MLS Regular Season
Conference opponents and expansion compatriots Chivas USA currently has the worst record in the West — and Real Salt Lake wants to keep it that way. With four games remaining in the regular season, the third-place Claret-and-Cobalt will be looking to improve its standing in its battle for a top-three seed in the West before the playoffs begin in just over a month’s time.
Familiar foes failing to find their feet
Having met Chivas twice already in 2012, you'd think Real Salt Lake would be in a strong position to predict the Goats outlay and approach. But the hapless Southern California side – which, despite expectations that they were in a position to improve this year, has barely a half-chance to reach the points total achieved in 2011 – seems to not quite know itself.
That makes for a tetchy occasion, with Chivas USA’s unpredictable nature likely to create some concerns. Robin Fraser, former RSL assistant coach and second-year Chivas head coach, knows Jason Kreis's persuasions like few others in the league; while this may give a slight tactical advantage to the Goats, they have found tactical execution a difficult concern.
Jason Kreis, as is his wont, will undoubtedly roll out in the same narrow-diamond-midfield approach — his single deviation from it in several years coming this season, though it wasn't a significant shift — and the onus will be on Fraser and company to deal with it. That proactive approach defines Jason Kreis.
Who replaces Grabavoy?
With carrilero Ned Grabavoy apparently out for the contest with a quad injury, the right-sided box-to-box role is up for grabs. In recent contests, Jason Kreis has shown a penchant for picking Luis Gil there — his attacking play perhaps the tipping factor — but Jonny Steele will be hopeful to get a look in.
The position, a possession-based one that requires a unique combination of calm and bite, has been perhaps transforming into something less one-sided in recent months, leaving the biggest shout for Luis Gil, who has a knack for finding the right spots at the right times.
With Will Johnson on the left, the need for another high-energy defensively minded player is abated, leaving Jonny Steele with less of a chance to start: The Northern Irish midfielder has bite to his game and gets across the pitch well, but is sometimes found lacking in possession — all told, he is simply too similar to Will Johnson, and this hurts his starting chances.
Olave out, Schuler back
With Jamison Olave out through yellow card accumulation, a new defensive pairing emerges again. Chris Schuler is set to make his second start since an unfortunate foot injury, this time playing in the middle – he went the full 90 at left back in his first game back from injury on Sept. 6 – alongside experienced head Nat Borchers. Schuler, a prodigious talent himself, shouldn't find it difficult alongside the veteran.
With Schuler returning, Olave approaching full fitness, and Nat Borchers remaining a steadying influence at the back, Kwame Watson-Siriboe, upon his return from injury, will find competition for places a challenging task. Until then, Kreis can count himself slightly lucky: Every time one of his center backs has gone injured or absent through suspension — save for a spell when Chris Wingert was played there — another has made a step up to fitness (or, in the case of Kwame Watson-Siriboe, arrived at the club in the first place.)
For all of you gamers out there: Below is a hi-resolution downloadable cover featuring RSL captain - and, undoubtedly, Utah's favorite fisherman - Kyle Beckerman for your brand new FIFA 13 game.
Oddly enough, Beckerman isn't the only RSL employee to grace the cover of EA Sports' FIFA franchise. Claret-and-Cobalt General Manager Garth Lagerwey - then playing as a goalie for the now defunct Miami Fusion - was featured in an action shot on the back cover of a late '90's edition of FIFA for PC. Lagerwey says he was very surprised when he first saw himself on the game box, doing a double take before confirming that it was in fact his No. 26 jersey in the screenshot.
We highly doubt that Lagerwey's cover is still available anywhere, but you can snag Beckerman's cover by by right-clicking the below image and choosing 'save image as' to download.
Real Salt Lake clinched its fifth-straight postseason berth on Saturday night, beating the Portland Timbers 2-1 in front of a sold-out crowd at Rio Tinto Stadium to book its playoff passage.
Here are some interesting numbers from the Claret-and-Cobalt’s victory over the Timbers:
With Saturday’s win, RSL has now qualified for the playoffs in five consecutive seasons, the longest active streak in MLS.
Saturday’s win was RSL’s 15th of the season. The Claret-and-Cobalt now has reached the 15-win plateau in three-consecutive seasons, matching the 2005/06/07 D.C. United squads and the 2010/11/12 L.A. Galaxy – which also hit 15 wins on Saturday – as the only teams to reach accomplish that feat in MLS’s post-shootout era.
The number of days RSL forward Fabian Espindola went between goals before scoring the opener on Saturday. The Argentine attacker’s last goal before Saturday was on June 16, when he scored twice in RSL’s 3-0 win over Chivas USA - which RSL plays on the road on Saturday - at the Home Depot Center.
