Stopping LA Galaxy — Robbie Keane and Landon Donovan are the chief targets, but others remain dangerous — is not a simple task. But that's exactly the task Real Salt Lake will be tasked with on Sunday when they launch their playoff campaign.
It's of real importance that the opposition midfielders be allowed minimal time on the ball. The more time Galaxy midfielders (and forwards dropping into deep positions) are given to find a killer pass, the greater the likelihood that we'll concede a goal. This doesn't necessitate the high pressure one might expect from other sides in MLS — instead, we can keep the same pressuring tactics we normally deploy, with our pressure increasing as the opponent nears our half. By approaching it in this way, we can avoid problems stemming from late overcommitment.
Following from that, we must also avoid getting hit in transition phases: We're facing a side that finds great joy in those moments. As a relevant example, three of their four goals they scored in a 4-2 win against us came with few of their players even in our half, let alone involved in the attack. It's a style that's afforded to them by the great individual skill of a few players and the willingness by others to remain in defensive positions during those moments. When your counterattack runs essentially three or four on six opposition players and ends in a goal scored, you're likely to find greater success.
Because of the threat offered by LA Galaxy on set pieces, RSL will need to be slightly more cautious when playing in the opposition half than they'd prefer to be. Creativity is a must, but an awareness of danger and willingness to sprint back to recover — from all players and not just those with more defensive roles — is necessary. As such, we must be willing to exercise patience in the opposition half, and in the final third we must take our chances quickly. Anything else presents too much risk for an unlikely reward.
Real Salt Lake will play its final game of the 2013 MLS regular season on Wednesday night, hosting Chivas USA at 7:00 p.m. MT at Rio Tinto Stadium.
Here are a few storylines to watch ahead of Wednesday’s contest:
RSL battling for outside shot at Supporters’ Shield; Playoff seeding on the line
A ton is on the line for Real Salt Lake in the Supporters’ Shield and Western Conference races this week. Everything starts on Wednesday, with RSL needing a win to stay alive in the chase for the Shield and a result to have hope of winning the West.
RSL gunning for season sweep of Chivas USA
Real Salt Lake will be looking to complete a season sweep of Chivas USA on Wednesday, having already beaten the Southern California side 1-0 at Rio Tinto Stadium on April 20 and downing the Goats 4-1 at the StubHub Center on May 19.
The Claret-and-Cobalt has only swept Chivas USA once before, going 2-0-0 against its expansion brethren in the 2011 season.
Saborio, Morales look to continue success v. Goats
Real Salt Lake stars Alvaro Saborio and Javier Morales have both had a great deal of success against Chivas USA, with Saborio notching four goals and two assists in eight career regular season games against the Goats and Morales scoring one goal and registering five assists in 12 regular season games against the Southern California side. They’ll look to continue that success in Wednesday’s important contest.
Every member of the RSL family will have their sights set on Portland this weekend, with the Claret-and-Cobalt set to take on the Timbers in a huge match at JELD-WEN Field at 8:30 p.m. on CW30 on Saturday night.
While Portland is the center of the Real Salt Lake – and, frankly, MLS – universe this weekend, there are plenty of other matches around the league that will affect RSL’s place in the standings. We’ve listed those matches below, along with some info on who you should be pulling for.
Sporting Kansas City v. D.C. United – 6:00 p.m. MT on NBC Sports Network
This might be a tad difficult in the wake of D.C.’s win over RSL in the Open Cup Final on Oct. 1, but Claret-and-Cobalt fans should be rooting for United to pull the upset at Sporting Park on Friday night. Kansas City and RSL have identical records, with the Claret-and-Cobalt leading SKC in the Supporters’ Shield standings by virtue of the goals scored tiebreaker. A little breathing room couldn’t hurt, however – pull for Ben Olsen’s squad.
FC Dallas v. Seattle Sounders FC – 12:30 p.m. MT on NBC
All those games in hand didn’t go exactly to plan for Seattle, which has lost its last three matches by a combined margin of 10-2. Despite the recent run of poor for, the Sounders are still just one point behind RSL in the standings, sitting in fourth-place in the Western Conference. Pull for Dallas – which announced on Friday that Head Coach Schellas Hyndman won’t return to his post in 2014 – in this nationally televised contest in Frisco.
Colorado Rapids v. Vancouver Whitecaps FC – 4:00 p.m. MT on Altitude
Pretty simple calculus in this one. Do what you do so well, RSL fans: Root against the Rapids. A Colorado loss or tie would lock up a playoff spot for RSL. Pull for the ‘Caps to get a result on the road.
