Goals change games
That mantra is true in any game, but in this one it is particularly truthful, as RSL and LA both look to break each other’s will. A goal for Salt Lake means that the Galaxy has to score twice to advance because of the away-goals tiebreaker. Meanwhile, if LA scores first Salt Lake can force extra time with one goal.
With two teams as disciplined in their defensive principles as these two teams, those goals could be hard to come by and once either nabs a lead a response becomes even more desperate.
403 and counting
Real Salt Lake is riding a 403-minute shutout streak, just 30 minutes shy of the longest such streak in MLS this season. The longer that streak stays intact, the more likely it becomes that RSL can advance to the Conference Championships for the fifth time in the last seven years.
That becomes difficult against a potent LA Galaxy offense, but that same offense has been a bit punchless of late, going scoreless over the last two matches and riding a streak of 220 minutes without a goal. After taking just three shots total in the first leg of the series and putting just one on frame, LA will be out to show that it is a different team than the one that played at Rio Tinto Stadium last week.
In five previous playoff matches against the LA Galaxy, Real Salt Lake has had four different players score goals, with no player scoring more than once. Last year in the Western Conference Semifinals, Sebastian Velasquez and Chris Schuler scored goals to send Salt Lake through to the Conference Championship series. Neither player scored a regular season goal for RSL in 2013. Could 2014 see similar heroics from unexpected sources? Luis Gil was nearly the hero in the first leg at Rio Tinto Stadium last week and Ned Grabavoy has been known to score some crucial playoff goals for RSL in the past.
If the teams play to another scoreless draw and no winner can be determined by a 30-minute overtime period the match will go to a penalty kick shootout. There, Salt Lake would have to feel like it has a distinct advantage in Nick Rimando. The Wall of the Wasatch, as he is known, has stopped four of five penalties he has faced this season, including one from Galaxy forward Robbie Keane. He has gone to penalties several times in his playoff career, too, with opponents scoring on just 60-percent of their 30 efforts.
If defense wins championships, then Real Salt Lake has reason to be optimistic in the MLS Cup Playoffs.
Currently the hottest defensive team remaining in the postseason, RSL has a difficult task ahead in overtaking the LA Galaxy for a spot in the Western Conference Championship series. However, with four straight shutouts and a 403-minute shutout streak, it’s no wonder the team is confident heading into the second leg of the Western Conference Semifinal series on Sunday at the StubHub.
RSL has not allowed a goal in the last four matches, including a scoreless draw against Galaxy in the first leg on Saturday. No Western Conference team has allowed fewer than four goals in the last four matches, with the Galaxy letting in six goals and going winless at 0-2-2 in that stretch.
That defensive prowess should come as no surprise. Salt Lake’s back six – including goalkeeper Nick Rimando, defenders Tony Beltran, Nat Borchers, Chris Schuler and Chris Wingert and holding midfielder Kyle Beckerman – have played together since Schuler joined the league in 2010.
That group has contributed to RSL earning three different shutout streaks of at least 285 minutes this season. The current run of 403 minutes is second only to the 433-minute run that Vancouver Whitecaps FC went on to close out the regular season and into the Knockout Round match against FC Dallas.
In addition, the team has proven a tough beat in postseason play.
Rimando has allowed just five goals in his last eight playoff appearances, including four shutouts and two 120-minute matches, making for a 0.58 goals against average dating back to the 2012 season. His 13 career playoff shutouts rank second on the all-time MLS list, just two behind Kevin Hartman in the top spot and even with Zach Thornton.
This season, he posted a league-best mark with a 1.04 goals against average to go with a 13-4-7 record and seven shutouts.
Kickoff in Sunday’s match is scheduled for 5:30 pm MT from the StubHub Center in Carson, Calif. The match will be televised live on ESPN2 with local radio coverage on ESPN 700 and La Gran D 102.3 FM (Spanish).
Real Salt Lake is a veteran-laden team with loads of playoff experience. That much is known.
But just how much more experienced in the rigors of the MLS Cup Playoffs than any other team in MLS was on display in the first legs of the Western Conference Semifinal Series that were played over the weekend.
After play in the first legs, Nick Rimando’s 32 career postseason matches was more than the 11 starters from FC Dallas (30), the Columbus Crew (30) and the New England Revolution (29), even after Dallas had played two playoff games this year.
Of the eight Conference Semifinalists, no team comes close to touching the 171 total playoff games from Real Salt Lake’s starting 11 against the Galaxy. LA was the nearest competition with 130 career playoff matches, followed by D.C. United with 94 and Seattle Sounders FC with 87.
Real Salt Lake’s back six alone – Rimando, Tony Beltran, Chris Schuler, Nat Borchers, Chris Wingert and Kyle Beckmeran – combine for 127 career postseason matches. That is significantly more than any other team’s starting 11 outside of the Galaxy.
Below is the full chart of the playoff experience for the starting lineups from the Western Conference semifinal first leg matches.
