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.
It seems like it was only yesterday that Real Salt Lake was on their way to Seattle to take on the Sounders on Oct. 17. These two sides just can't seem to stop playing each other, and with that, another entertaining match is likely to ensue in the first leg of the MLS Western Conference Semifinal.
Stopping wide play
The Sounders are an interesting matchup for more reasons than just historical: With their flank play, they represent a distinct ideological shift from Real Salt Lake's through-the-middle approach. Will Johnson and Ned Grabavoy will be forced to step into wider areas to challenge Seattle's full backs, and Chris Wingert and Tony Beltran will be forced to push a bit higher than they would against most sides to challenge Seattle's wingers.
This puts a bit more of an onus on Kyle Beckerman to cut out passes when Seattle transitions from the wide areas to more central areas, focusing acutely on players like Christian Tiffert and Mauro Rosales, the two biggest sources of Seattle's key passes.
On the defensive
Going behind in the first leg of a playoff series makes the second leg more difficult. It is perhaps fortunate, then, that RSL is going into this match with a brilliant defensive record, having conceded only three goals in 990 minutes of play across all competitions. It's a remarkable measure, but it doesn't stop goals from occurring.
Performances on the road have at times been lacking, evidenced by the fact that RSL has conceded 20 goals and scored only 19, leaving them with a negative differential away from home. But going on goal differential can be a bit misleading: San Jose has conceded 21 (+8 GD), Seattle 22 (+2 GD), LA Galaxy 27 (+1 GD), and Vancouver Whitecaps 24 (-14 GD).
Seattle has conceded only 11 goals at home, the best mark in all of MLS. It makes the proposition a bit trickier: Does Real Salt Lake come out and try to nick a goal or two against the team with the best home defensive record? I'm inclined to think that Jason Kreis recognizes this and will instruct his players to worry first about defending — something they've been quite good at in the last month or two — and to look for goals through counter attacking play.
It's been evident before (save in the most recent MLS match against them, though they did go down a man) that Seattle isn't afraid to commit players in attack. It could be an influential factor. I'm not saying RSL should bunker, mind — that's the sort of stuff the team’s never been great at. But if Seattle wants to swing crosses in with reckless abandon, RSL's back line — whoever it may be — will have the ability to deal with it. It's when wingers cut inside that there may be more worries.
Bouncing back from a painful cup exit is a difficult thing to do for any side, but the Claret-and-Cobalt will want to avoid the "continental hangover" effect against Vancouver Whitecaps FC at Rio Tinto Stadium on Saturday.
With the match the final regular season contest before the start of MLS Cup playoffs, three questions will be on the top of Jason Kreis's mind: How does RSL approach the match? What personnel should be used, and who is available? And, finally: How does regular season form sit in the priority?
As detailed in Thursday's post on The Sovereign, there's plenty left to play for, even when we're just talking about the regular season. The pain of losing against Herediano is still there, but as it so often does, time marches on and the Claret-and-Cobalt are being pushed into another meaningful match. Despite the subdued build-up — it's hard to imagine it's easy to escalate after this week — it could still potentially affect RSL's ability to host the MLS Cup and to qualify for CONCACAF Champions League.
As such, finding the right balance will be critical for Jason Kreis. As much as fans have had a hard week, the players will feel it doubly so, and whether that's best solved by putting them in a high-pressure scenario or by having them relax a bit and just play is hard to really say effectively. This is, as they say, why he's paid the big bucks.
With two additional injury concerns coming out of the Herediano match, Jason Kreis has more than the approach to the match to worry about. Both Will Johnson and Chris Schuler came out of the match because of injury, and with Jamison Olave and Ned Grabavoy kept out of proceedings altogether on Tuesday, pickings are looking slim.
If Schuler and Olave are both out, it seems likely that Kwame Watson-Siriboe would be used if fit — but at this point, that may be a fairly substantial "if." The only other immediate option would be to push Chris Wingert inside, dropping Kenny Mansally in at left back.
