Real Salt Lake faces D.C. United in what is perhaps the most anticipated match of the last two years, and it's one Jason Kreis and his team will be hoping to put to bed easily. But that's rarely as simple as it seems, despite their opposition's wholly dismal form in MLS.
Form: What is it good for?
If you've guessed that the answer is something close to "absolutely nothing," then you're right on track. It's not really that form means nothing, but that when we're talking about the biggest matches, form won't dictate anything on a grand scale. Quality players step up for games of this nature. There's nothing controversial about that. We've had trouble in the past in these circumstances, but again: Form, even over the longer term, doesn't mean a thing.
Who plays? One major choice remains
If Saturday's defeat of Vancouver Whitecaps (which, I might add, was quite nice) is any indication, and it surely is, then we'll see as strong a lineup as we've seen all season. The only player who would seem a real doubt, Alvaro Saborio, is back, having trained for at least a week now.
But there remains one question: Who plays in the midfield alongside the Beckerman, Grabavoy and Morales trio? Luis Gil has just come off a superb 90-minute performance on the weekend; Sebastian Velasquez the same. Both played heavily in the Reserve League game during the week. This leaves Khari Stephenson as the obvious choice, but as we've seen so often, the obvious choice is so often the one not taken. Luis Gil is hardly out of the running.
Stephenson adds some great work, a calm head, and a great long shot. It perhaps should be noted that he's won an Open Cup before — a champion with Kansas City in 2004.
Gil adds more attacking movement and combination, which is essential to the way we play. He also would come into the match with some renewed confidence, having been the midfield boss throughout Saturday.
The pass-and-move fabric of our side is an important factor: Stephenson is decidedly less mobile (owing in part to his stature and in part to his style of play) than Gil. He isn't a player that fits neatly into our system the way Gil does at current — a testament to Gil's development at Real Salt Lake, surely.
But that, on its own, isn't the determining factor: Stephenson adds new variables to the equation, and it's tempting to deploy that business buzzword, disruption, to the element he would bring. And maybe we should: By allowing us another type of option, Stephenson disrupts the tendency we have to end up in a desperate spot on the flank, flinging ball after ball into the box. He'll stick more centrally, he'll stay calm, and he'll try to find a sane — if not spectacular — pass.
Setting out on the front foot
If there's one thing that's universally agreed upon about this D.C. United side, it's that allowing them to play their game yields dividends for the opposition. The "inevitable mistake," as a group of United podcasters and bloggers described it during a conversation I had with them tonight, will come, and it'll push their chances to something approaching zero.
We won't give them the opportunity to make that mistake. Not easily, at least. At home, with Jason Kreis as our manager, we aim to control nearly everything that comes our way. We lead the league in passes per possession. We make the game ours and not the opponents. Even with the weakness of our opponent, there's little chance we break from that. This is who we are, and we'll continue our unabashed approach.
That's of course to our benefit. There's little point in completely changing the way we play. Responding to our opponents is one thing; playing to exploit one specific weakness is another. We'll play to exploit multiple weaknesses in the midfield and defense, and if it works out, we'll have a very strong chance of coming out victorious on the other side.
We didn't get here by not being us. It's been a difficult road, and the final won't be easy. But we're not going to abandon that road now — not right at the end.
MLSsoccer.com was out in full force at Real Salt Lake practice at Rio Tinto Stadium on Monday ahead of Tuesday's Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup Final against D.C. United, speaking with Claret-and-Cobalt Head Coach Jason Kreis, defender Nat Borchers and midfielder Javier Morales about the Cup Final.
They packaged their conversations into a slick video - give it a watch above.
The MLS regular season is winding down and RSL have got yet another compelling stretch of three games in eight days ahead of them – two important league games a week apart with Tuesday's U.S. Open Cup Final wedged in the middle. We’ve seen plenty of 3-in-8’s roll around this season, but it’s doubtful that any of them are as important as this one. If RSL plays out of their minds and wins all three games, they will find themselves with a major trophy in hand, a CONCACAF Champions League berth (and all the ancillary benefits that come with it), and a guaranteed spot in the playoffs. But if they crash and burn, they could find themselves without a trophy and on the outside of the playoff race. So if you’re Jason Kreis, the question is how do you manage these games?