Real Salt Lake – 171
LA Galaxy – 130
D.C. United – 94
Seattle Sounders FC – 87
New York Red Bulls – 78
FC Dallas – 30
Columbus Crew – 30
New England Revolution – 29
After a scoreless draw on Saturday in the first leg of the Western Conference Semifinals, Real Salt Lake is in a good position heading into the second leg against the LA Galaxy on Sunday at the StubHub Center in Carson, Calif.
On the surface, that may not make sense. The Galaxy is a good team at home, going 12-1-4 at the StubHub Center this season. And while Real Salt Lake’s 4-7-6 road record doesn’t jump off the page as outstanding, it does provide some reason for optimism entering the second match of the two-leg playoff series because of the institution of the away goals tie-breaker. In the event that the series ends in a draw, the first tie-breaker will go to the team that scored the most goals in their road match in the series. If both teams scored the same amount on the road, the match extends to a 30-minute overtime, then a shootout.
In 10 of RSL’s 17 road matches this season, the team got the result it needed to at least force overtime in the series. In eight of them, they got the result to win outright, as two of the road draws finished scoreless.
Simplified, RSL will advance with a win or a draw in which goals are scored in the match. It will go to 30 minutes of extra time if it ends in a scoreless draw. If LA wins the match, the Galaxy will advance, regardless of the scoreline.
Want more reason for optimism?
Salt Lake is riding a 252-minute shutout streak against the Galaxy in the playoffs that includes the scoreless draw on Saturday, a 2-0 extra time win in the second leg of the West Semifinals in 2013 and 42 scoreless minutes in the first leg of that series. Defensively, RSL has been masterful of late too, with a 503-minute shutout streak that dates back to Oct. 5.
That bodes well for a team that can turn the tides of the series with one away goal.
Time will tell, though, as the second leg approaches on Sunday and RSL looks to take the next step toward a return trip to the MLS Cup Final.
Cassar’s playoff debut
After seven years under Jason Kreis, Jeff Cassar took the reins at Real Salt Lake this year with tremendous success in the club’s opening 12 matches. After a 6-0-6 unbeaten run to start the year, Cassar proved his merits and led RSL to its seventh consecutive playoff berth and fifth straight season with at least 15 wins and 50 points.
On the opposing bench, Bruce Arena is the all-time winningest coach in MLS postseason history and has four MLS Cup titles to his credit. The three-time MLS Coach of the Year led the Galaxy to a sixth straight playoff berth in 2014 and also has five straight seasons with 15 wins and 50 points.
A fortress at Rio Tinto Stadium
Real Salt Lake finished 11-1-5 at home in the 2014 regular season, the lone defeat coming on June 7 against the Portland Timbers. Since then, RSL’s record at Rio Tinto Stadium is 8-0-2. That includes six straight victories in which RSL has outscored the opposition 16-3.
That success has proven to hold in the playoffs, too. Since ousting Chivas USA in the Western Conference semifinals in 2008, RSL has gone 5-2-1 at Rio Tinto Stadium in the postseason and 4-0-0 when the first leg is at home. RSL went on to win every series in which they hosted the first match.
Since announcing his retirement in August, LA Galaxy’s Landon Donovan has been showered with gifts at every stadium stop along the way. However, Salt Lake and LA had already played all three of their matches by that point, so Rio Tinto Stadium was one of the few stadiums that didn’t host a Donovan send-off.
On Saturday, there will be opportunities to wish Donovan well in his retirement and show appreciation for his accomplishments in MLS and with U.S. Soccer. However, once the match kicks off, those moments will be long gone and the fans will undoubtedly treat it like any other match between RSL and the LA Galaxy.
One of the wrinkles of the 2014 MLS Cup Playoffs is that this year, for the first time, the first tie-breaker in the aggregate-goals series will be road goals. In previous years, matches would go straight to extra time, but this year if the series is tied, the team that scored the most goals on the road will advance. If the two teams are still tied, then the match will go to extra time and a shootout, if necessary.
This increased emphasis on road scoring is designed to encourage more attacking soccer. It is the same mechanism used in CONCACAF Champions League’s Knockout Round so RSL has plenty of experience in that type of series, having reached the Champions League final in 2010-2011.
With its regular season wrapped up on Wednesday with a 2-0 win over Chivas USA at Rio Tinto Stadium, Real Salt Lake sat back on Saturday and watched the rest of the Western Conference battle for playoff positioning in a day full of excitement.
First, Seattle Sounders FC topped the LA Galaxy 2-0 at CenturyLink Field to claim the Supporters’ Shield and knock the Galaxy into the No. 2 seed. Then the Portland Timbers went on the road to top FC Dallas 2-0 at Toyota Stadium, putting RSL in the No. 3 seed, FC Dallas at No. 4 and, temporarily, the Timbers at No. 5. Then to close out the day, Vancouver Whitecaps FC sealed the fifth seed with a 1-0 win over the Colorado Rapids at BC Place.
