Real Salt Lake has been officially eliminated from the Supporters' Shield race.
Sporting Kansas City's Lawrence Olum scored a stoppage time winner to push SKC to a 2-1 victory at Philadelphia earlier Saturday, giving Kansas City 58 points on the season - two more than RSL's total of 56. OIum's goal came just minutes after Union forward Jack McInerney appeared to keep RSL's Shield hopes alive with an equalizer for Philadelphia.
While Real Salt Lake can no longer win the Supporters' Shield, the club can still finish with the top-seed in the West and finish behind only Sporting Kansas City in the East. A Portland loss/draw on Saturday night at Chivas USA would give the Claret-and-Cobalt the West. A New York loss on Sunday against Chicago would put RSL behind only SKC in the East, meaning that the Utah side would host MLS Cup at Rio Tinto Stadium if they qualify and Sporting Kansas City does not. A higher regular season finish would also boost RSL's hopes of qualifying for the 2014-15 CONCACAF Champions League.
Short story, RSL fans: Pull for Chivas USA on Saturday and Chicago on Sunday.
Everyone should have their eyes glued to their TVs this weekend as the MLS regular-season comes to a close with clubs still vying for playoff spots and the Supporters’ Shield. This weekend’s results hold major implications as to whether or not RSL will win the Supporters’ Shield or the Western Conference and who the Claret-and-Cobalt will face in the Western Conference Semifinals.
Real Salt Lake will be bystanders this weekend as the Claret-and-Cobalt finished its regular-season with Wednesday’s 2-1 win over Chivas USA. Wednesday’s win clinched a top-two West seed for RSL, meaning the Claret-and-Cobalt will play away in the first leg of the Western Conference Semifinals on Nov. 2 or Nov. 3 before returning home to Rio Tinto Stadium for the West Semi second leg on Nov. 6 or Nov. 7. Real Salt Lake could still play any of the West playoff teams of Portland, LA Galaxy, Seattle Sounders FC or Colorado Rapids in the West Semifinals.
RSL currently sits in first-place in the Supporters’ Shield race and Western Conference with a total of 56 points, 16 wins and 57 goals scored.
With so much at stake this weekend, here is a list of all the key matches that affect RSL and who you should be rooting for:
Philadelphia Union vs. Sporting Kansas City – 1:00 p.m. MT on NBC Sports Network
The Claret-and-Cobalt will need Sporting Kansas City to lose or draw at PPL Park in order for RSL’s Supporters’ Shield hopes to stay alive. Sporting Kansas City currently sits in second-place in the Eastern Conference with a total of 55 points, one point behind the New York Red Bulls. If Kansas City draws Philadelphia and ends up tied with RSL on points and wins, the Claret-and-Cobalt would place ahead based on the goals for tiebreaker, granted Kansas City doesn’t score 12 goals. The Philadelphia Union is facing a must-win situation in order to keep their postseason aspiration alive. This one’s easy: root for the Union.
Chivas USA vs. Portland Timbers – 8:30 p.m. MT on MLS Live
The Portland Timbers are the only team that can push RSL out of first-place in the Western Conference. A win for the Timbers at the StubHub Center would guarantee Caleb Porter’s squad first-place in the Western Conference and put an end to the Claret-and-Cobalt’s chance at the Supporters’ Shield. Portland currently has a total of 54 points, meaning a draw against Chivas USA would be enough to keep RSL first in the Western Conference. A Chivas USA win or draw might seem unlikely with their current record of 6-19-8, but everyone loves to root for the underdog. Let’s hope the Goats can end the season on a higher note and produce a result at home.
New York Red Bulls vs. Chicago Fire – 3:00 p.m. MT on UniMas
This one won’t impact the Western Conference, but it does hold huge implications in the battle for the Supporters’ Shield. Real Salt Lake sits atop the league table narrowly leading New York by the goals for tiebreaker with 57 goals to New York’s 53. Any result by New York against Chicago will officially end the Claret-and-Cobalt’s run for the Supporters’ Shield. Chicago enters the match desperate for a win in order to keep its own playoff hopes alive. Pull for Mike Magee to keep his scoring form and work some magic at Red Bull Arena.
