MLS Regular Season
Real Salt Lake and Seattle Sounders are two sides of the same coin: Both are known in MLS for their attacking play, but the former represents a build-through-the-middle mentality, and the latter one more focused on building from wide. As it has so many times since Seattle came into the league, this clash of styles is sure to result in some scintillating play.
But for all the attacking mentality in the world, though, both sides will be suffering from international absences — RSL unarguably more so than the Western Conference rivals.
Coping with absences
The first and most important question is likely how Jason Kreis will deal with the absences of Will Johnson, Alvaro Saborio, Ned Grabavoy, and likely Nick Rimando and Kyle Beckerman. It becomes a difficult proposition, replacing five key players, and it leaves the club facing yet another match with a depleted core. It's a far cry from the one missing piece from Kreis's "best eleven," which is sure to create some frustration.
Grabavoy and Johnson are both noted "two-way" players with strengths in attack and defense as well as possession maintenance. Their likely replacements, Luis Gil and Jonny Steele, are less balanced — Gil is a better attacker than a defender, and Steele the opposite. With Beckerman very unlikely to start (though it does depend on USMNT coach Jurgen Klinsmann's use of him against Guatemala), Yordany Alvarez will need to be doubly aware of the threats presented.
No Eddie, No Cry
However, Seattle will be dealing with absences of their own. Eddie Johnson — a vital cog in Friday's U.S. win over Antigua and Barbuda — gets a free pass from RSL fans for a day, particularly as he's likely to feature against Guatemala, and thus would be doubtful for a Seattle match. Super doubtful. Incredibly doubtful. We're giving him a ride home — a classy move, to be sure — but it's not as if he'll be expected to play.
Without Eddie Johnson's quality on headers and goalscoring ability (he's sitting at 14 goals), Seattle's typically strong crossing (excepting corners) — tied for the best accuracy with Colorado Rapids at 26.4 percent — will undoubtedly suffer. With RSL's Borlave contingent in contention, expect that rate to be a distant goal.
Seattle's passing accuracy, 76.9 percent, compared to RSL's 81.4 percent, and general passing statistics are illustrative of a team that doesn't necessarily build through possession in the same way as Kreis's side. But with passing lanes a bit more open than usual, the flank-heavy Seattle side may be given an opportunity to play a bit more centrally.
Seattle also lists slightly to its right side — 11 percent of its passes move left, 15 percent right (RSL is essentially flipped), but without Adam Johansson, who is away with Sweden, they could struggle to build on that side.
Real Salt Lake took a step in the right direction Saturday night, beating LA Galaxy 2-1 at the Home Depot Center, placing them five points clear of the defending champions and in second place in the Western Conference.
Here are some interesting numbers from the Claret-and-Cobalt’s victory in Southern California.
RSL is now sitting on a four-game winning streak across all competitions after Saturday’s victory. In addition, Saturday’s game was the fourth multi-goal game of 2012 for Claret-and-Cobalt forward Fabían Espíndola.
Real Salt Lake’s record at the Home Depot Center in 2012. RSL outscored its opposition 12-2 in its four games at the Carson, Calif. facility this year.
Real Salt Lake is the first team in MLS history to leave the Home Depot Center with two wins against LA Galaxy in a single season.
The number of goals Fabían Espíndola has at the Home Depot Center in 2012. The Argentine forward – who, in addition to his two goals on Saturday, scored twice at Chivas USA on June 16 and once at L.A. on March 10 – also has three assists at the HDC this season.
The amount of minutes it took for the Galaxy and RSL to notch all three goals on Saturday night, one from the Irishman Robbie Keane (17’) and two from Fabían Espíndola (25’ & 28’).
Saturday’s victory extended RSL’s club record to 17 wins in the 2012 regular season.
Real Salt Lake’s 2-1 win at L.A. on Saturday was a bit strange in that all three goals – all scored before the 28th minute – didn’t suggest much tactically. All of the goals were nicely taken, but they were in such close proximity to each other that a natural lull in defending might be as much the culprit as anything else.
Tactically, it was in the remaining 75 minutes in which the match really played out. Indeed, the more tactically fascinating portion of the match was the second set of 45 minutes. It is, as always, a funny game.
Saturday's match was a chippy affair, with RSL conceding 12 fouls and possession changing hands at times rapidly. Despite the foul count (surprisingly just below RSL's season average of 13), they were all basically in the middle third. This had two practical effects: 1) Play was broken up and the Galaxy didn't have a chance to build toward goal. 2) David Beckham and Juninho, when taking free kicks, were too far off to really put them toward goal, so they were limited to lofted free kicks into the box. RSL had no particular problem dealing with these, though there were a few tight moments.