What this all means for RSL is a playoff clash with the LA Galaxy for the fourth time in the last six postseasons.
Here is a quick run-down of the previous three match-ups, starting in the 2009 MLS Cup Final.
Salt Lake and LA met for the MLS Cup at CenturyLink Field in Seattle (then called Qwest Field). With an MLS Cup record crowd of 46,011 in attendance, the two teams played toe-to-toe for 120 minutes without a victor determined. Mike Magee scored in the 41st minute to give the Galaxy a first-half lead, but RSL answered in the 64th minute with a goal from Robbie Findley.
In the shootout, both teams made their first two attempts and missed their third. Landon Donovan skied his effort in the fourth round and Ned Grabavoy converted his. However, Salt Lake could not find a match-winner until the seventh round. Nick Rimando saved Edson Buddle’s shot, his second save of the shootout, and Robbie Russell converted his to give the MLS Cup to Real Salt Lake.
After ousting Sounders FC 3-2 in the Western Conference semifinal, RSL went on the road to the Western Conference final to face the LA Galaxy, who won the Supporters’ Shield and topped the New York Red Bulls 3-1 in the semis.
With just one game determining the Conference champions, LA jumped out to an early lead with Donovan converting a penalty in the 23rd minute. Alvaro Saborio responded with a goal of his own in the 25th minute, but LA would storm back with two second-half goals from Magee and Robbie Keane to send the Galaxy to the MLS Cup Final, where it bested the Houston Dynamo 1-0.
Last year, the two teams met in the Western Conference semifinal over a two-legged series. It opened at the StubHub Center where Sean Franklin netted the only goal in the 48th minute. Going back to Rio Tinto Stadium, RSL evened the series on a 35th minute goal from Sebastian Velasquez, sending the series to extra time. There, Chris Schuler scored in the 103rd minute and RSL held on to advance to the Conference final.
With that deep-seeded rivalry in place, the matchup this year is bound to be dramatic.
The 2014 Western Conference Semifinal series starts on Saturday, Nov. 1, at Rio Tinto Stadium. For ticket information, visit http://bit.ly/12D6VER.
Could we see a bald Jeff Cassar this fall?
If RSL makes the MLS Cup Playoffs, we just might.
The RSL boss told the guys from Extra Time Radio on Monday that he and follicly challenged RSL Goalkeeper Coach Daryl Shore made a bet a couple months back that should RSL qualify for the MLS Cup Playoffs, Cassar will shave his head.
That could lead to a bit of symmetry on the RSL bench, as Cassar is currently the only member of RSL’s coaching staff with any amount of hair; Shore and fellow assistants Andy Williams, Craig Waibel and Paul Dalglish are all bald or sport a shaved look. It should be noted that RSL Strength and Conditioning Coach Dan Barlow has a nice head of hair.
“I wanted to have the best hair on the staff, so I set the bar really low,” Cassar joked during his ExtraTime interview. “But I made a bet with Daryl Shore, one of my assistant coaches, that if we make the playoffs I’m going to shave my head.”
We’ve got a preview of what Cassar could look like with a shaved head above. Gotta say, don’t think bald is Jeff’s best look.
RSL’s last trip to Chicago wasn’t much to write home about, with the teams playing to a sleepy scoreless draw at Toyota Park on May 9, 2012.
So, instead of showing the highlights from that slow affair – or last year’s 1-1 draw between the sides here at Rio Tinto Stadium – we’ll bring back a RSL classic: The highlight tape from the Claret-and-Cobalt’s 2009 Eastern Conference Final victory at Chicago.
Watch and enjoy above ahead of Saturday’s tilt between RSL and the Fire at Toyota Park.
Real Salt Lake owned the Portland Timbers last year, posting a dominant 4-0-2 record in six matches across all competitions against the Cascadia club. RSL and the Timbers will face off for the first time in 2014 on Saturday, when Will Johnson, Caleb Porter and co. will come to Rio Tinto Stadium for a 7:30 p.m. MT kickoff.
The best of the six RSL-Portland games in 2013 came in the Western Conference Final series, which Real Salt Lake won 5-2 on aggregate on the back of a 4-2 win at home on Nov. 10 and a 1-0 win at Portland on Nov. 24. Highlights of those triumphant victories are below. Check them out before Saturday’s big tilt at The RioT.
First Leg: RSL 4-2 Portland
Second Leg: RSL 1-0 (5-2) Portland
Real Salt Lake General Manager Garth Lagerwey sat down with ABC 4's Dana Greene for nearly 15 minutes yesterday, talking about MLS Cup 2013, RSL's 2013 season, the supposed "rebuild," and how the Claret-and-Cobalt stacks up against MLS Cup foe Sporting Kansas City, both on and off the field.
ABC 4 was kind enough to post the entire interview to their website last night, after airing this shorter package on Lagerwey's interview on their 6 o'clock newscast. Check out the full-length interview above.