Real Salt Lake has been in mixed form in MLS play, but with a tremendous US Open Cup win on Wednesday, there's a sense that the dip could recover well. The tactical pieces are there — but as so often this season, injuries and fitness could throw a bit of a wrench into the best-laid plans.
Real Salt Lake has been unwavering this season in the desire to play essentially the same style from match to match. Remarkably, this is the case despite several formation shifts, forced personnel changes, and indeed, an understanding that controlling the pace of the match constantly is not always possible or wise.
As a result, we've seen RSL surrender possession at times; this often comes in the form of allowing the opposition to simply pass the ball around the back line while they probe for an opening. Our general strategy — short build-up play and balls sent to either flank to release pressure and stretch play — remains the same regardless. I don't know that Jason Kreis is setting his side out to surrender some attacking control in exchange for another sort, but the ability of our side to adapt to changes in the pace of the game has been an important factor in our successes.
Defending from the front
If one thing can be said about Wednesday's win over Portland Timbers, it's that Real Salt Lake displayed an encouraging ability to defend from the front lines. With Alvaro Saborio and Robbie Findley both dropping deep to defend when not in possession, Real Salt Lake pushed Portland attackers into wide positions, where they were ineffectual at best.
Houston Dynamo won't quite present the same challenge, but that mentality is one that we've pushed forward with through the season. It's paid dividends. Indeed, it's been the case almost to the point that Findley has been deployed as something approaching a winger who will burst forward during counters. This is more than him simply stretching play: He's been important from wide positions and has helped create goals from those positions.
Jason Kreis's side has been in a bit of a minutes crunch this season, and for some, pushing them to play both Saturday and Wednesday stretched their fitness thin. As such, players like Javier Morales and Kyle Beckerman are both in positions where playing again Saturday is probably too soon. A bit of a rest for the two of them, who are rarely afforded them, will be essential in the long-term, but in the short term, we have to wonder about replacements.
On Wednesday, Ned Grabavoy played at the top of the diamond, and he was fairly effective doing so. Last Saturday, he played in the side of the diamond. This Saturday, he might play at the base of the diamond. The remarkable part is that he can play those three distinct positions effectively.
It’s been well documented that tonight’s U.S. Open Cup Semifinal between RSL and Portland will be Timbers Captain Will Johnson’s first game at Rio Tinto Stadium since he was traded from the Claret-and-Cobalt to Portland last December.
Johnson went on OnFrame on Tuesday night ahead of tonight’s match, saying some really interesting things about his time in Salt Lake, life in Portland and comparisons between the two clubs.
Here are a couple of highlights from the conversation, the entirety of which can be heard by clicking here.
On how RSL’s and Portland’s fan bases compare:
“There’s more similarities than differences. They’re both very good faan bases and both have treated me exceptionally. I’m very proud to have played in front of both sets of fans…. The fan base in Salt Lake is still very special to me. They treated me exceptionally, they always had my back no matter what. Playing good, or playing bad, through all the ups and downs, they always had my back so they’ll always have a special place in my heart and I think that probably goes both ways for the majority of the RSL faithful.”
On making his return to Rio Tinto Stadium in such an important match:
“I wouldn’t have it any other way. My return here was always going to be special, regardless of the circumstances, but now with it being a cup game, a knockout game with the winner hosting the final, obviously there’s a little added incentive. I’m excited, can’t wait to get back out there and see all those familiar faces, regardless of if they’re razzing me a little bit more than previous times when I played at Rio Tinto. I’ll always have I think a mutual admiration and relationship between myself and the fans, so I can’t wait to get back out there. I think it’ll be a great spectacle and an entertaining match for everybody to see.”
Kickoff is at 7:30. Get your tickets here.
Real Salt Lake's magical Open Cup run is nearing its culmination: Whether that end-point is a final at Rio Tinto Stadium or a semifinal against Portland Timbers tonight is difficult to predict.
Stay aware of opportunities created in the middle
Real Salt Lake must be entirely aware of opportunities being created through the middle; while most opportunities created against us are from the flanks, Portland Timbers are clearly not like most sides in MLS. They'll pass along the ground, move the ball, and exercise a modicum of patience. It's a bit like we are, and we've not really faced a side like that to this point.
One good look in the mirror
Playing against Portland Timbers will bring to light some of our positive qualities and, indeed, some of our more negative ones. Our weakness in set piece organization is in line with the issues Timbers have displayed with set pieces, while our propensity for attacking through creativity and passing movement will be mirrored by Timbers. This is surely the first time we've faced a side this season that mirrors that desire. The battles will be as physical as ever, but we shouldn't count on Portland resorting to simply lumping the ball long out of the back. That it's taken until August to see this opposition — and not even in league play at this point — is regrettable, given we will now play them in a more condensed period.