Vancouver Whitecaps FC vs. Colorado Rapids – 6:00 p.m. MT on MLS Live
This match won’t affect RSL’s standing in the Western Conference but it can affect who RSL will face in the Western Conference Semifinals. Colorado will need a draw or a win in order to officially clinch a playoff berth. If RSL finishes in first-place it will take on the winner of the fourth-place vs. fifth-place knockout game. If RSL finishes in second-place, it will face the third-place team in the West. If Colorado does earn a result at Vancouver, its playoff placement won’t be determined until after the final MLS regular-season game between Seattle and LA. Colorado would need a win and for LA and Seattle to draw in order to clinch third-place which would most likely mean a Rocky Mountain Cup semifinal series, assuming RSL finishes in second-place. A RSL vs. Colorado playoff game would be the first of its kind. Who to root for? Follow your heart.
Seattle Sounders FC vs. LA Galaxy – 7:00 p.m. MT on ESPN
The final match of the MLS regular-season will definitely be an entertaining one with the former MLS champions taking on Western Conference rival Seattle Sounders FC. Seattle is suffering an epic blowout to end its regular-season, losing its last four matches by a combined margin of 12-2. Despite Seattle’s recent run of poor form, they have already clinched a playoff berth. This match will determine whether or not Seattle or LA will avoid the fourth-place vs. fifth-place knockout game. LA and Seattle will want to grab as many points as possible to put as much room between them and the red line. Who to root against? Both.
On the back of a match struck by experimentation, Jason Kreis's side has been hit once again by international absences. Heading into tomorrow's match against the Philadelphia Union, the concerns weigh on the mind, but solid squad depth should play an easing role.
The 4-3-3: Did it work?
When we take a look back at last weekend, we will rightly wonder if the switch to a 4-3-3 worked. It's a difficult question to answer with the sort of win we found, as it wasn't particularly a win that was down to the system. That said, we saw that it has some potential, particularly in pushing players in wide areas. It did lack a bit of thrust from the midfield, and the strikers were increasingly isolated; whether this is down to a systemic issue or to personnel is difficult to say without further evidence.
That noted, we're not likely to see it again tomorrow unless we're making a second-half adjustment. It would be reasonable to assume that Jason Kreis wasn't looking to change the diamond, but to explore other options for adjustments as needed.
Absence makes the heart grow something-something
Four incredibly important players will be absent for this match and for a few more: Nick Rimando, Tony Beltran, Kyle Beckerman, and Alvaro Saborio are all off with international absences, and when you're missing four crucial players, things get — shall we say — tricky. Continuity becomes an issue, as does a drop-off in performance. But critically, some tactical decisions will be involved as well.
Josh Saunders may be a fine goalkeeper, but Nick Rimando is superb when playing with a high-line defense in front of him, as he is quick and good with his feet. Saunders is less of both of those things, though he is certainly a good shot-stopper. A bit more caution from the defenders will be necessitated, and perhaps this will force the defensive midfielder to sit back a little further to allow less room to exploit.
Yordany Alvarez, who will almost certainly be in for Beckerman, lacks the vision and precision of Beckerman, but his break-up play is superb, and he's not a slouch in attack. With him dropping back, the outside midfielders will need to tuck in a bit more, and the full backs will need to push a bit more forward to snuff out wide play.
Saborio's absence certainly affects the attack, but as importantly as anything, he serves as an escape for the midfield and defense in difficult situations. While he may lose the ball from a high-risk pass, his position higher up the pitch obviates much of the risk faced when the opposition receives the ball in dangerous positions. Without him in the side, the ball is more likely to be played to strikers in wide positions, which are more difficult to attack from for a side like ours.
Patching the holes
Those absences aren't damning. Saunders, Palmer and Alvarez should slot in rather naturally, even if things change as a result. All permutations of our striking pairs are now tested and have their positives and negatives, so Saborio's absence is not nearly so worrying. The defense is solidifying after a fine performance from Aaron Maund. It's all getting there — but while we're patching holes, we want to be succeeding through the summer glut.
