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.
Here’s a bold statement to start your week: Wednesday's U.S. Open Cup Semifinal between Real Salt Lake and the Portland Timbers at Rio Tinto Stadium is RSL's biggest game of the year so far by a wide margin, and could end up being the club’s biggest match of the entire season.
Make no mistake about it; Wednesday’s game is serious business. Here are a few reasons why the semifinal is RSL’s most important match in a long time:
There's a trophy on the line
Excluding trophies from rivalry games and whatnot, American soccer teams are only eligible for three domestic trophies. The U.S. Open Cup is one of them. The RSL players, coaches, and staff have repeatedly said that they want to win more trophies for this club, and that they should have more trophies given the quality of the team for the last four years. I can't disagree with them - RSL has consistently been one of the top teams in the league but they don't have enough hardware to show for it. The Open Cup is a golden opportunity to add to the tally, and while Real is still very much in contention to win the other two trophies this year (Supporter's Shield and MLS Cup), those two are much farther off and there is much more competition for them.
A Champions League berth is up for grabs
RSL Head Coach Jason Kreis has said in no uncertain terms that he badly wants to get this team back to the CONCACAF Champions League. That's easier said than done, as a maximum of four American MLS teams qualify for the competition each year. The only guaranteed ways for U.S. squads to earn a berth are to make it to the MLS Cup final, win the Supporter's Shield, or win the U.S. Open Cup. As mentioned above, the first two options are currently very complicated. But there are only four teams left standing - and only two games remaining - in U.S. Open play. Clearly this is the shortest path to that coveted Champions League spot.
It's a major tournament semifinal
These kinds of opportunities (for players and fans) don't come along every day. Being this deep in a tournament is a big deal. Believe it or not, with all the success RSL has enjoyed over the last few years, only once before has Real contested a tournament semifinal at home. That match was the 2010-11 Champion's League semifinal on March 15, 2011 with RSL cruising to a 2-0 win over Deportivo Saprissa (Editor's Note: RSL also hosted the 2008 Eastern Conference Final, which the team lost 1-0 to New York. We regret the eariler error). There were no semifinals played in Utah before then and there hasn't been once since. That all changes on Wednesday.
Win, and RSL will host the Open Cup Final
The winner of Wednesday’s RSL-Portland match will host the winner of the Chicago Fire-D.C. United semi in the U.S. Open Cup Final later this year. That’s a huge incentive. Home finals are even rarer than home semifinals, and – should RSL win on Wednesday – it’ll be a heavy favorite in the title game. The winner of the United-Fire semifinal will have to make a long trip to play the final in a difficult environment. Also - and no disrespect intended here - Salt Lake (38 points in MLS play) is a step above the Fire (28 points) and D.C. United (13 points) in terms of quality.
Of course, RSL still has to get by a tough Timbers side to get to the final. That will be a tall task, and the Claret-and-Cobalt will need your voice if they’re to advance. Hope to see you all at the RioT on Wednesday.
Looks like RSL's Kyle Beckerman, Tony Beltran and Nick Rimando caught up with ex-RSL man Will Johnson in Kansas City on Monday night ahead of Wednesday's MLS AT&T All-Star Game against Italian side AS Roma.
The four seem to be lost in a riveting conversation... Maybe things are just too awkward for them now that their respective clubs are battling it out at the top of the Western Conference table and are set to meet three times this month. We're guessing they'll all show a little more emotion next Wednesday, Aug. 7, when Johnson and the Timbers come to town to take on the Claret-and-Cobalt at Rio Tinto Stadium in the Semifinals of the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup.
Really, really fantastic stuff out of Portland, where the Timbers and the Make-A-Wish Oregon made 8-year-old Atticus Lane-Dupre's dream of playing the MLS side at Jeld-Wen Field come true on Wednesday.
Atticus - who was diagnosed with cancer last fall - and his Green Machine teammates were treated to the full gameday experience on Wednesday, with more than 3,000 rowdy fans cheering them on as they took down Portland 10-9. Atticus scored four goals - nutmegging former RSL midfielder Will Johnson on one - and was named Man of the Match.
Thanks, Portland. And thank you, Atticus.
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.