I'm convinced that true rivalries must have more than just a geographic component. There needs to be a strong element of competitiveness between the rivals, and the nail-biting nature of the games between Real Salt Lake and the Colorado Rapids have added to the richness of the Rocky Mountain Cup. There have been so many great moments in the Rocky Mountain Cup over the years; bulletin board material, last-minute game-winning goals, big-time saves, questionable calls, questionable no-calls, red cards, and skirmishes, just to name a few.
My favorite RMC moment – so far – was the RSL-Colorado game on Oct. 24, 2009, the final day of regular season play that year. It wasn't so memorable because of the game itself – RSL won 3-0 – but everything else that went on that night. Let me set the stage for you.
Going into the final day of the 2009 season, one playoff spot was up for grabs. As the day's games kicked off, that final spot belonged to none other than the Rapids who were sitting on 40 points. Right on their heels were FC Dallas, D.C. United, and Toronto FC, each with 39 points. RSL was the final team with a mathematical chance at the playoff spot with 37 points. In order for RSL to make the playoffs, they would need to leapfrog the three aforementioned teams and beat the Rapids. A win by either Dallas, D.C., or Toronto would automatically eliminate RSL.
That afternoon, before heading to Rio Tinto, RSL fans eagerly tuned into the early game on the East Coast: Toronto at New York. We were able to sit back and relax after not too long thanks to a brilliant showing by New York. The Red Bulls scored early and often, thrashing Toronto 5-0 to eliminate TFC from playoff contention at 39 points. One down, three to go.
Then it was off to Rio Tinto where, coincidentally, the final three games that would determine RSL's fate (Colorado at RSL, Dallas at Seattle, D.C. at Kansas City) all kicked off at roughly the same time. Facing a must-win situation, RSL came out flying. Robbie Findley hit pay-dirt twice in the first half hour, ending the drama early as it became apparent that Colorado didn't have the horses to equalize on this night. RSL went on to win 3-0, putting them level with Colorado at 40 points but ahead based on tiebreakers. Two down, two to go.
While RSL was putting a bow on their game, things were getting interesting elsewhere. Dallas gave us an early scare at Seattle when Atiba Harris put them up 1-0, but the expansion Sounders scored twice early in the second half and hung on to win, knocking Dallas out of playoff contention. Three down, one to go.
The D.C. at Kansas City game was going along fine at 1-1 with RSL owning the tiebreaker over D.C. Then suddenly, it looked like the clock had struck midnight and RSL would turn back into a pumpkin - Julius James put D.C. ahead in the 82nd minute. From then on it was all Kansas City on the offensive, but it appeared D.C. would hold on. At this point, almost every member of the media at Rio Tinto was ignoring the final minutes of RSL's win and we were all glued to the TV watching KC and D.C. Then, in second-half stoppage time, RSL got the miracle they needed - a controversial handball gave the Wizards a penalty on the last kick of the game. Claudio Lopez buried it, ending the match 2-2 and putting RSL through to the playoffs.
Without those four matches going exactly the right way, RSL would have watched the playoffs from the couch. Instead, they went on to win MLS Cup. It was a magical night all around, and it's officially my favorite Rocky Mountain Cup game of all time.
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
Looking to push on from Sunday's season opening road win at San Jose Earthquakes, Real Salt Lake will be pressed into battle at D.C. United on Saturday. At stake: the flanks.
Defending the flanks
It's no secret that attacks from wide areas are dangerous for Real Salt Lake's positional setup, and D.C. United is likely to come out looking for space on the flanks. Players like Chris Pontius could provide dangerous options, and Nick DeLeon and potentially Marcos Sanchez provide real threat from the wings.
As ever, D.C. will look to bypass Kyle Beckerman and swing some crosses in for strikers, but the presence of Chris Schuler and Kwame Watson-Siriboe, both strong in the air, could be an important factor. But before crosses can be swung in, Tony Beltran and Abdoulie (née Kenny) Mansally will need to be in good positions to prevent easy, unmarked crossing. It will be a difficult match from a defensive perspective.
Further, Khari Stephenson and Sebastian Velasquez will need to be at their defensive bests, mopping up possession wide and retaining possession in attacking positions to prevent counterattacks with the flanks left wide open. Robbie Findley, too, will need to drop into wider positions in defense to help prevent significant issues.