In what will surely be one of the key story lines of the night, both sides have young managers who are passionate about their methodology, and that's not likely to change on the night. Jason Kreis and Caleb Porter squaring off should be a thing of broadcasters' dreams. The unpredictability of both managers — combined with the relative predictability of both sides' approaches — will be part of an ever-intensifying evening.
But what could change?
Jason Kreis's side has displayed some very encouraging signs that they're capable of being deployed in multiple formations, and the boss has used that to good effect. Whether it's rolling out a third forward late in the match to maintain high pressure or to contain the high pressure of the opposition, or deploying five midfielders to focus on building attacks in wider positions, there is a newfound element of unpredictability that only helps the general effectiveness of our tried-and-true midfield diamond.
Magic of the cup?
Managing a single-leg knockout competition is rather different than managing a league match or even a double-leg knockout series. Every mistake will be under the microscope after the fact. It's difficult to really make it through on luck alone, but stymying the opposition — perhaps with the aid of one unbelievably good goalkeeper — will be key to securing a U.S. Open Cup Final at Rio Tinto Stadium.
Real Salt Lake will play its biggest match of the year so far on Wednesday, when it will host the Portland Timbers in the U.S. Open Cup Semifinal at 7:30 p.m. at Rio Tinto Stadium.
Here are a few interesting figures to keep in mind ahead of
Saturday’s Wednesday's match:
Since 1995, only two out of 36 U.S. Open Cup Semifinal matches have surpassed 10,000 fans in attendance. The semifinal attendance record is currently held by the minor-league Rochester Rhinos, which drew 12,179 fans for its 3-0 win over the Colorado Rapids in the 1996 U.S. Open Cup Semis.
Real Salt Lake has scored 11 goals in only three U.S. Open Cup matches, giving the Claret-and-Cobalt an average of 3.67 goals per Open Cup game. RSL’s scoring haul is tied for the most in the Open Cup with Portland.
Timbers Captain Will Johnson, donning the No. 4 jersey, will return to Rio Tinto Stadium on Wednesday for the first time since being traded from RSL to Portland on Dec. 3, 2012. The former RSL man notched nine goals in four-and-a-half seasons with the Claret-and-Cobalt, and was named an MLS All-Star in 2009. Johnson has already scored six goals in his first season with the Timbers.
Real Salt Lake has won the coin flip to host their Open Cup match five times in five potential matches, including the final. The odds of RSL winning all five coin flips are only 1/32, or 3.125 percent.
Real Salt Lake forward Devon Sandoval has found the back of the net three times during the 2013 U.S. Open Cup, tying the club record held jointly by Jason Kreis, Andy Williams and Kyle Beckerman. Two of Sandoval’s three Open Cup goals have come during extra time. Sandoval’s three goals are tied for seventh in all of Open Cup play. Portland Timbers forward Frederic Piquionne leads the pack with five goals, four of which came in the club’s 5-1 third-round victory over the Wilmington Hammerheads.
Wednesday’s match is the first RSL game that Claret-and-Cobalt right back Tony Beltran will be available for since June 29 – a span of 39 days. Beltran missed all of July while with the U.S. national team and the MLS All-Stars and was suspended for Saturday’s 2-2 draw at Colorado due to a red card picked up in that June 29 win at Toronto.
Real Salt Lake hits the road to take on the Colorado Rapids on Saturday night at 6:30 p.m. Saturday night’s game will be the final game in the Rocky Mountain Cup.
Here are a few interesting storylines to watch ahead of Saturday’s match:
Rocky Mountain Cup on the line
This one’s pretty simple: If RSL wins on Saturday, it will take home its seventh-straight Rocky Mountain Cup. A loss or a tie and the Rapids take home the trophy for the first time since 2006.
Rimando and Beckerman poised for returns
After spending all of July away from the team on international duty and with the MLS All-Stars, RSL captain Kyle Beckerman and goalkeeper Nick Rimando look poised to make their return to the Claret-and-Cobalt on Saturday.
Both Beckerman and Rimando trained with RSL on Friday. Claret-and-Cobalt Head Coach Jason Kreis indicated after training on Thursday that both could start on Saturday.
RSL defender Tony Beltran also missed all of July while with the national team and the All-Stars. He won’t be available on Saturday due to suspension.
Beltran isn’t the only RSL player suspended for Saturday’s match – fellow defender Chris Wingert and midfielder Yordany Alvarez are also out for the match after receiving punishment from the MLS DisCo.
