There's no better way to get ready for Saturday's Real Salt Lake-Chicago Fire matchup than by watching the highlights from the Claret-and-Cobalt's shootout victory at the Fire in the 2009 Eastern Conference Final. Great game and a great video - give it a look above.
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
RSL goalkeeper Nick Rimando earned his 100th career regular season shutout on Sunday at San Jose.
Here are a few of the best saves Nick's made during his RSL career. Some of these stops are truly incredible - I got the chills re-watching them.
The latest issue of ESPN The Magazine hit news stands this week, with Real Salt Lake goalkeeper Nick Rimando featured prominently in a photo spread.
Rimando appeared in in a shoot for "The Perfect Issue," taking ESPN Mag writer Doug McIntyre through the process of making a diving save as a smaller - Rimando's just 5-foot-9 - 'keeper. The spread - part of a series called "So Crazy, It Just Might Work - can be seen by clicking here.
Rimando and the rest of Real Salt Lake squad will head to Southern California on Thursday for the team's second leg of preseason. The Claret-and-Cobalt will train at the University of California-Irvine from Jan. 31-Feb. 8, playing UC-Irvine in a friendly on Feb. 4 and taking on the Galaxy at the Home Depot Center on Feb. 8.
For the second year in a row, the LA Galaxy will take on the Houston Dynamo in MLS Cup.
LA and Houston won their respective Conference Finals on Sunday, with both teams hanging on to big first leg leads to advance to Cup on Dec. 1 at the Home Depot Center. Both sides won 4-2 on aggregate, with Houston tying DC 1-1 at RFK Stadium in the afternoon before LA lost 2-1 to knockout Seattle – which, of course, bounced RSL in the Western Conference Semifinals – in the evening.
Interestingly, LA’s win over Sounders FC marks the first time that the team that knocked RSL out of the playoffs won’t compete in MLS Cup. The three previous teams that had eliminated the Claret-and-Cobalt from the postseason – New York in 2008, Dallas in 2010 and LA last year – all went on to qualify for Cup, with LA winning the whole thing last season.
MLS Cup will kickoff at 2:30 p.m. MT on Saturday, Dec. 1 at the Home Depot Center. The match will be broadcast live on ESPN, TeleFutura, TSN and RDS.
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.
Some big playoff news last night, as LA defeated San Jose 3-1 to advance to the Western Conference Final and Houston held on against Sporting Kansas City to move on to the Eastern Conference Final.
Whichever team advances from tonight’s Western Conference Semifinal second leg between RSL and Seattle will travel to LA to take on the Galaxy in the first leg of the Western Final on Sunday night. If RSL advances, the Claret-and-Cobalt would host the Galaxy in the Conference Final’s second leg on Sunday, Nov. 18.
Houston advancing in the East keeps RSL’s dream of hosting the MLS Cup Final on Dec. 1 alive. The fifth-seeded Dynamo was the only Eastern Conference Semifinalist that finished with fewer regular season points than RSL and – as such – they’re the only side that would have to travel to Rio Tinto Stadium for MLS Cup.
Obviously, there’s a ton of work to be done for RSL to get to that point. First up: Tonight’s Western Conference Semifinal second leg against Seattle at Rio Tinto Stadium. Winner of the match goes through. Kick’s at 8 p.m. MT and a very, very limited number of tickets are still available. We’ll see you out here.
There’s been some interesting injury news coming out of Seattle over the last couple days.
First, it looks like Sounders FC leading scorer Eddie Johnson is set to play on Thursday night. Johnson – who didn’t make the 18 for the scoreless draw at Seattle in the series’ first leg on Friday due to a hamstring injury – told reporters earlier this week that he’d “for sure” play in the second leg at Rio Tinto Stadium on Thursday.
“I've come too far to not be a part of this special thing we've got going on as a team,” Johnson said on Monday. “We know how much it means to our fans and our organization in getting to the next round. It's not going to be easy. We've had our ups and downs as a team, we've overcome adversity midway through the season, and it's been good to see the team gel."
Johnson – who initially injured his hamstring in the first half of Seattle’s Oct. 28 regular season finale at LA – should provide a significant boost to the Sounders attack. The U.S. international is fast, good on the ball and great in the air, scoring eight of his 14 goals this year with his noggin.