The number of minutes RSL midfielder Javier Morales went between goals before scoring the game-winner on Saturday. Morales’s last goal before Saturday’s game came in the June 23 home loss to San Jose - that goal also came off of a free kick.
Real Salt Lake’s 2012 record against the Portland Timbers. The season sweep against the Timbers is RSL’s first three-game sweep of an opponent in club history.
The number of people in attendance on Saturday at Rio Tinto Stadium. The standing-room only crowd marked RSL’s fourth-consecutive sellout across all competitions – it had never before had more than two-in-a-row – and the club’s seventh sellout in its last 10 games.
Saturday saw Real Salt Lake facing a Portland Timbers side desperate to grab a win on the road, but a renewed attacking approach and a rediscovered killer instinct from set pieces saw the Claret-and-Cobalt exit with the honors.
Javier Morales scored RSL's first set piece goal since a 2-1 home loss to San Jose on June 23. It is no coincidence that the free-kick-goal scorer that night was Javier Morales — and before that, you won't find another free kick goal from RSL in 2012.
But on Saturday, the team scored two of those, and both of them had a distinct Morales influence to them. The first free kick, a perfect display of the connection between Morales and Fabian Espindola, was laid off by the playmaker for the mercurial striker, who spotted the smallest of holes forming in the wall. With the instincts of a samurai, Espindola slammed the ball through, leaving second-string Timbers keeper Joe Bendik with nary a chance of saving.
The second, Morales’s magnificent strike from 25 yards out, dipped just under the crossbar, and it was clear from the Argentine's celebrations that he'd been waiting some time for that.
The Beckerman Influence
As shown in their 2-2 draw with San Jose earlier in the week, Portland has a penchant for quality counterattacking play. Against RSL on Saturday, though, there was little of that to be seen. Three of the big attacking names were ineffectual at best: Franck Songo'o, Danny Mwanga and Darlington Nagbe were mere ghostly images of their swashbuckling selves.
What kept the triumvirate quiet? A subtle but strong performance from Kyle Beckerman, plain and simple. RSL's captain was always taking up the right positions, removing any need for last-ditch tackles and strong pressure — he made his stead in front of the back four, cut out the passing lanes, and prevented forward-moving progress.
Of course, Beckerman was hardly alone in the endeavor: Fellow midfielders Will Johnson and Ned Grabavoy also got back efficiently when RSL wasn't in possession. As a result, Mwanga and Nagbe were forced largely into making backward passes, and attacks were continually pushed away from the final third.
Not every attack was scuppered, of course, and Nick Rimando was forced into making a few stellar saves — but these came largely through set pieces and quick counter attacks, and it was only when the midfield was almost entirely bypassed that the Timbers looked dangerous. Those are a different issue, but that RSL didn't concede many chances through the middle of the park will lift Jason Kreis and the team's collective spirits.
MLSsoccer.com's video guru Scott Riddell was out at Rio Tinto Stadium for RSL's 2-1 win over Portland on Saturday. As usual, Scott did some great work, using his arsenal of cameras to shoot - and then slow down - Fabian Espindola's and Javier Morales's free kick goals as well as two of Nick Rimando's most stellar saves.
Check out the video above.
Real Salt Lake is set to take on the somewhat-resurgent Portland Timbers on Saturday at Rio Tinto Stadium. Portland’s been an awful road team – they don’t have an away win this season – and RSL will be looking to take advantage of the Timbers poor road form and pick up a crucial three points in the Utah side’s last match at Rio Tinto for a month.
Here are three tactical keys to Saturday night’s match:
If there's one thing to be learned from Portland's 2-2 draw with San Jose on Wednesday which saw the Timbers blow a two-goal lead late in the match, it's that the Cascadia side is susceptible to a special sort of panic that – oftentimes – dooms the team to a fiery demise.
Whatever the cause, Portland has a knack for the panicky type of defending that plays right into opponents' hands. It's not the sort of thing that can be fixed overnight and – considering we saw it during Portland’s match at San Jose on Wednesday – RSL might rightly expect to see it Saturday night. With Claret-and-Cobalt leading scorer Alvaro Saborio likely out, the Portland back line will be dealing with a bit more speed up front and perhaps a bit more guile. Whatever the case, ensuing panic plays into RSL's hands, and darting runs are always likely to produce that.