Abdoulie Mansally and Lovel Palmer are likely to replace Wingert and Beltran on the back line, while Beckerman should take his usual defensive spot for Alvarez.
Real Salt Lake forward Alvaro Saborio returned to the Claret-and-Cobalt in sparkling fashion last week, registering his third career RSL hat trick in the Utah side’s 4-3 loss at New York. Saborio has had a good deal of success against Colorado in his career, scoring five goals and notching one assist in nine regular season games against the Rapids.
It seems like the Rapids have forgotten their place.
Colorado - which, in case you've forgotten, has lost six-straight Rocky Mountain Cups to RSL - is talking a lot of smack ahead of Saturday's 2013 RMC finale, with Head Coach Oscar Pareja and goalkeeper Clint Irwin giving the first-place Claret-and-Cobalt plenty of bulletin board material for this weekend's clash at Dick's Sporting Goods Park.
RSL is 0-1-1 in this year's Rocky Mountain Cup, tying the Rapids 1-1 at home on March 16 before falling 1-0 at Colorado on April 6. The Claret-and-Cobalt must win on Saturday to retain the club's seventh-straight Rocky Mountain Cup.
Here's Pareja on Saturday's contest:
"We know we're stronger than them," Pareja said. "And we know we can [beat them] again.
And here's Irwin responding to a question about his PK stop on RSL's Alvaro Saborio in the April 6 match:
"I hope, when we do get the three points this weekend, we can look back and say that was a key moment."
Real Salt Lake will look to bounce back from last weekend’s tough loss to Sporting Kansas City this Saturday, when it will take on the New York Red Bulls at 5:00 p.m. MT on ABC 4 at Red Bull Arena.
Here are a few storylines to watch ahead of Saturday’s contest:
RSL v, Jamison Olave, Fabian Espindola and Jonny Steele
Saturday’s match will pit the Claret-and-Cobalt against former RSL men Jamison Olave, Fabian Espindola and Jonny Steele. Olave and Espindola were dealt to New York this offseason in the same December trade, while Steele signed with the Red Bulls after RSL declined to pick up his option. The trio spent a combined 12 seasons with the Claret-and-Cobalt, with Olave and Espindola playing huge roles on the 2009 MLS Cup winning side and on the team that advanced to the final of the 2011 CONCACAF Champions League.
Return of Sabo
Star forward Alvaro Saborio will be available to make his return to the RSL lineup this weekend after playing just twice since April 20 due to a combination of international call-ups and injury. Saborio was most recently with the Costa Rican national team for the CONCACAF Gold Cup, re-joining RSL earlier this week after Los Ticos were eliminated by Honduras in the tournament’s quarterfinals on Sunday.
Real Salt Lake faces another top Eastern Conference team
Saturday’s match is RSL’s fourth-consecutive against a team in playoff position, and third time this month that it will face a top Eastern Conference side after taking on Philadelphia and Kansas City earlier in July. The Red Bulls currently sit in third-place in the East with 32 points from a 9-7-5 record.
A backline without Beltran and Wingert
Saturday’s game will mark the first-time in 74 games across all competitions that RSL will play without both Tony Beltran and Chris Wingert. Beltran is unavailable while with the U.S. national team for Gold Cup duty, while Wingert is out while serving the first game of a two game suspension.
Getting back on track
The loss Saturday night against Sporting Kansas City was Real Salt Lake’s first in 12 matches across all competitions. The last loss, prior to Saturday, was a 3-2 loss against the Montreal Impact on May 11 in Montreal.
Real Salt Lake will face off against former Claret-and-Cobalt players Fabian Espindola, Jamison Olave and Jonny Steele for the first time this Saturday, when RSL will take on the trio's New York Red Bulls at 5:00 p.m. MT at Red Bull Arena on ABC 4.
RSL Head Coach Jason Kreis, defender Nat Borchers and midfielder Ned Grabavoy have already shared their thoughts on going up against the former RSL men. On Thursday, Espindola and Steele spoke to NewYorkRedBulls.com about facing off against their former team.
"It's going to be special," Espindola said. "I know that they're a great team. They're going to play and be a tough team to beat."
"Everything about Real Salt Lake was good for me," he continued. "I have a lot of good things from my time there and I'm grateful for that team."
Steele - who made his MLS debut as a member of RSL against the Red Bulls on March 17, 2012 - was also complimentary of the Claret-and-Cobalt.
"Salt Lake is a small franchise but they do things right and things are professional," he said. "All around they've got great coaches and they've been succesful."