The Galaxy still got off plenty of shots, 20 to be exact. But seven of those were outside the box, well above even their average of three; of those, three were blocked, two were saved by Nick Rimando, and two were off target entirely. A further seven shots inside the box were blocked.
Excepting the goal by Robbie Keane, RSL did quite well to sniff out those chances with timely blocks. It was a fine performance on the defensive side of the ball: Nat Borchers had three blocks, Jamison Olave had two, and Tony Beltran and Alvaro Saborio each had two. It's particularly illustrative that Saborio had a couple: The man's always back on set pieces, and one or two instances aside, he's been vital there throughout 2012.
Closing out the match
When Jason Kreis used his final substitution to send Paulo Jr. on for Javier Morales, questions inevitably popped up about Kreis's game management. His first two subs were more defensively minded: Chris Schuler on for Tony Beltran and Yordany Alvarez on for Jonny Steele had the distinct feeling of Kreis battening down the hatches.
But when Paulo came on, he brought with him pace, energy and a desire to unleash attacks. He wasn't brought in to keep everyone sitting back — he brought with him an impetus to get forward and challenge the Galaxy defense alongside Espindola and Saborio. Four key passes (passes leading directly to shots) following his arrival in the 89th minute speaks to his impact.
It was not an intuitive substitution by Jason Kreis, but that elusive ability to spot a weakness in defenses seen in his playing and managerial careers requires an especially keen mind. At times, Kreis has been criticized for his substitutions, but this time, he got it quite right. Late on, when one would expect the Galaxy to be issuing their final thrusts at Real Salt Lake, they were worried about conceding a third. A goal didn't result — but at that point, all RSL needed was to distract their opponent.
The Los Angeles Galaxy is a tough side to play, not least because they've dumped huge amounts of money into their attacking front. But money doesn't exactly win matches — scoring goals does.
A remarkable division of responsibilities has seen the Galaxy spread the bulk of their scoring between four players: Robbie Keane, Landon Donovan, Juninho, and David Beckham. The latter two are known for their distance shooting, so let's start there.
Long shots: Juninho & Beckham
Juninho is one of those elusive midfielders who has a killer long-range shot. He's the Galaxy's leading passer, with his stats clocking in at about 56 passes per match with 87 percent accuracy, but nearly as important to the team is his ability to smash the ball from well outside the box. Five of his seven goals this season have come from beyond the 18, a rate only bested by his English comrade Beckham.
David Beckham, complaints about hair, hype and histrionics aside, has been one of the best players in MLS over the last few years. Whatever complaints are made about him, a quick reference to his seven goals — all from distance, four from free kicks — shows him as a frightening character to face off against.
To shut down the two, Real Salt Lake – which has only allowed two goals from beyond the 18 this year – will need to continue its fine efforts at closing players down from outside the box. This is where the absence of injured midfielder Ned Grabavoy will hurt. Likely fill-in Luis Gil – as much as he provides good attacking movement – isn’t always going to be in the right defensive positions.
It will take some excellent coaching, both from Jason Kreis and from the players on the pitch, to stop the pair from being overtly dangerous. Shut them down, and half of the worry is gone, so long as RSL isn’t busy conceding fouls near the edge of the box, or, as the area’s known in some circles, the Beckham Free Kick Zone.
In the box: Keane & Donovan
Robbie Keane is a striker proven at a high level, and that's largely because he's constantly working toward scoring. His 13 goals this season are no fluke: the man has a killer instinct. Of all MLS players this season to have taken at least five shots inside the box, he is the most accurate at 72 percent shot accuracy and a 62 percent goal conversion rate.
He's fed in two ways: the first is by David Beckham (another reason to afford the long-pass-maestro little space on the ball), but the second is by Landon Donovan. The attacking midfielder or forward — depending on the match and who you ask — who has scored nine goals this season and found a key pass for every 13 passes he makes. He's made more key passes (74) than all but two players: Javier Morales (75) and Graham Zusi (92).
Allowing Donovan too much time to work his magic would be disastrous, and with Robbie Keane lurking about, the defense will need to be on their best behavior. With Jamison Olave back in the side after a yellow card accumulation suspension, Kreis may opt to play a higher defensive line, with the Colombian defender's closing speed hopefully proving decisive.
Weakened ranks: No DeLaGarza
LA Galaxy won't be at their best: Central Defender AJ DeLaGarza is out (and perhaps for some time), leaving a gaping defensive hole. David Beckham is also a doubt — but if there's one thing to expect, it's for David Beckham to play through it to face off against Real Salt Lake.
