S. Men’s National Team’s World Cup squad. That’s right: RSL has put a player on the USMNT’s World Cup squad in all three World Cups that the club has existed for.
In 2006, RSL sent defender Eddie Pope to Germany with the U.S. In 2010, it was forward Robbie Findley that made the trip, heading to South Africa for the Americans’ run to the Round of 16. Both players featured for the U.S. at the World Cup, with Pope starting two of the U.S.’s three games in 2006 and Findley getting the nod in three of the U.S.’s four contests in 2010.
RSL is one of just two clubs to put a player on the U.S. team for each of the last three World Cups. The only other? LA Galaxy, which has sent a player to the USMNT in each of the five World Cups it has been around for.
RSL is one of just three teams to put a player on the USMNT’s World Cup roster for every World Cup of the club’s existence, joining LA and the defunct Tampa Bay Mutiny, which put a player on the 1998 U.S. World Cup roster before folding after the 2001 MLS season.