Houston Dynamo v. New York Red Bulls – 2:00 p.m. MT on UniMas
This one won’t impact the Western Conference race, but it does hold huge implications in the battle for the Supporters’ Shield. New York currently sits atop the league table with 53 points, ahead of Portland by virtue of the wins tiebreaker. If RSL is to have any hope of lifting the Supporters’ Shield this season, the Red Bulls will have to lose or tie one of their final two matches. Both are tough – New York finishes the season at home against what will be a desperate Chicago side – but Houston is a notoriously difficult place to play. Pull for the Dynamo to take all three at BBVA Compass Stadium.
LA Galaxy v. San Jose Earthquakes – 7:00 p.m. MT on ESPN
With San Jose effectively unable to pass the Claret-and-Cobalt in the West standings, pull for the Quakes to topple the Galaxy at the StubHub Center on Sunday. LA is inching up on RSL – just one point behind heading into the weekend – and it would be good for the Utah side if Landon Donovan, Robbie Keane and Co. dropped points to their California rival.
Make sure to tune-in to all of these matches this weekend. All five will be available to watch in Utah, with four on national TV and the fifth – Colorado v. Vancouver – on the Altitude network.
Best of all is that none of the above games conflict with the main event: RSL at Portland. 8:30 p.m. MT. CW30 and MLSsoccer.com as the Stream of the Week.
RSL and Portland are set to square off in a huge Western Conference battle on Saturday night, with the Claret-and-Cobalt entering the not-so-friendly confines of JELD-WEN Field for an 8:30 p.m. kickoff against the Timbers.
Here are a few storylines to watch ahead of the match, which you can catch on CW30:
Supporters’ Shield and Western Conference title hopes hang in the balance
Pretty simple here: Realistically, RSL needs to beat Portland on Saturday night in order to have a shot of winning the Supporters’ Shield and Western Conference titles.
The Claret-and-Cobalt wouldn’t be officially eliminated from either race with a draw or loss on Saturday, but – with Portland one point ahead of RSL and playing a very winnable game at Chivas USA in their finale next Saturday – the Utah side probably needs all three points this weekend to have a shot. If RSL beats Portland and wins its regular season finale on Wednesday against Chivas USA at Rio Tinto Stadium, the Utah side would win the regular season Western Conference title.
Even if the team wins its final two matches, RSL would still need a bit of help to win the Shield. New York is one point ahead of the Claret-and-Cobalt in the league standings. The Red Bulls would have to lose or tie one of their final two matches – they’re at Houston on Sunday and home against Chicago next week – for RSL to lift the Shield after victories in its final two games.
Here’s an easier version: Root for RSL to win out and New York to lose or draw one of its final two matches. We’ll get into the many other permutations should Saturday’s result dictate such.
This is a little bit gnarly, so we’ll break it down bullet point style. Remember that with the Western Conference being so jumbled – Portland leads with 53 points, RSL is in second with 52, LA and Seattle both have 51, Colorado has 48 and San Jose and Vancouver are on the outside with 47 and 45 – any sort of result would be huge for RSL on Saturday.
Here we go. RSL will clinch a playoff berth this weekend with:
- A win at Portland
- A Colorado loss or tie against Vancouver on Saturday afternoon, regardless of RSL’s result at Portland
- A San Jose loss or tie at LA on Sunday night, regardless of RSL’s result at Portland
RSL can’t officially clinch with a draw at Portland if both Colorado and San Jose win. However, the Claret-and-Cobalt would effectively sew up a sixth-straight postseason berth with just one point at the Timbers. Here’s how:
- A draw at Portland would put RSL at 53 points
- If both San Jose and Colorado win both of their remaining games AND both LA and Seattle finish with more than 53 points AND RSL loses to Chivas USA on Wednesday, RSL and San Jose would finish the year tied for fifth in the West with 53 points
- MLS would then use its tiebreaker system to determine if San Jose or RSL qualified for the playoffs
- The teams would be tied on the first tiebreaker, each having 15 wins
- MLS would then move to the second tiebreaker, which is goals scored. RSL currently has 55 goals and San Jose currently has 33 goals. That looks pretty good for RSL.
Morales suspended; Beckerman, Rimando and Saborio available
RSL will be without one of its most dangerous players on Saturday at Portland, as playmaker Javier Morales will miss the match while serving a one-game suspension due to yellow card accumulation. Morales was instrumental in RSL’s previous two league games against Portland, scoring two goals and notching an assist in MLS action against Portland.
