MLS Regular Season
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
Fantastic infographic from RSL's Ben Barnes detailing the history of the Rocky Mountain Cup Presented by Mark Miller Subaru ahead of the Claret-and-Cobalt's Saturday home opener at Rio Tinto Stadium against the Colorado Rapids. Check it out:
A 1-0 loss on the road early in the season should never be a particularly devastating result; instead, it should be looked at as an opportunity to learn and correct mistakes. In comparing the first 60 minutes and the final 30 minutes of Saturday's match against D.C. United, Real Salt Lake has just that chance.
After conceding to D.C. United, Real Salt Lake upped their game considerably. As a quick statistical example, they completed more passes in the final third of the match than they did in the first two-thirds — and while we can certainly look to a more comfortable United side as a reason why, it can hardly be the only factor. Luis Gil was particularly improved after the goal, getting more readily involved in play and even dictating it a bit.
RSL took considerably more shots as well — to the tune of a whopping two in the first 60 minutes and seven in the final 30. Whether this was down to a tentative quality in attack or an inability to control possession in the midfield is difficult to say. When that goal was scored, though, the match changed. Although the right chance never really cropped up, the improvement rightly won praise from Jason Kreis after the match.
Midfield linking play
One issue that plagued RSL through the first 60 minutes was the lack of a distinct link between the forwards and the midfield. Under normal conditions, this would be Javier Morales, but given that he's not yet back with full fitness, Kreis looked toward Luis Gil for answers. Let's be clear about this: Leading up to the goal, most RSL players were fairly poor. Luis Gil had failed to get involved, Sebastian Velasquez had completed as many passes as he missed and Robbie Findley couldn't find the ball.
But Luis Gil has a certain responsibility — as do the midfielders next to him — to act as that connective piece and supply Alvaro Saborio and Robbie Findley. It's an approach Luis Gil will hopefully grow into as a midfielder: He needs to continue injecting himself in every aspect of play. In the long term, we can be hopeful, because in that final 30 minutes, we saw glimpses of that.
Abdoulie (née Kenny) Mansally has attracted some negative attention in the past two matches for being a defensive liability, but Saturday was more positive than perhaps indicated by his substitution. To the eye, he seemed slightly poor — perhaps even a little panicked. But he brings something most full backs can't. A tactically fascinating player, Mansally's marauding runs on the left allow him to intercept the ball in dangerous positions and spring play.
Although he's very quick, Mansally encounters trouble at times when play comes down his side after he's committed higher up the pitch. This is somewhat inevitable give his playing style, but it also underlines a certain tactical naivety that Jason Kreis and company will be hoping Mansally develops away from.
RSL suffered its first loss of the season on Saturday, giving up a second-half goal to fall 1-0 at D.C. United.
Here are a few interesting figures from Saturday’s match:
RSL is now 0-6-3 all-time in matches at D.C. The Claret-and-Cobalt is 0-5-3 at United in MLS matches and 0-1-0 at the Black-and-Red in Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup action.
RSL is winless in matches at D.C., Houston, Dallas, Vancouver and Toronto.
Claret-and-Cobalt rookie midfielder John Stertzer made his professional debut on Saturday, playing nine minutes after coming on in the 81st for midfielder Khari Stephenson. A D.C. area native and University of Maryland product, Stertzer had a number of family and friends in attendance at Saturday's match.
Real Salt Lake defender Lovel Palmer made his club debut when he entered Saturday’s match for Abdoulie Mansally in the 66th minute. Palmer had a strong showing on Saturday, bombing up the left flank and nearly scoring an equalizer with a shot from distance.
Real Salt Lake was shown four yellow cards in Saturday’s match. The Claret-and-Cobalt now has six cards this season, two less than league leaders Chivas USA and tied for the second-most in the league with Sporting Kansas City.
RSL has won six consecutive Rocky Mountain Cups over the Colorado Rapids. The Claret-and-Cobalt will take on the Rapids in the home opener at Rio Tinto Stadium on Saturday.
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.
Real Salt Lake defender Abdoulie "Kenny" Mansally is dropping his longtime nickname and will now go by his given first name of Abdoulie.
Mansally had been called Kenny for years, picking up the nickname in his native Gambia and going by it throughout his MLS career, which began in 2007 in New England. He said on Wednesday that he made the switch back to his given first name - pronounced ab-do-LYE - in order to remind people of who he is and where he came from.
The 24-year-old Mansally played all 90 minutes for injured left back Chris Wingert in RSL's 2-0 season opening win at San Jose on Sunday. The Gambian international and his Real Salt Lake teammates are traveling on Thursday to the nation's capital ahead of this Saturday's match against D.C. United at RFK Stadium. Kick for the game is at 5:00 p.m. MT on ABC4.
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.
Two goals on the road saw Real Salt Lake victorious on Sunday night over last season's Supporters' Shield winners in San Jose Earthquakes. The key pieces: a top-class midfield performance and a relatively straightforward second-half switch.