The first consideration has to be priorities – which games are most important to win? I think it’s fair to say that the number one priority is the U.S. Open Final for the reasons the RSL blog crew have hashed out for months. So no matter what Kreis chooses to do in the other games, it’s clear that he needs his first-choice team to arrive ready and rested on Tuesday night. After that game the priorities are not as clear-cut, but for me it’s the FC Dallas game on October 5. It’s a home game and represents the better opportunity to get three points.
That’s not to say that Saturday's game at Vancouver game is a throwaway by any means. It’s still important – especially given the low point that Salt Lake is going through right now – that they at least show up and compete well. Going into the Open Cup Final on a three-game losing streak would be less than ideal from a confidence standpoint. With that in mind, there are going to have to be some lineup changes against the Whitecaps. Considering the Tuesday game and the fact that Vancouver plays on turf, it makes sense to consider resting the legs that have the most miles – season and/or career – on them.
I would consider resting guys like Chris Wingert, Nat Borchers, Kyle Beckerman, Javier Morales and Ned Grabavoy because they’re definitely going to be in Tuesday’s plans, so it might be unwise to risk an injury to one of them. Lovel Palmer, Brandon McDonald, Yordany Alvarez, Khari Stephenson and Sebastian Velasquez are certainly capable of replacing them without a big drop in quality. That’s the beauty of being probably the deepest team in the league.
For the U.S. Open Cup game, there will be no holding back. Perhaps this game could even see the return of injured forward Alvaro Saborio. In any case, there’s no way Kreis fields anything less than his best available group. Nobody should underestimate D.C. based on the admittedly horrible MLS season they’ve had. If anything, the disappointment of their league play will further motivate them since Open Cup is the last thing they have to play for this year. United will be a desperate and motivated team, and last week we saw what a desperate team is capable of.
With the Open Cup game behind them (and hopefully with a trophy in tow), RSL can return its focus to the Dallas game and playoff positioning. In the past Kreis has shown no reservations about trotting out guys who played 90 minutes just days before, so his lineup choices will probably be based on how players are feeling after the previous two games and who’s most in form.
This three-game stretch is one of the last opportunities for the team to get their form right before the playoffs, and some less-used players are going to have to step up and play big.
Real Salt Lake will take on the Portland Timbers for the third time in 24 days on Friday, when it will host the Cascadia club in a nationally-televised match at 8:00 p.m. at Rio Tinto Stadium.
RSL is unbeaten against Portland this year, beating the Timbers 2-1 in a Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup Semifinal at Rio Tinto Stadium on Aug. 7 before scoring a 93rd minute goal to tie 3-3 at Portland on Aug. 21.
Highlights from both of those matches are above. Check them out.
Real Salt Lake advanced to its first Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup Final on Wednesday night, beating the Portland Timbers 2-1 in the USOC Semis at Rio Tinto Stadium to advance to the tournament’s title game on Oct. 1 at home against D.C. United.
Here are a few interesting numbers from Wednesday’s match:
Wednesday’s win moved RSL into its first ever Open Cup Final. The Oct. 1 final against D.C. United at Rio Tinto Stadium will be the first final ever contested or hosted in the state of Utah. Tickets are expected to go on sale to the game next week – get yours early and fill the RioT.
Wednesday’s crowd of 14,742 was the largest ever to see a U.S. Open Cup Semifinal in the modern/pro era, breaking the previous mark of 12,129 set by the minor-league Rochester Rhinos in 1996. Wednesday’s crowd was only the third semifinal in the modern/pro era to break the 10,000 mark.
Real Salt Lake forward Alvaro Saborio scored in the seventh minute of Wednesday’s game, heading a Kyle Beckerman cross off the post and into the back of the net to give the Claret-and-Cobalt the early lead. The goal was Saborio’s fifth in three games since returning to RSL from international duty ahead of the July 27 loss at New York. The Costa Rican international also had an assist in Wednesday’s match, giving him 10 goals and two assists in 12 appearances across all competitions this season. Real Salt Lake is now a dominant 33-6-8 in all competitions when Saborio scores.
Real Salt Lake defender Carlos Salcedo returned from injury to play the full 90 on Wednesday night. The 19-year-old center back turned in another solid shift for the Claret-and-Cobalt, helping the Utah side improve to 8-0-2 in his 10 appearances – nine of which have been starts – across all competitions this year.