If Grabavoy is indeed out, Luis Gil (if sufficiently recovered from mid-week and from illness) would almost certainly take his place; if Will Johnson is out, it's hard to look past Jonny Steele — if just for defensive contribution. Steele has, to my mind, received a lot of criticism for his play, some of it justified — but his work rate and defensive ability are the closest available in midfield next to Will Johnson's.
It's often bandied about that form is the deciding factor moving into playoffs, sometimes with some evidence, other times with significantly less than that. Regardless, RSL will want to keep Vancouver's form spotty — in their last nine matches, they've won just once, a solitary 4-0 victory over Western Conference whipping boys Chivas USA. Further, it seems odd, but with a win, RSL could find their best form since June.
After Real Salt Lake failed to win their last six matches to end 2011, there were concerns about the ability of the squad to respond positively in the playoffs. A strong win at home against Seattle aside, there wasn't much momentum to carry forward.
Regardless of the statistical realities (or irrealities, as the case may be) of form leading into playoffs, it stands to reckon that keeping his troops injury-free will be high on the priority list for Jason Kreis. If he's to go into playoffs with only one recognized center back available, an overwhelming sense of deja vu will pass over all of Utah. That may be as much an influencing factor as anything.
Real Salt Lake faces an absolute must-win on Tuesday night, when it will take on C.S. Herediano in a decisive CONCACAF Champions League Group 2 match. Of course, few things lead to a loss of tactical cohesion quite like these must-win games. RSL will have to stay supremely focused in several areas if it's to get the result it needs at Rio Tinto Stadium on Tuesday.
Posturing: Defensive or offensive
In order to progress, Jason Kreis's side must win by either a 1-0 scoreline or by two clear goals. It's one of those tough scenarios that requires some intense concentration from all involved. It raises questions about the approach to the match.
As a first option, RSL could score a goal then opt for a more defensive posture, as a single goal by Herediano brings the necessary scoreline to 3-1 — it could be a big ask against a defensively resolute side. With Jamison Olave a doubt, a usually solid partnership of Nat Borchers of Chris Schuler could be tested significantly.
As a second option, RSL could go in guns blazing, secure in the knowledge that regardless, they'll need at least a goal to go forward — and there are few better ways to get a goal than to simply go for it.
Defender Nat Borchers — unsurprisingly — would choose the first option: "We're going to have some patience, just make sure everything's switched on defensively, and the goals are going to come."
Missing puzzle pieces
With Alvaro Saborio out through yellow card accumulation, and Fabian Espindola and Jamison Olave in doubt for Tuesday, Jason Kreis will certainly be wringing his hands over the decisions he'll soon be forced to make.
Saborio's absence is perhaps the biggest: RSL's leading goalscorer — this season, in CONCACAF Champions League, and overall — is certain to be missed, as there are no other real hold-up players on the team. Justin Braun will be hoping to fill that role, but until his on-ball ability reaches a higher level, he may struggle for minutes.
Fabian Espindola's potential absence, compounded with Saborio's, would be doubly concerning: Already, Paulo Jr. is likely to start, but having him in as the available-first-choice striker would necessitate a potential shift in approach. With both Saborio and Espindola absent, RSL would be forced into either changing shape, continuing with Emiliano Bonfigli, or giving Justin Braun a chance.
An absence to Olave would be the easiest to solve: Chris Schuler has shown well since returning from his foot injury, and I suspect if called upon, he'd continue that fine form.
Approach play from the midfield
With some shift in personnel inevitable, the key will likely be in the play of Will Johnson and, should he be deemed fit, Ned Grabavoy. Both would need to get forward at will, burst into the box, and connect with Javier Morales.
This would abdicate some responsibility on the forwards, leaving less need to swing long balls in and providing more work for Herediano's defensive line. As they'll be secure with a draw, RSL will need to apply significant pressure there.