Consistency in the midfield
With Ned Grabavoy and Javier Morales absent and no new injuries creeping in, the midfield four is likely to be the same as deployed against San Jose: Kyle Beckerman deep with Sebastian Velasquez, Luis Gil and Khari Stephenson further up the pitch. Velasquez was last deployed primarily on the right but with plenty of room to move about the pitch, while Stephenson was deployed on the left and offered a more defensive approach. Luis Gil was more central, though he, too, moved about frequently.
I suspect that may be switched against D.C. United, with Stephenson on the right and Velasquez on the left, but that the same four will play. Given that they all showed well, there's no reason for change. Where last season our midfield look a bit like a double-pivot with a high playmaker up top, the last match looked more traditional, with a deep-lying midfielder (I struggle with the term 'defensive' here) and three rotating attacking midfielders.
After a disrupted season in 2012 where the starting lineup was very rarely the same from match to match, a start with the same lineup in the first two matches is a refreshing thought. There's no guarantee it'll be the case, of course, but it's something worth hoping for — and perhaps even expecting.
In their season opener against Houston Dynamo, D.C. United struggled to deal with pressure high up the pitch, giving up a slew of interceptions at the base of their defensive third. Although one of their conceded goals was through a corner and the other almost immediately following a throw-in, conceding possession in their own half is always likely to produce chances. RSL will need to be aware of this possibility and alive to opportunities that are presented as a result.
That high pressure will be benefited by the three-man attacking line in the midfield. With Alvaro Saborio and Robbie Findley pushing high up the pitch, Gil, Velasquez and Stephenson will be in good positions to distribute possession for quick counterattacking play.
Real Salt Lake will be looking for its first-ever win in the nation’s capital when it takes on D.C. United at RFK Stadium on Saturday (5 p.m. MT on ABC4).
RSL is winless in eight all-time matches in Washington, posting a 0-4-3 record at RFK Stadium in league play and going 0-1-0 at D.C. in Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup action. D.C. hasn’t lost a regular season match at home since its 2012 RFK opener – a streak of 16 matches.
RSL does have some good recent history against teams carrying lengthy home unbeaten streaks into their home opener, snapping San Jose’s 18-game home unbeaten streak with a 2-0 win at Buck Shaw Stadium in Sunday’s season opener and breaking L.A.’s 26-game home unbeaten run with a 3-1 win at the Home Depot Center in the 2012 opener. Let's hope the Claret-and-Cobalt can turn that same trick on Saturday against D.C.
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.
TUCSON, Ariz. - Real Salt Lake will play its final FC Tucson Desert Diamond Cup Group Stage match on Wednesday night, taking on the New England Revolution at 5:00 p.m. MT at Kino Veterans Memorial Stadium.
The Claret-and-Cobalt is currently 0-1-1 in the Desert Diamond Cup after tying New York 2-2 last Wednesday and falling to Seattle 1-2 on Saturday. That mark puts RSL in a tie for third-place with the Red Bulls, two points behind second-place New England and five points back of first-place Seattle, which has already clinched a spot in Saturday's DDC Final.
RSL still has a good shot to qualify for the DDC Final against the Sounders. A win over New England on Wednesday night combined with a New York loss or tie to Seattle on Wednesday night would put the Claret-and-Cobalt through. If New York beats Seattle, RSL would need to beat New England and maintain its one goal edge over the Red Bulls in goal differential to advance to Saturday's DDC Final. Should RSL and New York finish tied on points and on goal difference, the team with the most goals scored would advance to the Final.
RSL Head Coach Jason Kreis won't be too worried about that, though. He'll be more interested in seeing how his players perform in their penultimate preseason match than he will be in the result.
If he sticks to pattern, Kreis will run out a reserve-heavy starting lineup on Wednesday, playing the group about 60 minutes before bringing in first-teamers to close out the match. The Claret-and-Cobalt regulars should start again on Saturday.
Wednesday's RSL-New England match will be streamed live on both RealSaltLake.com and MLSsoccer.com. The New York-Seattle match will kick off at 7:00 p.m. MT and will also be streamed live on MLSsoccer.com.
TUCSON, Ariz. - Real Salt Lake will take on Seattle Sounders FC in Round 2 of the FC Tucson Desert Diamond Cup on Saturday. The match will kick off at 4:00 p.m. MT at Kino Veterans Memorial Stadium and will be streamed live here on RealSaltLake.com and on MLSsoccer.com.
RSL drew its first Desert Diamond Cup match, jumping out to an early 2-0 lead on Wednesday against New York before letting the Red Bulls claw back for a 2-2 draw. Seattle won its first DDC game, beating New England 2-0 in Wednesday's early match.
