Two goals on the road saw Real Salt Lake victorious on Sunday night over last season's Supporters' Shield winners in San Jose Earthquakes. The key pieces: a top-class midfield performance and a relatively straightforward second-half switch.
Taking a glance at the chalkboards for Sunday's victory shows a distinctly Kyle Beckerman-shaped hole just ahead of our defense. Real Salt Lake's captain impressed not through intense tackling, hard challenges or your typical defensive midfielder attributes, but as a disruptor of movement. The subtlety of his performance saw Beckerman putting the right pressure on the San Jose attack at the right times, leaving them to attack through other channels — all of them harder to profit from.
Disruption without the tackling one normally associates with an anchor man is a difficult ask. Beckerman handled it with aplomb. Of course, even for all his defensive contributions, who can forget that outside-of-the-foot, no-look pass for Alvaro Saborio's second goal?
The diamond, flattened
The midfield, anchored as usual by Beckerman, saw three nominally attacking players in the thick of it. Luis Gil, Khari Stephenson and Sebastian Velasquez played in a relative flat line just behind the attacking third, with Gil ostensibly in the center, Stephenson on the left, and Velasquez on the right. Of course, all three switched spots throughout.
As a result, San Jose's midfield was pushed and pulled across the pitch, with Velasquez and Stephenson stretching play both horizontally and vertically. All three are quite capable of darting around the pitch and sending inventive passes to forwards, which surely played on the minds of the opposition — particularly with former Earthquakes midfielder Khari Stephenson pulling the strings from the left side.
By keeping the San Jose midfield and back line busy through the first half, spaces were opened in the second half as both sides tired. One substitution saw Real Salt Lake take advantage of that: Joao Plata's entrance in the 65th minute, on for Robbie Findley, changed the match.
Findley's efforts saw the field stretched and defenders pulled around, but San Jose generally coped well. Plata's arrival saw the (quite) diminutive striker deeper in play than Findley, and his potential kinetic energy (er, his speed, should he have used it) undoubtedly frightened defenders. In the end, though, it wasn't his speed that changed the match but his propensity for popping up in deeper unmarked positions.
Plata for Findley is a relatively straightforward substitution on the face of things: Both are quick, crafty players and will stretch play. San Jose didn't cope with the switch, Plata was able to sneak into an unmarked spot to receive a long ball from Kenny Mansally, and with a deft pass, released the always-surprisingly-quick Alvaro Saborio for the goal. The rest, as they say, is history.
It's tough having the last game of opening weekend - you get to watch every other team's new arrivals and see who's looking good before you get to see how your own team stacks up.
Thankfully, the wait proved to be more than worth it on Sunday night as Real Salt Lake waltzed into San Jose – a team that racked up a whopping 66 points last year en route to the Supporter's Shield – and dispatched the Earthquakes 2-0.
On a weekend where several teams put up impressive displays, RSL's performance was one of the best. Here are a few players - new and old - who impressed me most in the Claret-and-Cobalt's win at San Jose:
Sabo was Sabo, which is exactly what you want if you're an RSL fan. While many fans spent much of the offseason wondering about getting production from the second forward, I was more worried about whether Sabo could replicate his 17-goal effort from 2012. There's a long way to go, but it's impossible to argue that Sabo isn't off to a great start.
To win a tight match you need a game-changer, someone to come in and tip the contest in your favor. Sunday night the game-changer was clearly Plata.
His assist on Saborio's first goal was brilliant, featuring two perfect touches in a row (the perfect touch to settle a difficult ball, and the perfectly-weighted pass). Beyond that, Plata was active all over the field, coming back when needed to help the midfield possession game. And don't forget, the Ecuadorian international is only 21. This youngster could end up being one of RSL's biggest steals since the Kyle Beckerman trade.