Real Salt Lake has now won four games in this year’s Open Cup, doubling the two total wins it had in previous iterations of the tournament proper. RSL had other wins in Open Cup play in games, but only two in the tournament proper prior to this year.
It’s been well documented that tonight’s U.S. Open Cup Semifinal between RSL and Portland will be Timbers Captain Will Johnson’s first game at Rio Tinto Stadium since he was traded from the Claret-and-Cobalt to Portland last December.
Johnson went on OnFrame on Tuesday night ahead of tonight’s match, saying some really interesting things about his time in Salt Lake, life in Portland and comparisons between the two clubs.
Here are a couple of highlights from the conversation, the entirety of which can be heard by clicking here.
On how RSL’s and Portland’s fan bases compare:
“There’s more similarities than differences. They’re both very good faan bases and both have treated me exceptionally. I’m very proud to have played in front of both sets of fans…. The fan base in Salt Lake is still very special to me. They treated me exceptionally, they always had my back no matter what. Playing good, or playing bad, through all the ups and downs, they always had my back so they’ll always have a special place in my heart and I think that probably goes both ways for the majority of the RSL faithful.”
On making his return to Rio Tinto Stadium in such an important match:
“I wouldn’t have it any other way. My return here was always going to be special, regardless of the circumstances, but now with it being a cup game, a knockout game with the winner hosting the final, obviously there’s a little added incentive. I’m excited, can’t wait to get back out there and see all those familiar faces, regardless of if they’re razzing me a little bit more than previous times when I played at Rio Tinto. I’ll always have I think a mutual admiration and relationship between myself and the fans, so I can’t wait to get back out there. I think it’ll be a great spectacle and an entertaining match for everybody to see.”
Kickoff is at 7:30. Get your tickets here.
Real Salt Lake continues its road in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup tonight, when it will take on the Portland Timbers at 7:30 p.m. at Rio Tinto Stadium in the tournament’s semifinals.
Here are a few interesting storylines to watch ahead of Wednesday’s match:
The return of Will Johnson
Portland Timbers midfielder Will Johnson will be making his return to the RioT for the first time since being traded from RSL back in December 2012. The Rose City captain has led the side to its best start in the club’s short MLS history with 35 points in 22 games. The former Claret-and-Cobalt stalwart appeared in 120 regular season games with RSL, including all 14 of the Utah side’s playoff matches. In 2009, Johnson hoisted the MLS Cup Championship with Salt Lake as a main contributor.
The first of many clashes
Wednesday’s match will be the first of at least four meetings between the two clubs this year. Three of the four meetings will come in the next three weeks, with RSL hosting Portland tonight in the Open Cup, Portland hosting RSL on Aug. 21 and the Claret-and-Cobalt taking on the Timbers at the RioT on Aug. 30. The sides will wrap up their regular season series against each other in the Pacific Northwest on Oct. 19. That may not be the last RSL-Portland meeting of the year, however; with RSL in first in the West and Portland not far behind in second, a potential playoff matchup could be on the horizon.
Home Final on the line
The winner of Wednesday’s match will not only advance to the U.S. Open Cup Final, they’ll host it, too, taking on the winner of tonight’s Chicago-D.C. semi in the title game this fall. It would be the first time either state has entertained an Open Cup Final – the all-important CONCACAF Champion’s League birth that goes to the tournament winner would only serve to ratchet up the stakes.
Morales a maybe
Real Salt Lake Head Coach Jason Kreis was forced into a precautionary substitution in the 24th minute of the club’s match against the Colorado Rapids last Saturday, bringing midfielder Javier Morales off with a right adductor injury. Whether or not Morales features on Wednesday night will play a big role in the outcome of the match.
Kreis v. Porter
Wednesday’s matchup will pit two of the brightest young American coaches against each other in RSL’s Jason Kreis and Portland’s Caleb Porter. Known for their possession brands of soccer and fiery attitudes, both Kreis and Porter have been complimentary of each other in the press this week, both saying that they’ve been looking forward to the first RSL-Portland matchup all year.
Really awesome video piece from MLSsoccer.com's Matt Doyle on the statistical similarities between Real Salt Lake and the Portland Timbers ahead of tonight's U.S. Open Cup Semifinal between the sides at Rio Tinto Stadium.
Check out Matt's breakdown of the Claret-and-Cobalt and the Timbers above. Click here to check out Matt's OnFrame interview from Tuesday night's show.