On the plus side, three Real Salt Lake players will be returning to the fold on Saturday, with Captain Kyle Beckerman (U.S.), goalkeeper Nick Rimando (U.S.) and forward Alvaro Saborio (Costa Rica) all returning from international duty. Beckerman played 90 minutes for the U.S. in its 3-2 win at Panama on Tuesday while Saborio came off the bench early in the second half and scored a goal in Costa Rica’s 2-1 win over Mexico on the same night.
Saturday's match against FC Dallas pits a team desperate for a win and a chance at making the playoffs, the Texas side, and a team with one last chance to push for a chance at the Supporters' Shield, the Utah side. The difference becomes rather moot: Both are going to be fighting tooth and nail for a chance.
Jason Kreis told reporters after Tuesday's loss that he had to consider recent results when concocting the group that will take us into the playoffs. That won't be an easy task. Some have been very, very good; others have been poor at best. But when some of those excellent players are young and inconsistent, and some of those poor players are veterans and generally more consistent than not, you've got to wonder if the world has simply gone topsy-turvy for a month.
But it remains the case that we have a deep squad, and we have little reason to not use it now. We may as well throw all of the noodles at the wall to see what sticks, and Jason Kreis undoubtedly recognizes that. So who might he play on Saturday?
Chris Schuler will certainly get another run out, and maybe he'll be partnered by Brandon McDonald again. Both players showed well a week ago, and the calm with which they steadied the back line was admirable. Abdoulie Mansally might get a run on the left, and Lovel Palmer might get a run on the right. (I'd wager one or the other and not both.) Robbie Findley might be back in contention after a knee problem seemed to have kept him out of Tuesday. Finally, Luis Gil will almost assuredly be back in the lineup after having an emergency appendectomy on Sunday. (I mean, really — can't these kids keep their appendixes (appendices?) under control for a day?)
Speed demons, and how to slay them
The immediate options are thus: 1) Run an offside trap, or 2) Play a deeper defensive line to halt opportunities.
If we're playing a less experienced defensive setup, the offside trap seems an unwise gambit. A deeper defensive line, though, would create greater gaps between the defense and the midfield, which brings with it its own set of tactical issues.
But at this point in the season, the only direction in which we can really travel is upward, and only if we string together a great run of results. Our playoff spot is very nearly secured, and a proactive approach is necessary if we're to aim for a Supporters' Shield surprise.
It's a risky thing, but when you need a win, you really have to play for a win, consequences be damned. Let's move the defenders forward, be prepared for Dallas to break with pace, and let the match be its inevitably open self.
Real Salt Lake will look to bounce back on Saturday from Tuesday’s crushing 1-0 defeat to D.C. United in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup Final, hosting Western Conference foe FC Dallas at 7:00 p.m. at Rio Tinto Stadium.
Here are a few storylines to watch ahead of Saturday’s match:
Supporters’ Shield and Western Conference hopes on the line
Real Salt Lake is currently in the thick of the Supporters’ Shield and Western Conference races, one point behind New York in the battle for the Shield and in first in the West by virtue of holding the goals scored tiebreaker over Seattle.
With Seattle holding two games in hand on both the Claret-and-Cobalt and New York, Saturday’s game is vitally important for Real Salt Lake to keep pace in the chase for the Shield and the West. A win over Dallas would keep RSL in first in the West and potentially vault the team past New York, which hosts New England on Saturday. A loss or a tie and the Supporters’ Shield and Western Conference title become increasingly unlikely for the Claret-and-Cobalt.
One factor working in RSL’s favor: Seattle could lose key players Clint Dempsey, Eddie Johnson and Brad Evans to the U.S. national team for the Sounders’ Oct. 9 game against Vancouver and Oct. 13 clash at Portland.
Dallas enters Saturday’s match with its playoff hopes hanging by a thread. FCD is currently in eighth-place in the West, five points behind Colorado for the fifth and final playoff spot. The Texas side has just four games remaining in the regular season and will likely need to win at least three of them to have any hope of qualifying for the postseason.
Make no mistake about it: RSL will be facing a desperate Dallas side on Saturday. Expect a lot of scratching and clawing from the Hoops.