Taking a glance at the chalkboards for Sunday's victory shows a distinctly Kyle Beckerman-shaped hole just ahead of our defense. Real Salt Lake's captain impressed not through intense tackling, hard challenges or your typical defensive midfielder attributes, but as a disruptor of movement. The subtlety of his performance saw Beckerman putting the right pressure on the San Jose attack at the right times, leaving them to attack through other channels — all of them harder to profit from.
Disruption without the tackling one normally associates with an anchor man is a difficult ask. Beckerman handled it with aplomb. Of course, even for all his defensive contributions, who can forget that outside-of-the-foot, no-look pass for Alvaro Saborio's second goal?
The diamond, flattened
The midfield, anchored as usual by Beckerman, saw three nominally attacking players in the thick of it. Luis Gil, Khari Stephenson and Sebastian Velasquez played in a relative flat line just behind the attacking third, with Gil ostensibly in the center, Stephenson on the left, and Velasquez on the right. Of course, all three switched spots throughout.
As a result, San Jose's midfield was pushed and pulled across the pitch, with Velasquez and Stephenson stretching play both horizontally and vertically. All three are quite capable of darting around the pitch and sending inventive passes to forwards, which surely played on the minds of the opposition — particularly with former Earthquakes midfielder Khari Stephenson pulling the strings from the left side.
By keeping the San Jose midfield and back line busy through the first half, spaces were opened in the second half as both sides tired. One substitution saw Real Salt Lake take advantage of that: Joao Plata's entrance in the 65th minute, on for Robbie Findley, changed the match.
Findley's efforts saw the field stretched and defenders pulled around, but San Jose generally coped well. Plata's arrival saw the (quite) diminutive striker deeper in play than Findley, and his potential kinetic energy (er, his speed, should he have used it) undoubtedly frightened defenders. In the end, though, it wasn't his speed that changed the match but his propensity for popping up in deeper unmarked positions.
Plata for Findley is a relatively straightforward substitution on the face of things: Both are quick, crafty players and will stretch play. San Jose didn't cope with the switch, Plata was able to sneak into an unmarked spot to receive a long ball from Kenny Mansally, and with a deft pass, released the always-surprisingly-quick Alvaro Saborio for the goal. The rest, as they say, is history.
It's tough having the last game of opening weekend - you get to watch every other team's new arrivals and see who's looking good before you get to see how your own team stacks up.
Thankfully, the wait proved to be more than worth it on Sunday night as Real Salt Lake waltzed into San Jose – a team that racked up a whopping 66 points last year en route to the Supporter's Shield – and dispatched the Earthquakes 2-0.
On a weekend where several teams put up impressive displays, RSL's performance was one of the best. Here are a few players - new and old - who impressed me most in the Claret-and-Cobalt's win at San Jose:
Sabo was Sabo, which is exactly what you want if you're an RSL fan. While many fans spent much of the offseason wondering about getting production from the second forward, I was more worried about whether Sabo could replicate his 17-goal effort from 2012. There's a long way to go, but it's impossible to argue that Sabo isn't off to a great start.
To win a tight match you need a game-changer, someone to come in and tip the contest in your favor. Sunday night the game-changer was clearly Plata.
His assist on Saborio's first goal was brilliant, featuring two perfect touches in a row (the perfect touch to settle a difficult ball, and the perfectly-weighted pass). Beyond that, Plata was active all over the field, coming back when needed to help the midfield possession game. And don't forget, the Ecuadorian international is only 21. This youngster could end up being one of RSL's biggest steals since the Kyle Beckerman trade.
I thought Seba had a great preseason and I was interested to see if it would carry over to MLS play. If the San Jose game is any indication, it has. We all know that Velasquez is a real offensive talent with ankle-breaking footwork on the ball (which he used on poor Ramiro Corrales on Sunday), but where I think Seba has really stepped up his game is on the other side of the ball. Jason Kreis has high expectations for his midfielders on defense, and Velasquez appeared to meet those on Sunday, staying active and honest on defense and tracking back to the top of the box when necessary.
Gil hasn't necessarily added any elements to his game this year, it just seems like he is taking it to a higher level. His movements are smoother, the timing is just a little bit better, and his confidence seems high. I guess that's what carrying the U.S. U-20 National Team to a World Cup berth will do for you. His combination play with Robbie Findley which led to a left-footed Cruyff turn and a shot that produced Jon Busch's best save of the night was a thing of beauty that belies Luis' age.
We've been watching Captain Kyle for a long time now (300 matches, to be exact), so how is it that he continues to surprise us with something we've never seen before? His no-look pass to set up Sabo's second goal looked like something from a great NBA point guard's highlight reel. Aside from that, Beckerman was his usual efficient self, completing a game-high 46 passes and breaking up San Jose's midfield.
How fitting is it that, on the night that Rimando earned his 100th MLS clean sheet, he turned in a textbook shutout performance. Rimando only made two saves on the night, but his reaction save on Chris Wondolowski in the first half was top-drawer goalkeeping. And therein is the essence of keeping a clean sheet: You don't have to make 15 saves, but you must stay focused enough to make the one you have to. On top of that, Rimando was a good coach to his young back line, helping them sort out their issues on the occasions where they lost track of Wondolowski.
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