Both RSL and Seattle are expected to run out strong lineups on Saturday. It should be a good match between the Western Conference rivals - they're certainly won't be any love lost. RSL and Seattle matches are traditionally chippy, and the Sounders already seem to be in a bad mood. Seattle got into it on a pair of occasions on Wednesday against New England, recieving six total cards and one ejection against the Revs.
Oh, by the way, a certain "Striker X" may feature for RSL on Saturday afternoon. Tune in at 4:00 p.m. to find out.
TUCSON, Ariz. - Real Salt Lake will kick off its FC Tucson Desert Diamond Cup schedule on Wednesday night, taking on the New York Red Bulls at 7:00 p.m. MT at Kino Veterans Stadium. The match is the second in a Wednesday Desert Diamond Cup doubleheader, with Seatttle and New England scheduled to face off in the early game. Both matches will be streamed live on MLSsoccer.com.
The game against New York isn't the only thing on the plate for Real Salt Lake on Wednesday. The Claret-and-Cobalt will also train this morning, with Head Coach Jason Kreis set to run the reserves for Wednesday's match through a light training session beginning at 10:30 a.m. MT. The starting lineup for Wednesday's match will not participate in the morning training session.
In other news, Real Salt Lake captain Kyle Beckerman re-joined the team late on Tuesday night, flying to Tucson after spending Feb. 10-12 in New York for the 2013 MLS Media Tour. Every MLS team sent at least one player to New York for the media tour. Five players, including RSL's Alvaro Saborio, were on a Spanish-language Media Tour in Miami from Feb. 9-11.
Balchan in camp
Real Salt Lake brought in defender Rich Balchan for a trial on Tuesday. The 12th overall pick in the 2011 MLS SuperDraft, Balchan was released by Columbus this offseason after spending two years with the Crew.
Interestingly, the 24-year-old made his professional debut in the first leg of RSL's CONCACAF Champions League Quarterfinal series against Columbus on Feb. 22, 2011. The Indiana University product trialed with Chicago earlier this preseason.
After a goalless draw in the first leg last Friday, Real Salt Lake and Seattle are coming into this second leg with a mission to advance. It's the sort of thing that might produce a tactical battle, but with both sides suffering a bit physically, the result might be a bit simpler.
In the past four games (all without goals involved, mind), Real Salt Lake has taken 59 shots. Obviously, not all of those have been clear-cut chances, but some certainly have been. It's easy to berate RSL for playing too defensively when not scoring, but the approach has been generally positive.
Positivity is one thing, but finishing chances is another altogether. If Real Salt Lake wants to make it out of this one, they have two options: For 120 minutes, defend with all the resoluteness and ability they showed in the last leg, or finish at least one chance.
The lack of finishing has been a bit surprising, considering the deadliness Alvaro Saborio has displayed in front of goal all season, but strikers sometimes hit these patches. With Fabian Espindola in some doubt with a hamstring injury, Saborio's finishing will be doubly needed.
Managing and exploiting injuries
Heading into the second leg with a few injury concerns won't be exactly what Jason Kreis wanted, but after a grueling season, they were perhaps inevitable. Jamison Olave has spent maybe half the season in the treatment room but could be available, while Fabian Espindola's hamstrings sometimes give him some trouble. With 120 minutes of play a very real possibility, it could open places for Paulo Jr. and Kwame Watson-Siriboe.
But Seattle's facing injury troubles of their own: Eddie Johnson is recovering and may not be ready for a potential 120 minutes, and Mauro Rosales could well be out of contention. It would weaken the Sounders attack significantly, giving RSL a bit more of an attacking bent — but that remains to be seen.
Avoiding extra time
This match could go for a long, long time — 120 minutes and perhaps penalties, should the two sides end things in a draw. Should RSL go through, they'd face LA Galaxy on the road on Sunday, leaving only two days rest before starting back up again.
As such, avoiding extra time would be of a high priority — but still second to winning. This RSL squad is no stranger to scenarios like this one — look to 2009 for an easy example — and that could play into their hands. Still, if RSL can advance out of this without much fatigue, they'll be better for it, and they'll stand a better chance moving forward.
Whether this means taking a few extra risks in the first half and shutting up shop a bit more in the second half or going forward more in attack throughout is hard to say definitively, but Jason Kreis undoubtedly is a man with a plan.