RSL magician Javier Morales and Dallas playmaker David Ferreira have both had a good deal of success against each other’s side, with Morales scoring three goals and notching six assists in 10 career regular season games against Dallas and Ferreira registering two goals and three assists in seven career regular season games against the Claret-and-Cobalt.
Kreis matches up against former side
Real Salt Lake Head Coach Jason Kreis spent nine seasons playing in Dallas, scoring 91 goals for the then Dallas Burn from 1996-2004. Kreis – who is still FCD’s all-time leading scorer – is 7-8-3 in all competitions when coaching against Dallas.
Real Salt Lake faces D.C. United in what is perhaps the most anticipated match of the last two years, and it's one Jason Kreis and his team will be hoping to put to bed easily. But that's rarely as simple as it seems, despite their opposition's wholly dismal form in MLS.
Form: What is it good for?
If you've guessed that the answer is something close to "absolutely nothing," then you're right on track. It's not really that form means nothing, but that when we're talking about the biggest matches, form won't dictate anything on a grand scale. Quality players step up for games of this nature. There's nothing controversial about that. We've had trouble in the past in these circumstances, but again: Form, even over the longer term, doesn't mean a thing.
Who plays? One major choice remains
If Saturday's defeat of Vancouver Whitecaps (which, I might add, was quite nice) is any indication, and it surely is, then we'll see as strong a lineup as we've seen all season. The only player who would seem a real doubt, Alvaro Saborio, is back, having trained for at least a week now.
But there remains one question: Who plays in the midfield alongside the Beckerman, Grabavoy and Morales trio? Luis Gil has just come off a superb 90-minute performance on the weekend; Sebastian Velasquez the same. Both played heavily in the Reserve League game during the week. This leaves Khari Stephenson as the obvious choice, but as we've seen so often, the obvious choice is so often the one not taken. Luis Gil is hardly out of the running.
Stephenson adds some great work, a calm head, and a great long shot. It perhaps should be noted that he's won an Open Cup before — a champion with Kansas City in 2004.
Gil adds more attacking movement and combination, which is essential to the way we play. He also would come into the match with some renewed confidence, having been the midfield boss throughout Saturday.
The pass-and-move fabric of our side is an important factor: Stephenson is decidedly less mobile (owing in part to his stature and in part to his style of play) than Gil. He isn't a player that fits neatly into our system the way Gil does at current — a testament to Gil's development at Real Salt Lake, surely.
But that, on its own, isn't the determining factor: Stephenson adds new variables to the equation, and it's tempting to deploy that business buzzword, disruption, to the element he would bring. And maybe we should: By allowing us another type of option, Stephenson disrupts the tendency we have to end up in a desperate spot on the flank, flinging ball after ball into the box. He'll stick more centrally, he'll stay calm, and he'll try to find a sane — if not spectacular — pass.
Setting out on the front foot
If there's one thing that's universally agreed upon about this D.C. United side, it's that allowing them to play their game yields dividends for the opposition. The "inevitable mistake," as a group of United podcasters and bloggers described it during a conversation I had with them tonight, will come, and it'll push their chances to something approaching zero.
We won't give them the opportunity to make that mistake. Not easily, at least. At home, with Jason Kreis as our manager, we aim to control nearly everything that comes our way. We lead the league in passes per possession. We make the game ours and not the opponents. Even with the weakness of our opponent, there's little chance we break from that. This is who we are, and we'll continue our unabashed approach.
That's of course to our benefit. There's little point in completely changing the way we play. Responding to our opponents is one thing; playing to exploit one specific weakness is another. We'll play to exploit multiple weaknesses in the midfield and defense, and if it works out, we'll have a very strong chance of coming out victorious on the other side.
We didn't get here by not being us. It's been a difficult road, and the final won't be easy. But we're not going to abandon that road now — not right at the end.
MLSsoccer.com was out in full force at Real Salt Lake practice at Rio Tinto Stadium on Monday ahead of Tuesday's Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup Final against D.C. United, speaking with Claret-and-Cobalt Head Coach Jason Kreis, defender Nat Borchers and midfielder Javier Morales about the Cup Final.
They packaged their conversations into a slick video - give it a watch above.
Real Salt Lake faces Vancouver Whitecaps on Saturday with a bit of a quandary on their hands: Play a weakened side and risk a loss, or play a strong side and risk losing the U.S. Open Cup Final on Tuesday?
Return to approach
The first and perhaps foremost thing Real Salt Lake must focus on for Saturday's match is returning to the approach that's brought them so much joy through the season. Too often, they've set out to do something, but, after finding themselves down a goal, looked to force the occasion. It's not what they train week-in, week-out to do, and as a result, they're not particularly good at it.