It remains to be seen if Johnson starts on Thursday as he’s likely not at peak fitness after being out of training for 1 ½ weeks. If he doesn’t make head coach Sigi Schmid’s first XI, expect to see him come in off of the bench if the Sounders need a goal.
Johnson isn’t the only significant Seattle player dealing with an injury this week. In fact, Johnson isn’t even the most important Sounder who has a bit of a knock. That’d be midfielder/captain Mauro Rosales, who didn’t train at all on Monday and only barely on Tuesday after suffering a hamstring injury in Friday’s scoreless draw.
"He went through the early part of the warm-up for us today and then we sent him in, so it's definite progress from yesterday," Schmid said on Tuesday. "We just have to see how he feels tomorrow and keep going, progressing day by day."
Rosales, 31, was a huge player for the Sounders this year, scoring three goals and notching 13 assists – tied for third in the league – in 2012. He was also strong in Friday’s first leg, delivering both first half corner kicks that Seattle nearly scored on and hitting a total of 16 crosses in from the right flank.
Johnson was one Rosales’ favorite targets this year, with the Argentine midfielder assisting on six of Johnson’s goals. Interestingly, every single one of Rosales’ assists to Johnson came when the forward finished with his head.
Obviously, Johnson coming back into the fold for Seattle on Thursday would mean big things. But Rosales being out could be even bigger. We’ll see how it all unfolds on Thursday – Kick’s at 8 p.m. at Rio Tinto Stadium. Be there.
Fantastic stuff from RSL videographer Nick Lamping above. Nick takes you behind the scenes of RSL's trip to Seattle for the first leg of the Western Conference Semifinals. The video shows RSL traveling to and training in Seattle, as well as the Claret-and-Cobalt's 0-0 draw against Sounders FC at CenturyLink Field from last Friday. It really is a solid piece - make sure you give it a watch.
And in case you haven't heard yet, let this serve as an official notice that the second leg of the West Semifinal series on Thursday at Rio Tinto Stadium kicks off at 8 p.m. MT, not 7:30 as previously scheduled. The broadcast information for the game has also changed - it will now be shown live on NBC Sports Network instead of on a tape-delay on CW30.
It's rare that two sides so perfectly matched meet, but with Real Salt Lake once again taking on Seattle Sounders, a tactical battle was inevitable. With Seattle focusing in wide areas and RSL creating through the middle, the match was more tactical than technical in its nature.
Stopping wide play
There are two sides to this coin: On one hand, we should consider how well Seattle was able to get crosses into the box. On the other, we should consider that those rarely had any real effect.
A six-for-38 crossing rate — about 16 percent success, including corners — speaks to the cross quality. It's a low mark for Seattle, but the number must be a little startling — allowing 38 crosses is a bit dangerous. But by and large, those were rushed, and the central defenders — Borchers and Watson-Siriboe, largely — were able to clear most of the danger.
Understandably, Seattle focused their crossing efforts on their right side. With Mauro Rosales and Christian Tiffert taking up positions there, RSL relied heavily on Chris Wingert, who performed well, especially given the glut of attack coming on that side.
Flipping the midfield
To clog up the passing lanes in Seattle's attack, Jason Kreis made an interesting decision to switch the sides Ned Grabavoy and Will Johnson operated on. With Grabavoy on the left, Rosales and Tiffert were able to pick up play a bit, but we more easily regained possession on that side.
Johnson on the right allowed an excellent partnership with Tony Beltran, forcing Seattle's play outside the final third. Combined with Seattle's generally right-sided play, the other flank was RSL's. With Johnson cutting in just a bit more central than he usually does when playing on the left, clogging passing lanes effectively.
With Grabavoy and Johnson switching sides and playing in channels, Kyle Beckerman was left to control the center of the park. His defensive contribution was largely acting as a body in the center — Seattle's penchant for avoiding the center of the park in attack meant he wasn't called on as he is against other MLS sides.
As a result, Beckerman acted more as a distributing central midfielder, occupying the middle third almost exclusively. It's a stark contrast from the occasions in which he's deployed in an anchoring role and acts as a third center back — on Friday, he was tasked with transitioning from defense to attack.
With Javier Morales taking up his typical wider positions, the connection between the two was strengthened: Beckerman picked the ball up in the middle of the park, pushed it off to Morales, and the attack moved forward. Additionally, Alvaro Saborio, in fine hold-up form, was a vital cog as RSL looked to build in attack.