I thought Seba had a great preseason and I was interested to see if it would carry over to MLS play. If the San Jose game is any indication, it has. We all know that Velasquez is a real offensive talent with ankle-breaking footwork on the ball (which he used on poor Ramiro Corrales on Sunday), but where I think Seba has really stepped up his game is on the other side of the ball. Jason Kreis has high expectations for his midfielders on defense, and Velasquez appeared to meet those on Sunday, staying active and honest on defense and tracking back to the top of the box when necessary.
Gil hasn't necessarily added any elements to his game this year, it just seems like he is taking it to a higher level. His movements are smoother, the timing is just a little bit better, and his confidence seems high. I guess that's what carrying the U.S. U-20 National Team to a World Cup berth will do for you. His combination play with Robbie Findley which led to a left-footed Cruyff turn and a shot that produced Jon Busch's best save of the night was a thing of beauty that belies Luis' age.
We've been watching Captain Kyle for a long time now (300 matches, to be exact), so how is it that he continues to surprise us with something we've never seen before? His no-look pass to set up Sabo's second goal looked like something from a great NBA point guard's highlight reel. Aside from that, Beckerman was his usual efficient self, completing a game-high 46 passes and breaking up San Jose's midfield.
How fitting is it that, on the night that Rimando earned his 100th MLS clean sheet, he turned in a textbook shutout performance. Rimando only made two saves on the night, but his reaction save on Chris Wondolowski in the first half was top-drawer goalkeeping. And therein is the essence of keeping a clean sheet: You don't have to make 15 saves, but you must stay focused enough to make the one you have to. On top of that, Rimando was a good coach to his young back line, helping them sort out their issues on the occasions where they lost track of Wondolowski.
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
It wasn't Argentina at the 2006 World Cup, but RSL's 12 pass sequence to lead to forward Alvaro Saborio's second goal in the 85th minute of Sunday night's 2-0 win at San Jose was still pretty cool.
Check out the full build-up to the goal above.
Real Salt Lake started its season in style on Sunday night, getting a pair of goals from forward Alvaro Saborio to down defending Supporters’ Shield winners San Jose Earthquakes 2-0 at Buck Shaw Stadium
Here are a few interesting numbers from Sunday’s match:
Real Salt Lake goalkeeper Nick Rimando has 100 career MLS regular season shutouts after blanking the ‘Quakes on Sunday night. Rimando made two saves at Buck Shaw, including one fingertip stop on 2012 MVP Chris Wondolowski.
The 33-year-old Rimando is second all-time on the MLS career shutouts list, trailing only unsigned ‘keeper Kevin Hartman, who has 112 career clean-sheets.
RSL captain Kyle Beckerman made his 300th career regular season appearance on Sunday night, becoming the 20th player in league history to reach the mark.
Beckerman is the seventh player with RSL ties to hit 300 appearances, joining Jeff Cunningham (365), Chris Klein (333), RSL Head Scout Andy Williams (332), Rimando (320), Carey Talley (315) and RSL Head Coach Jason Kreis as former/current players in the exclusive club.
Real Salt Lake forward Alvaro Saborio’s two-goal performance on Sunday night gives him 14 career multi-goal games across all competitions for RSL.
RSL’s record when Saborio scores.
The number of passes RSL played in the build-up to Saborio’s second goal in the 85th minute. That’s a lot.
The Earthquakes entered Sunday’s match with an 18-game home regular season unbeaten streak. RSL squashed that, handing San Jose its first regular season loss in the Bay Area since August 2011.
RSL has now won four-consecutive MLS season openers. Three of those four wins have come at San Jose, with the Claret-and-Cobalt beating the ‘Quakes at Buck Shaw in 2010, 2011 and 2013. RSL – which is 4-2-3 all-time in season openers – beat L.A. in its 2012 season opener.
Sunday's season opener is the first chance Real Salt Lake has to seek revenge on last year's three bitter losses to San Jose Earthquakes, but with both sides suffering from significant injury problems, the season opener is filled with question marks — and opportunity.