Espindola is particularly looking forward to the on-field battle between Olave and RSL maestro Javier Morales on Saturday.
"I was just joking with [Olave] about how I'm going to laugh when I watch him and [Javier Morales] fighting," he said. "That's going to be funny.
Two of the best sides in recent MLS memory face each other when RSL takes on Sporting Kansas City this weekend, and that we're involved in that is a testament to the progress we've made this season — but playing SKC always presents some difficult considerations.
Watching some of the more positive moments — those that resulted in goals and those that didn't — against FC Dallas last weekend, the importance of the ever-vaunted pass-and-move strategy came to bear. By forcing defenders and midfielders to follow the ball consistently, quick, dangerous players like Olmes Garcia and Joao Plata can come in late in the match and tear the opposition apart. It should also be noted that Real Salt Lake's goals on the break this season — of which there have been a fair few — have come as a result of that movement. When five, six, even seven attackers end up in the attacking third, the odds of a goal should naturally increase.
Despite conceding some chances while dominating matches, Jason Kreis's side have displayed an undeniable desire to win the ball quickly after turning it over, particularly outside of the defensive third. Being caught of position there is dangerous, while being caught out of position as an attacking midfielder is generally less so. Though there is a bit of danger associated with a high pressure system, the risks are outweighed by the gains. Against a strong defensive side like Sporting Kansas City, it will be imminently important to apply that sort of pressure. They'll have a result to expose the Kansas City defense to holes emanating from the absence of Matt Besler — and to expose the whole squad to the oft-discussed altitude consideration in Salt Lake City.
I feel as though I've written this little bit about 100 times this season already, but it bears repeating: RSL will have to deal with rotating due to injury. This time, we'll be without central defender Carlos Salcedo (although next time we're with him, we'll have Carlos Salcedo without his gallbladder, and perhaps that's good) and goalkeeper Josh Saunders. That's slightly problematic, but their replacements already have time: Both Aaron Maund and Jeff Attinella have seen a bit of time — Maund a bit more — and that's got to help the nerves.
Real Salt Lake returns to Rio Tinto Stadium on Saturday, when it will take on Eastern Conference power Sporting Kansas City for the only time this year. Saturday’s match will kick at 8:00 p.m., with Pioneer Day fireworks following the game.
Here are a few interesting storylines to watch ahead of Wednesday’s match:
11 Game Unbeaten run on line
A week ago, Jason Kreis’ team weathered the early storm at Dallas to record a 3-0 road win, breaking its “Texas Hex” to win on Lone Star soil for the first time ever, courtesy of a Javier Morales game-winning goal, heroics from Josh Sauders and Jeff Attinella in the net and insurance strikes from Ned Grabavoy and Olmes Garcia. The victory extended the club-record unbeaten streak to 11 consecutive games in all competitions to cruise to the top of the MLS table with 37 points and a record of 11-5-4.
RSL faces another contender
Saturday’s match will be Salt Lake’s second-straight contest against the second-place club in MLS. Kansas City comes in leading the Eastern Conference with 33 points and a record of 9-5-6.
Rio Tinto regains Fortress status
Since an April 27 home 0-2 defeat to LA, RSL hasn’t dropped a game in Sandy, winning four of its last six home matches with a goal difference of +9. Overall the Utah side is 9-1-3 at Rio Tinto Stadium this year.
Depth on display
When goalkeeper Josh Saunders tore his left ACL in the 49th minute at Dallas, RSL looked to backup Jeff Attinella to complete the game. The team’s third-string GK became the 25th player from RSL’s 30-man group to start a first team match this season, including 22 field players.
Welcome Brandon McDonald to the Wasatch
On Wednesday, the Claret-and-Cobalt traded a 2014 third-round pick to D.C. United for DF Brandon McDonald, a six-year veteran center back who logged nearly 3,000 minutes last year. McDonald is an Arizona native who grew up playing with forward Robbie Findley in the famed Serano youth club. With Nat Borchers and Aaron Maund the only currently healthy center backs on the RSL roster, the 27-year-old McDonald provides depth and experience while Carlos Salcedo and Chris Schuler recover from injury.
Both teams will be without several players on Wednesday night due to CONCACAF Gold Cup call ups.
RSL will be without all-time leading scorer Alvaro Saborio for the fourth straight match after he departed for the Costa Rican national team ahead of a June 29 win at Toronto; that victory at BMO Field was the last match for likely a month for a trio of RSL’s US internationals Captain Kyle Beckerman, defender Tony Beltran and goalkeeper Nick Rimando.
Sporting Kansas City will be without its star center back, losing MLS All-Star Matt Besler to the U.S. national team.