Welcome to Kickin' it with Kwame, our new video series starring - you guessed it - Real Salt Lake defender Kwame Watson-Siriboe.
In the premiere episode, our man Kwame - with an asisst from equipment manager Mike Fratto - asks his teammates what superpower they'd choose if they could pick one. Watch the video for a good time.
Midseason acquisition Kenny Mansally - a Gambian international and former New England Revolution player - offers us a window into his life in Utah in this edition of "10 things..."
As told to Zach Petersen
- So far everything is going great in Utah for me and I’m loving it. I’ve met some nice people. One thing I’ve noticed in Utah is that people are so friendly. Back in New England, usually I just stayed home more but when I came to Salt Lake, I started going out a little bit. Once I started going out, it’s more fun for me just meeting people and talking to them - how people love soccer, how people are so excited about soccer. Back in New England people love soccer, but I see more of it in Salt Lake than in New England.
- When I was in New England, they never knew that I played left back before. Ever since I played for Gambia, I played left back for my national team. Usually, when we need a goal I go forward, so the coach would push me up and I could hustle up front to get goals. In New England, I just played wide left and forward.
- I’m a Muslim and I fasted during Ramadan. It went great for me. It’s one month and is part of the Muslim calendar. Once it comes, there’s no excuse to take it away from me. I’ve been doing it ever since I was young. For me, Ramadan started when the season was going on but I kept fasting and going to training. I didn’t have a lot of hunger but I was thirsty. You have to fast from sunrise to sunset, so it’s not easy.
- The coaches were very supportive of me fasting. When I talked to them about it they told me that they trust everybody, respect everyone's religions and were fine with me doing it.
- I’m starting to like basketball. I’m trying to play around with my roommate. It’s very different from soccer. I think I should walk on my hands playing basketball. I remember one time I went to one of my friends and we were trying to play some basketball. Every time I shot I missed it. So I was like, “I should try it with me feet and see.” I took the basketball and kicked it with my feet and went through the first time, so I said, “I’m done for today.”
- I love watching American Football as well. I like watching the game on TV, especially watching the teams come out before the game starts and the movement they do in the big groups.
- New England attacker Sainey Nyassi was my roommate back with the Revs and we played for the U-17 & U-20 Gambian teams and we both signed the same time in New England. We had been roommates from 2003 up to 2012, when I moved from Boston to here. We were always roommates on the Gambian teams. He played wide right and I played wide left, so they always put us in the same room.
- I would say the U-17 World Cup is my best soccer memory. That was the first time Gambia had been to the World Cup at any age level. Our first game we played was against Brazil. Soccer is funny. You never know and you can’t predict how the world’s best teams can lose to a team from the middle of nowhere. Brazil scored, and then I scored. That was the first time Gambia had been to the World Cup and the first goal for the country. I will never forget it. We beat Brazil 3-1. Everybody was surprised and was like, “Where is Gambia?” If you saw Gambia on a map, you would probably say, “Is it a street?”
- Outside of soccer, I am so friendly. In soccer, I just come and do my job. Other than that, if I go out, people could come up to me. If you don’t come to me, I will come to you and say hi. I’m equal to everybody. I’m a funny guy and like to make jokes and to play with kids. That’s what I do.
- I would say hiking is my favorite thing to do in Utah. Even in Gambia, they don’t have these kinds of mountains – not in Boston, either. When I came here, I saw the mountains and I was like, “Wow, I should go there.” It’s more fitness for me. It’s kind of like I am doing an extra training, but I love it.
NBC Sports Network went behind the scenes with Kyle Beckerman for MLS 36. We went behind the scenes with the guys who went behind the scenes with Beckerman.
Still with me? No? Doesn't matter. Just watch the video above, you'll get the picture.
When you're done watching that, check out the entire episode - which leaked earlier today - by clicking here. The episode has been taken down. Be sure to catch Kyle's show when it airs on Saturday immediately following Real Salt Lake's important game at L.A. on NBC Sports Network.
Also be sure to give a listen to Kyle's interview on MLSsoccer.com's ExtraTime Radio. Kyle jumps on the podcast - which aired on Monday - at about the 36:30 mark.
The biggest win of the season, at least if we're talking in pure numbers, came on Saturday when RSL hit Chivas USA for a dominant 4-0 victory. It was the first sight of the RSL we know and love in weeks — months, maybe. The killer instinct, the eye for a pass: It was all there on display.