Real Salt Lake returns to MLS action on Wednesday, when it will take on the Philadelphia Union at Rio Tinto Stadium. Wednesday's match will kickoff at 8:00 p.m. with Independence Day fireworks following the game.
Here are a few interesting storylines to watch ahead of Wednesday’s match:
RSL on a tear
Saturday’s 1-0 victory against Toronto extended RSL’s active club-record win streak to 7 consecutive games in all competitions (4-0-0 MLS, 3-0-0 U.S. Open Cup). During the month of June, RSL went 6-0-0 in MLS/USOC play, outscoring its opponents 17-3.
No brotherly love
Real Salt Lake has never lost to Philadelphia, posting a 2-0-3 mark in five league matches against the Union. The Claret-and-Cobalt is a perfect 2-0-0 against the Union at Rio Tinto Stadium, beating Philadelphia 3-0 in Sandy on May 8, 2010 and 2-1 on Sept. 3, 2011.
Rio Tinto Stadium regains “Fortress” status
After losing six home games in 2012, RSL has re-established the RioT as “The Fortress” this season, posting a 9-1-2 record across all competitions. RSL is now 69-13-21 in its last 103 home games dating back to the beginning of 2008, Jason Kreis’ first full season. In that span, RSL has outscored opponents by 128 goals (191-71), with a 55-10-23 regular season mark, 6-1-1 CCL record, 3-1-1 playoffs, 4-1-0 Open Cup and 2-0-1 in international exhibitions.
100 in sight
A victory on Wednesday would be Real Salt Lake’s 100th MLS regular season win. Head Coach Jason Kreis notched win No. 100 in all competitions with last week’s Open Cup win over Carolina, with Saturday’s win at Toronto his 101st all-time in regular season, playoff, CCL and USOC play.
Both teams will be without several players on Wednesday night due to CONCACAF Gold Cup call ups.
RSL will be without all-time leading scorer Alvaro Saborio for the second straight match after he departed for the Costa Rican national team ahead of Saturday’s win at Toronto; that victory at BMO Field was the last match for likely a month for a trio of RSL’s US internationals Captain Kyle Beckerman, defender Tony Beltran and goalkeeper Nick Rimando.
Philadelphia will be without two players, losing MLS leading scorer Jack McInerney to the U.S. national team and midfielder Keon Daniel to the Trinidad & Tobago squad.
Friday's goalless draw against the Philadelphia Union was indeed a tactically fascinating one, but not for the reasons one would have expected going into the weekend. The draw — an uptick in RSL's road form — saw Jason Kreis presenting his side a little differently than it has been in some time. Exactly how different? That's another question altogether.
Briefly, though, let's go over some elements of the tactical preview: What did we see? What didn't we see?Goals, and how they make games
Right. Everybody knows that goals change games, but this was specifically about the timing of goals — when the Union found goals most frequently. That was, of course, in the 15 minute interval around either side of the half, as well as in the final 15 minutes. It is to our credit, then, that we didn't concede a goal, but it does make this point rather difficult to discuss.
Lacking for style
As discussed, the Union are rather lacking in, well, personality. On the pitch, I mean. And you know? That seemed to be the case again — at least in attack. But in defense, the side was relentless in their pressing action. It allowed RSL little time on the ball, disrupting attempts to really create a significant flow to proceedings.
The Union were in superb defensive form: 17/21 tackles won, 21 interceptions, and 24 clearances speak to that fact. Remarkably, they conceded only a single corner and committed only three fouls in their half (of nine total), none of which were within striking distance.
Consistency dismissed: a new look
RSL's revised approach to the match involved a surprising departure from Kreis's diamond 4-4-2 (or, if you will, a 4-1-2-1-2, as Opta records it). Some dubbed it a 4-1-4-1, but I'll dispute that just a bit. What we saw was our narrow diamond, as it usually is set out, but with an additional attacking midfielder flitting from spot to spot, looking for openings. Perhaps a more fitting label is a 4-4-1-1, or, if you follow from the 4-1-2-1-2, a 4-1-2-2-1.