Real Salt Lake's magical Open Cup run is nearing its culmination: Whether that end-point is a final at Rio Tinto Stadium or a semifinal against Portland Timbers tonight is difficult to predict.
Stay aware of opportunities created in the middle
Real Salt Lake must be entirely aware of opportunities being created through the middle; while most opportunities created against us are from the flanks, Portland Timbers are clearly not like most sides in MLS. They'll pass along the ground, move the ball, and exercise a modicum of patience. It's a bit like we are, and we've not really faced a side like that to this point.
One good look in the mirror
Playing against Portland Timbers will bring to light some of our positive qualities and, indeed, some of our more negative ones. Our weakness in set piece organization is in line with the issues Timbers have displayed with set pieces, while our propensity for attacking through creativity and passing movement will be mirrored by Timbers. This is surely the first time we've faced a side this season that mirrors that desire. The battles will be as physical as ever, but we shouldn't count on Portland resorting to simply lumping the ball long out of the back. That it's taken until August to see this opposition — and not even in league play at this point — is regrettable, given we will now play them in a more condensed period.
In what will surely be one of the key story lines of the night, both sides have young managers who are passionate about their methodology, and that's not likely to change on the night. Jason Kreis and Caleb Porter squaring off should be a thing of broadcasters' dreams. The unpredictability of both managers — combined with the relative predictability of both sides' approaches — will be part of an ever-intensifying evening.
But what could change?
Jason Kreis's side has displayed some very encouraging signs that they're capable of being deployed in multiple formations, and the boss has used that to good effect. Whether it's rolling out a third forward late in the match to maintain high pressure or to contain the high pressure of the opposition, or deploying five midfielders to focus on building attacks in wider positions, there is a newfound element of unpredictability that only helps the general effectiveness of our tried-and-true midfield diamond.
Magic of the cup?
Managing a single-leg knockout competition is rather different than managing a league match or even a double-leg knockout series. Every mistake will be under the microscope after the fact. It's difficult to really make it through on luck alone, but stymying the opposition — perhaps with the aid of one unbelievably good goalkeeper — will be key to securing a U.S. Open Cup Final at Rio Tinto Stadium.
Real Salt Lake will play its biggest match of the year so far on Wednesday, when it will host the Portland Timbers in the U.S. Open Cup Semifinal at 7:30 p.m. at Rio Tinto Stadium.
Here are a few interesting figures to keep in mind ahead of
Saturday’s Wednesday's match:
Since 1995, only two out of 36 U.S. Open Cup Semifinal matches have surpassed 10,000 fans in attendance. The semifinal attendance record is currently held by the minor-league Rochester Rhinos, which drew 12,179 fans for its 3-0 win over the Colorado Rapids in the 1996 U.S. Open Cup Semis.
Real Salt Lake has scored 11 goals in only three U.S. Open Cup matches, giving the Claret-and-Cobalt an average of 3.67 goals per Open Cup game. RSL’s scoring haul is tied for the most in the Open Cup with Portland.
Timbers Captain Will Johnson, donning the No. 4 jersey, will return to Rio Tinto Stadium on Wednesday for the first time since being traded from RSL to Portland on Dec. 3, 2012. The former RSL man notched nine goals in four-and-a-half seasons with the Claret-and-Cobalt, and was named an MLS All-Star in 2009. Johnson has already scored six goals in his first season with the Timbers.
Real Salt Lake has won the coin flip to host their Open Cup match five times in five potential matches, including the final. The odds of RSL winning all five coin flips are only 1/32, or 3.125 percent.
Real Salt Lake forward Devon Sandoval has found the back of the net three times during the 2013 U.S. Open Cup, tying the club record held jointly by Jason Kreis, Andy Williams and Kyle Beckerman. Two of Sandoval’s three Open Cup goals have come during extra time. Sandoval’s three goals are tied for seventh in all of Open Cup play. Portland Timbers forward Frederic Piquionne leads the pack with five goals, four of which came in the club’s 5-1 third-round victory over the Wilmington Hammerheads.
Wednesday’s match is the first RSL game that Claret-and-Cobalt right back Tony Beltran will be available for since June 29 – a span of 39 days. Beltran missed all of July while with the U.S. national team and the MLS All-Stars and was suspended for Saturday’s 2-2 draw at Colorado due to a red card picked up in that June 29 win at Toronto.