Fullbacks bombing forward
A trademark of the Real Salt Lake style involves the team’s two full backs - Chris Wingert and Tony Beltran in most cases - bursting into the final third and pulling opposing fullbacks wide. It's not necessarily a move designed to lead to swung-in crosses – although it may appear such on its face. With Wingert and Beltran far up the pitch - though usually only one at a time - the opposing defense is stretched, leaving gaps for channel-running forwards like Fabian Espindola and Paulo Jr. and late-running midfielders like Will Johnson and Ned Grabavoy to get into the box and cause some chaos.
When the full backs don't get forward, RSL doesn't get any joy in this way — leaving Espindola to run without much chance of finding the ball and the midfielders stuck a little further back — just on the edge of the final third. It's a tough one, though — when said pieces of the puzzle get caught up front during a counter, it's easier to give up goals.
The throes of tentativeness
When RSL started leaking goals earlier this season, something was clearly amiss: A leaky defense isn't on an island, and as a result, the box-to-box midfielders (Johnson and Grabavoy, typically) stepped a bit further back and joined holding mid Kyle Beckerman in protecting the defense. They may have swung too far in that direction.
As a result, the Claret-and-Cobalt has lacked killer instinct, cutting edge play and hasn’t scored many goals. Jason Kreis's side lives and dies by the midfield, and when it's not working perfectly, the whole of the side tends to fall around it.
The easiest way to solve that problem? Quit being tentative. Just get out there, bomb forward, get back, and don't stress so much about the counter. Portland may be fast — but they lack in a lot of other factors, and if this side doesn't start scoring goals, there will be bigger problems. Timbers attackers Darlington Nagbe, Danny Mwanga and Franck Songo'o — they all matter very little when RSL is in possession.
Thanks to Columbus’s win over Chivas USA on Wednesday night, Real Salt Lake will have a shot at clinching a place in the playoffs this weekend.
The Claret-and-Cobalt will lock up a spot in the postseason for the fifth-straight season with a win over the Portland Timbers on Saturday at Rio Tinto Stadium (Kickoff at 6 p.m. MT on NBC Sports Network). RSL is currently in fourth-place in the Western Conference, trailing the third-place L.A. Galaxy by virtue of the goals scored tiebreaker.
It’s vitally important that Real Salt Lake leapfrogs either L.A. or second-place Seattle - which is two points ahead of both RSL and L.A. and holds a game in hand on both sides – and nabs a top-three seed in the West. Finishing fourth would put RSL in a one off elimination game against the West’s fifth-seed, with the winner of that match advancing to the two-game Conference Semifinal series against the conference’s first-seed.
Playing in the 4-v-5 elimination game would make RSL’s road to MLS Cup very difficult, forcing the Claret-and-Cobalt to play seven games in 25 days just to get to the final. While not impossible, advancing through that brutal schedule would be a very tall order. Things would be much easier for RSL if they can grab a spot in the West’s top-three. Make sure you help the team get there by arriving at Rio Tinto Stadium in full voice – and early – for Saturday’s 6 p.m. kick.
As told to Zach Petersen
- My fiancé and I just had a baby girl. It’s something that you could read a million books and watch a million videos, but until she or he is there, that’s when you start learning. I thought I was prepared, but I wasn’t. When she was born the doctor hands me the diaper and says, “Do you want to change her?” I’m like, “Where does this go?” I was clueless. Even though I’m young, it’s still one of the best things that’s ever happened in my life.
- One of the things I love to do is help people. That’s always been my dream. My fiancé and I have a little charity soccer event that we do back home in South Carolina called “Kicking for a Cause.” It happened out of nowhere. It was three days before Christmas a few years ago. We met some kids that were in the same situation that I was in when I came to this country from Uruguay. They didn’t have much and their Christmas wasn’t going to be like Christmas should be for every kid. We decided to do something and sent emails to everyone we could asking for donations. Within three days we had a great response and filled up a Ford Explorer with food and toys and we gave each family $300. Two years ago we raised $2,000 and this last year we did the same thing. Hopefully this year we can do one here and we can take the money and gifts to kids in other countries. That’s the one thing I would love to be known for, is that I lend a hand to anyone and everyone, no matter who you are, no matter what you’ve done or what you will do.
- I have great friends on the team. Lalo Fernandez and Sebastian Velasquez used to live in the same apartment building, so we used to hang out all the time.
- I’ve known Sebastian for so long. We grew up playing together in South Carolina and it’s such a good relationship we have. We play the same position. Other people can easily turn away from friendship because they are competing every day. It’s not like that with us. I think the friendship will always be the same. It’s such a huge blessing to be able to be on the same team with him.
- I have a pretty crazy personality. At first, I’m very shy and very calm, but once I get to know you, more of me can come out and I’m very different.
- Right now life has really slowed down because of the baby. To be honest, I am one of those guys where I get home and I turn on Netflix and watch my shows. I’m happy that way. I love computers and things and we love to go out to eat.