So at the top of Jason Kreis's list will be convincing his side that, if the going gets tough, they must continue to attack in sane, non-panicky ways: Keep the ball on the ground, build connective play, and work as a unit. The individualistic approaches showcased last weekend was not the solution to our ills, and though they might be natural and somewhat sane reactions to the compact defense we saw, they were ineffective.
The necessity of rotation
This is no time in the season to be rotating, but we've found ourselves in a situation where it's necessary. That's a good thing, as the impetus is the U.S. Open Cup Final on Tuesday (ahem, buy tickets, et cetera), which, we'll all agree, is a good thing to have happen. And it's at home, which is even better, as you won't be able to watch it otherwise. But with Saturday on the road, a two-games-in-three-day stretch might be too much to ask of even the most seasoned of players.
Should we lose Saturday, we're in a precarious position for the playoffs. Should we lose Tuesday, we'll have missed another chance at a trophy. Obviously enough, the goal is to lose at neither asking, but the approach required is difficult. We can't put too many of those likely to start Tuesday out there on Saturday — or indeed, even on the plane today — lest we risk tiring them out prematurely.
So a much-changed lineup is inevitable. Balancing those players who might be able to play in both matches with those who might be on the bench is a difficult task. But sending Nick Rimando, Nat Borchers, Kyle Beckerman, Alvaro Saborio, Ned Grabavoy, and Javier Morales? I wouldn't count on that. Those players are ostensibly the core of our soccer identity, but we'll need to rely on our much-vaunted depth to make it through this difficult stretch.
It's a funny thing when a future match dictates a match immediately at hand, but that's the nature of playing for trophies. It's difficult, it's arduous, and it comes bundled with a great deal of risk. But if we want to stand a fighting chance to continue in both, it will take some real work.
Briefly, a slew of young players will likely see the pitch on Saturday. Sebastian Velasquez can be expected to play at the top of the diamond, where he's continually impressed for the reserves. Yordany Alvarez should be at the base of the diamond, and his strong passing and breakup play will be strongly needed against this Whitecaps side hunting for a playoff spot. Brandon McDonald could be called into action for the first time since the 3-3 draw against Portland (particularly as he's cup-tied and can't play Tuesday).
It'll be a mixed lineup, no doubt, but one imminently capable of putting a two-game losing streak behind this side. It's all about depth, isn't it?
With a nearly full-strength side, Real Salt Lake travels to Seattle for a match that could tilt the scales in MLS, with effects cascading down the table should RSL lose out. Jason Kreis's side, then, has a difficult task in front of them, in a difficult stadium, against a difficult side.
It is important for RSL to notch a win against Seattle, but this will be one of the more difficult MLS matches for Kreis to manage. Should his side adopt an overly defensive posture, it might be difficult to grab that win — constitutionally, we're not a side that thrives when sitting back in an organized fashion. Should they adopt an overly offensive posture, it might be difficult to preserve any goalscoring advantage maintained. Thus, striking that balance will be the impetus laid before Kreis.
This largely becomes the role of the midfield to maintain that balance: The match ebbs and flows by the actions they take. The forwards are important in that they must follow the lead of the midfield and adapt their play, and the defenders are important in that they must respond to the threats that emerge as a result of the balance. But it is the role of the midfield to dictate it, and with three veterans certain to start, that shouldn't be too difficult.
Kyle Beckerman: He is the player through which all things must pass, whether it is directly (passes to and from him) or indirectly (play being dictated by him, whether by literal communication or by his movement). He'll be important in relaying play to wide players, and ensuring that play circulates through the midfield.
Ned Grabavoy: He is the player tasked with perhaps the most work of the three veterans, and he'll be required to both help out defending against wide players and to push play through the midfield. His ability to maintain possession will be vital here, particularly against the Sounders midfield; this will give all other players more time to adapt off-the-ball and to provide new outlets.
Javier Morales: He is the player responsible for creating the deadliest of chances and to stretch play laterally both through his movement and through his distribution to forwards. This will open room for the other midfielders — Grabavoy and the other central midfielder in the diamond, perhaps Luis Gil — and the forwards in the areas in which they can do the most damage.
No player has an easier job than any other on the night, but by ensuring that their responsibilities are fulfilled, the collective burden will be lifted, and the wall of 55,000 fans in Seattle can be disappointed once again.