How does that change matters? Will Johnson and Ned Grabavoy still very much operated in their own swathe of midfield, with Grabavoy taking up right-sided attacking positions and Johnson supporting Beckerman in ball-winning measures. Luis Gil, too, was a bit further forward, but still very much the systemic tip-of-the-diamond player.
Javier Morales — inevitably the one floating in that free role — found himself at times ahead of sole striker for the night, Alvaro Saborio, at times behind the midfield, and largely in the thick of things. Was it an inspired move? It's hard to say, really, as a three-point result didn't come along with the change. But with five midfielders in there, four of which were engaged in defensive responsibilities and one generally left out of it, RSL was certainly not overrun by the Union midfield.
Perhaps that was the goal: Contain the Union, ensure a shutout, and hope for a bit of magic from Javier Morales and Alvaro Saborio. By freeing up Morales from the pressing game, Kreis ensured he got at least a good half out of his playmaker — and after a grueling week, that might have been just the goal.
When RSL takes on the Philadelphia Union on Friday, they'll be looking at a side struggling to establish an identity. The Union, 16 points off a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, might look to RSL an alluring opponent: one, perhaps, that should present an easy three points.
As we've seen this season, that's so rarely the case.
Goals – And how they make games
For all the renewed belief from a strong CCL performance, RSL underestimating the Union would be perhaps fatal. Any lack of concentration is readily exploitable, with the lion's share of Union goals coming at vital times: 30 percent come in the final 15 minutes of the first half, while 25 percent come at the end of the second half. A lack of attention to detail is ripe for error here.
But RSL, too, hold similar numbers: 27 percent of their goals come in the 15-minute interval following the half (the Union sit at 25 percent) and 19 percent come in the final 15 minutes — the two most common intervals for goals from the Claret-and-Cobalt. If both sides put forth strong efforts in approaching the goal during these intervals, we might well see a bit of a goal-fest from two sides that haven't exactly been swimming in the goals as of late.
Lacking for style
As the team with the worst crossing record in MLS faces off against the team with the third-worst record — 19 percent of RSL's crosses were accurate, while 23 percent of the Union's crosses were accurate — spectators can rest relatively assured that an aerial battle isn't set to ensue.
But while the Claret-and-Cobalt present a strong on-the-ground passing game, having made the second-highest amount of passes in the league with 81 percent accuracy, the Union seem to be a side lacking in a distinctive playing style. They don't present a strong threat on the ground, either: The fewest key passes in the league, the fewest passes in the final third in the league, the third-fewest goals in the league, and the second-fewest shots taken seem to indicate a general lack of attacking threat from the Pennsylvanian side.
For a player like Alvaro Saborio, the Union must look a tasty meal. The striker, who has seven goals in his last seven games, won’t have to deal with talented outside back Sheanon Williams, who picked up a red card in Philly’s last game and will miss Friday’s contest due to suspension.
Typically a defensive midfielder, Amobi Okugo has been asked to fill a role at center back as the Union, unusually shallow in defensive depth, look to find their footing in MLS play. In their last three league matches, the Union has had three different combinations of their starting back four. Okugo at the back may seem a surprise, but the young player will be looking to combine well with Union captain Carlos Valdes.
But as the Nowak "allocation money is king" era unfolded, the Union dispensed of two-year-starting defender Danny Califf, their hand seemingly weakened — but the arrival of former Chicago Fire defender Bakary Soumare from French third division club US Boulogne could still be the solution to that particular puzzle.
While RSL's fortunes have, at times, been a bit unkind at the back, the rise of Kwame Watson-Siriboe and Nat Borchers as a veritable defensive pairing has been a revelation. With Chris Schuler marching toward a return, Watson-Siriboe will be looking to continue his strong statement that he's deserving of a starting spot — even with injury concerns out of the way.