- Utah is such a beautiful place. We love to go to Park City and through all of the back roads. It’s unbelievable. We have a dog, so we love to go to the park and take him there. My life isn’t extremely exciting but it’s fine for me.
- I’m learning a ton with the caliber of players I’m playing with every day. It’s good because they integrate you into the group. They don’t look at you as a kid or a first year. They try to teach and help you as much as possible.
- One of my favorite moments in soccer was when I was at the University of North Carolina where we were losing 1-0 and there were eight seconds left in the game and the ball popped out to me and I shot, scored and tied it up. Then we went into overtime and I got to take the fifth PK, scored and we won. When I celebrated, there was this photo of my mom, me and my brother and the fans. Being able to share that with them was amazing.
- I’ve had three people influence my life a ton: my dad, my religious influence David Benson and my high school coach Dom Wren. If it wasn’t for those three people I would not be here hands down. They’ve always been there in good times, bad times, really bad times and really good times. To be honest, Dom built me to the soccer player I am today. Those people have been really influential to my life.
File this in the unsurprising department: Real Salt Lake captain Kyle Beckerman is in the top-25 selling adidas MLS player jerseys on MLSgear.com, MLSgearCanada.ca and on MLS club websites. Beckerman's No. 5 shirt is ranked 22nd on the star-studded list, which you can check out by clicking here.
Fan-favorite Beckerman has been his usual stellar self this season, registering five goals and four assists in 27 games across all competitions for the Claret-and-Cobalt. The dreadlocked defensive midfielder was also a 2012 MLS All-Star, notching the game-winning assist in the All-Stars 2-1 win over UEFA Champions League title holders Chelsea FC in July.
Captain Kyle is currently with the U.S. national team in Columbus ahead of Tuesday’s World Cup Qualifying match against Jamaica. He’ll return to Salt Lake following the game and will resume training with RSL on Thursday.
It's always a frustrating night when an expected tactical approach from the opponent is abandoned in favor of something more, say, negative. Last night's match against Houston saw RSL facing up to a side abandoning their controlled style, making an already difficult job even more so.
Passing and Possession
Coming into the match, Kreis and company might have been expecting to face a Houston Dynamo team that tried to play in their possession-oriented style, but what they instead saw was a team reticent to pressure outside their own half. As a result, RSL was allowed huge swathes of possession, with the Dynamo rather content to sit back, clog the lanes, and watch their opponent pass the ball around the back line.
As a result, RSL's defensive passing measures are stellar: Neither Kwame Watson-Siriboe nor Nat Borchers put a pass wrong all night, with 95/95 passing between the two of them. That bears repeating: 95 for 95. No, it didn't cause RSL to win the match, and no, it didn't cause anyone to score a goal, but these things should be applauded.
In fact, it wouldn't be a stretch to say that most of RSL's players completed more passes in this single game than they have in any other game this season. Houston were entirely content letting play just sort of pass them by, which, given their predilection for control, was almost a shocker.
How do you solve a problem like Javier?
Javier Morales, generally the key to unlocking tight defenses plaguing RSL, needs to be on-song when those passing lanes are clogged — or, at the very least, other midfielders need to step up. But when two of four starting midfielders are absent, the weight bears down a little more on Javier's shoulders, and it's not always going to work out perfectly.
So without a massively creative midfield, RSL was always likely to struggle — but one of the options that can start to correct that is more thrust from the full backs. This doesn't always play out as a "swing crosses in" sort of thing, but the amount of space created when wide options are present is a difference-maker. Opposing full backs are pulled out, midfielders get a little extra space, and those vital runs are ever-so-slightly easier.
With only one veritable full back on the pitch in Tony Beltran and the opposite flank filled by a center back only just returning from a 117-day layoff, attacking up the flanks was a bit harder. Beltran got forward well on occasion but showed a bit of reluctance to step too far, perhaps as he was wary of a counterattacking threat, and Chris Schuler's attacking effort was metered to put forward a 90-minute effort.
As such, without huge amounts of midfield creativity, and without much attack from the flanks, RSL found it difficult to get past the two banks of Houston players and through on goal. That may well have come down to one major factor: Absences.
Absences and what they meant
Without Kyle Beckerman's deep-lying playmaking abilities and Chris Wingert's flank work, RSL was found a bit lacking in two vital areas. Throw in absences to Alvaro Saborio and Will Johnson, and you're out finishing and a bit of drive. It's not as if RSL was particularly lacking drive, but the other three absences made a difference — maybe one of a scant few percentage points, but sometimes, that's all that's needed to push on.