Defending long balls
San Jose is — shall we say — not the most sophisticated team in the league. They aren't known for swashbuckling play, nor for inventive attacking. There's nothing particularly wrong with this: They have an effective style for the players in their group, and their 2012 Supporters' Shield speaks toward that. A style of play involving long balls over the top — perhaps service for newly DP-ized Chris Wondolowski, perhaps to one Steven Lenhart — requires attention from the central defenders.
Chris Schuler and Kwame Watson-Siriboe, likely the starting pair on Sunday, are both very good in the air, but they'll need to ensure they're alive to things coming at them. A veteran head like Nat Borchers would be useful here, but these two are more than capable — it's just a matter of proper communication and defensive understanding. Additionally, RSL captain Kyle Beckerman's likely to be called upon heavily to retrieve loose balls knocked down, then he'll need to quickly distribute to wider areas to push play forward.
Top of the diamond
With Luis Gil returning to camp — no, wait — the team (a glorious feeling not having to use preseason terms!), Jason Kreis's decision about who to play at the top of the diamond became a bit more complicated. With Javier Morales out, the immediate choice for a replacement isn't entirely clear.
Gil hasn't trained much with the team as yet, but fitness isn't a concern, and he knows the side well. Some would say he represents a better option on the side of the diamond; that may be true in relation to the players on hand, but the coaching staff — and Tab Ramos, US U-20s coach — value him as a more traditional playmaker in the number 10 spot.
Sebastian Velasquez presents perhaps the best on-the-ball option to replace Morales's skill set, and he's shown well there in preseason. He's grown substantially since he came into this side a year ago, and that he's in contention for a starting spot when there are more veteran players available speaks very well to his progress.
Ned Grabavoy offers something there, but his natural position is perhaps a bit deeper. Khari Stephenson can play there, but it's perhaps not the spot where we'd see him, should he play Sunday. Even John Stertzer saw a bit of time there, but he's very much an outside shot here.
Avoiding red cards
It hardly seems like it needs spelling out, but avoiding inopportune red cards (as if there's ever an opportune one) is essential. Sendings off to Kyle Beckerman, Jamison Olave, and Fabian Espindola last season spelled "doom" in the sky with prominent contrail letters.
When key members of the squad are pulled from matches at key moments, the entire dynamic of a match is changed rather forcibly. It's an obvious thing, but discipline and attention to the refereeing style on hand will be crucial.
A quick update on RSL opponent San Jose ahead of Sunday’s season opener at Buck Shaw Stadium:
Two target strikers down
Earthquakes forwards Steven Lenhart and Alan Gordon will both miss Sunday’s match due to injury. Both players had career years in 2012, with Lenhart scoring a career high 10 goals and Gordon tallying a career high 13.
Importantly, the absence of Gordon and Lenhart leaves San Jose without a target forward on Sunday. That means less space for 2012 MVP Chris Wondolowski, who won’t have a big bruiser up top to occupy the center backs for him.
Flank play diminished through injury
San Jose midfielder Marvin Chavez and right back Steven Beitashour will join Lenhart and Gordon in the stands on Sunday, both missing the match due to injury.
Like Lenhart and Gordon, Chavez had a career year in 2012. The Honduran international tied for third in the league with 13 assists and registered three goals from his spot at the outside of the midfield. Beitashour also had a strong season, earning an All-Star nod and registering six assists in the 2012 campaign.
Much of the service that comes from the wing – and goes to Wondolowski in the box – was supplied by Chavez and Beitashour in 2012. Their replacements likely won’t be as effective as they would’ve been on Sunday, something that bodes well for RSL, which is dealing with a few injuries of its own.
Real Salt Lake midfielder Kyle Beckerman and goalkeeper Nick Rimando can both hit major MLS milestones in Sunday’s season opener at San Jose, with Beckerman looking for his 300th career regular season appearance and Rimando aiming for his 100th career regular season shutout.
Barring anything unforeseen, Beckerman on Sunday will become the 20th player in MLS history to reach 300 career regular season appearances. The Claret-and-Cobalt captain will move into a tie on 300 appearances with D.C. midfielder Dwayne De Rosario, who is suspended for United’s season opener at Houston and March 9 match at RFK Stadium against RSL.