Fabian Espindola and the Assist Hat Trick
If you'd told me we'd see a player grab the first "assist hat trick" in RSL history, I'd have nodded knowingly. "Yes, yes. Javier Morales is quite amazing, isn't he?" And while my specific statement wouldn't be untrue — he is quite amazing — I wouldn't be quite right. So I do a double take: Fabian Espindola. The long-haired, mercurial striker sometimes accused of being too "selfish" with three assists? Say it ain't so.
It was perhaps one of Espindola's brightest games in an RSL kit. He was darting to and fro, popping up on the left and on the right, serving as the immaculate second striker. Of course, he was helped along by a poacher's performance from Alvaro Saborio, who made the perfect runs, and Javier Morales, who pulled defenders to and fro as he is known to do.
Was it something tactical that enabled this? It's hard to say — but with Luis Gil pushing forward, Javier Morales was given a bit more room to create, Chivas USA defenders were forced to scramble and defend — and most importantly, Espindola constantly drew two or three defenders. As such, his ability to get good passes off meant Chivas was short defenders, as they were drawn wide. It's what I call the Fabi Effect.
One for the record books
Two big records were set on Saturday. The first: Fabian Espindola's three assists are the most assists recorded for an RSL player in a single match. The second: Alvaro Saborio became the first RSL player to score multiple hat tricks. It was the club's fourth overall, and if you are to look at the players who helped transform the club, he's one of them.
Even cooler: With his 17th goal of the season, Alvaro Saborio has now scored more goals in a single season than any other Real Salt Lake player, beating out Jeff Cunningham's 2006 record of 16. He's unlikely to win the Golden Boot (very unlikely, even) with San Jose’s Chris Wondolowski a remarkable five goals ahead at 22.
Absentees and Replacements
Ned out, Gil in: With Ned Grabavoy out through injury, Jason Kreis handed Luis Gil an opportunity to impress. Impress he did, although in the miserable 25 minutes — from 20 to 45, by my count — he wasn't tracking back properly. It wasn't what caused problems for the side, but it didn't help. We saw a hugely improved performance on that side in the second half, and if he can continue to make performances like those final 45 minutes, he has a bright future yet.
Olave out, Schuler in: With Jamison Olave out with yellow card suspension, Chris Schuler stepped in and ably handled what came his way. Still, what came his way — and Nat Borchers' way, for that matter — wasn't much, and there was nothing entirely too dangerous about the Chivas attack on Saturday.
Real Salt Lake put in a dominant performance on Saturday night, scoring two goals in the first 12 minutes on its way to beating Chivas USA 4-0 at the Home Depot Center.
Here are some interesting numbers from the Claret-and-Cobalt’s victory in Southern California.
The number of goals scored by RSL forward Álvaro Saborío in Saturday’s game. The hat trick was Saborio’s second of the season – he bagged three goals in the 3-0 win over Portland on July 7 – and just the fourth in RSL history.
The number of goals Saborío has scored in 29 league games this year – the best-ever single-season haul by a RSL player. Saborío’s Saturday hat trick broke the single-season record previously held by former Claret-and-Cobalt forward Jeff Cunningham, who led the league with 16 goals in 2006.
The number of multi-goal games Saborío has in 91 career matches across all competitions for RSL. The Claret-and-Cobalt is now 30-5-5 all-time in games in which the Costa Rican international scores.
The number of assists RSL forward Fabían Espíndola had on Saturday night. It was the first time in RSL's 249-game MLS history that one player had three assists in a match.
The number of goals allowed by RSL on Saturday, the team’s fifth shutout in its last seven matches across all competitions. Claret-and-Cobalt goalie Nick Rimando tied his season-high with six saves to earn Saturday’s clean sheet – the 98th of his illustrious MLS career, putting him second behind FC Dallas goalie Kevin Hartman
RSL’s current seed in the Western Conference standings. The Claret-and-Cobalt – which entered the weekend in third in the West – is two points ahead of L.A. and three ahead of Seattle after both teams tied this weekend.
RSL’s 2012 point total. The club has now earned at least 50 points in three-consecutive seasons, joining the 2005/06/07 D.C. United squads and the 2010/11/12 L.A. Galaxy sides – who reached the milestone by drawing 1-1 at Colorado on Sunday night – as the only teams in MLS history with that unique distinction.
The number of wins Real Salt Lake has this year – another single-season club record. The 16-win total is one higher than the 15 the Claret-and-Cobalt had in 2010 and 2011. RSL has three regular season games remaining to add to its new club-record total.
The number of wins Real Salt Lake now has at the Home Depot Center. RSL – which has 24 MLS road wins in club history – will return to the HDC this coming Saturday for a crucial match against the L.A. Galaxy.
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.)