Beckerman will be the seventh player with RSL ties to hit 300 appearances, joining Jeff Cunningham (365), Chris Klein (333), RSL Head Scout Andy Williams (332), Rimando (319), Carey Talley (315) and RSL Head Coach Jason Kreis (305) as former/current Claret-and-Cobalt players in the exclusive club.
Rimando is looking to become the second player in MLS history to reach 100 shutouts. He’s currently in second-place on the MLS career shutouts list, trailing only unsigned ‘keeper Kevin Hartman, who has 112 regular season clean-sheets.
Good luck to both Kyle and Nick as they shoot for these huge marks at San Jose on Sunday.
After taking Monday and Tuesday off, Real Salt Lake returned to training on Wednesday ahead of Sunday's MLS regular season opener at defending Supporters' Shield winners San Jose Earthquakes.
RSL trained on Wednesday at the Utah Sports Lodge, putting in about 90 minutes of work on a turf field at the indoor facility before heading back to Rio Tinto Stadium. Missing from Wednesday's training were injured players Javier Morales and Chris Wingert as well as midfielder Luis Gil, who is traveling back to Salt Lake City on Wednesday from the CONCACAF U-20 Championship in Puebla, Mexico. Injured defender Nat Borchers was at the session, training individually on the sidelines throughout. Borchers is expected to be back in action in mid- to early-April.
RSL will train again in Utah on Thursday before departing for San Jose, where it will practice on Friday and Saturday. The Claret-and-Cobalt is hoping to train on Thursday at America First Field in Sandy, but may be forced indoors again due to weather conditions.
Sunday's season opener will kick off at 8 p.m. MT on CW30. The 30-minute Ford Pregame Show will begin at 7:30 p.m. MT on CW30.
Real Salt Lake color commentator Brian Dunseth had some interesting things to say about RSL’s depth during On Frame on ESPN 700 on Monday night, declaring that the Claret-and-Cobalt – despite all of its offseason changes – is unquestionably the deepest team in MLS.
“This is a much deeper team than it was last season,” Dunseth said. “I know that’s crazy to say, but for me this is the deepest team in Major League Soccer, hands down, no competition anywhere else.”
It’s easy to see where Dunny’s coming from. The Claret-and-Cobalt is stocked at nearly every position this year, going a solid four or five deep at forward, nine or 10 deep in the midfield and eight or nine deep in the defense. RSL even has some solid competition at the goalkeeper spot, with 2011 and 2012 MLS Cup winning ‘keeper Josh Saunders backing up RSL mainstay Nick Rimando.
All of that is a big change from last season, when RSL didn’t have many bench options at any position, let alone at all four.
“You look at over the last three, four years and RSL is one of the best teams in Major League Soccer,” Dunseth said. “Then you add Josh Saunders, who’s played in three out of the last four MLS Cup Finals for the L.A. Galaxy; Robbie Findley comes back; you get Joao Plata, arguably the most dynamic player in CONCACAF Champions League play from a MLS-based team last year; Lovel Palmer, a guy with MLS experience; Khari Stephenson, he’s slid in perfectly with this group; you add Cole Grossman, who’s played some games in Columbus; Rich Balchan, potentially, if he signs, the same thing; Aaron Maund from Toronto.
“Then you get to the draft picks. Devon Sandoval has been very, very good in a short amount of time in preseason. John Stertzer, he’s pro ready and we talked about this right after the draft, this kid can slot in and play. Then you have Olmes Garcia, a young physical talent who has all the capabilities in the world to be a good player.”
And those are just the new players. Dunseth didn’t even mention returnees Sebastian Velasquez – who looked very good in preseason – Kwame Watson-Siriboe, Kenny Mansally and Yordany Alvarez, all players who have proven that they can play in MLS and will get minutes in 2013.
“Right now, I just don’t see how you can argue the point,” Dunseth said. “This is the deepest team in Major League Soccer based on games played and experience.”