Real Salt Lake has been in mixed form in MLS play, but with a tremendous US Open Cup win on Wednesday, there's a sense that the dip could recover well. The tactical pieces are there — but as so often this season, injuries and fitness could throw a bit of a wrench into the best-laid plans.
Real Salt Lake has been unwavering this season in the desire to play essentially the same style from match to match. Remarkably, this is the case despite several formation shifts, forced personnel changes, and indeed, an understanding that controlling the pace of the match constantly is not always possible or wise.
As a result, we've seen RSL surrender possession at times; this often comes in the form of allowing the opposition to simply pass the ball around the back line while they probe for an opening. Our general strategy — short build-up play and balls sent to either flank to release pressure and stretch play — remains the same regardless. I don't know that Jason Kreis is setting his side out to surrender some attacking control in exchange for another sort, but the ability of our side to adapt to changes in the pace of the game has been an important factor in our successes.
Defending from the front
If one thing can be said about Wednesday's win over Portland Timbers, it's that Real Salt Lake displayed an encouraging ability to defend from the front lines. With Alvaro Saborio and Robbie Findley both dropping deep to defend when not in possession, Real Salt Lake pushed Portland attackers into wide positions, where they were ineffectual at best.
Houston Dynamo won't quite present the same challenge, but that mentality is one that we've pushed forward with through the season. It's paid dividends. Indeed, it's been the case almost to the point that Findley has been deployed as something approaching a winger who will burst forward during counters. This is more than him simply stretching play: He's been important from wide positions and has helped create goals from those positions.
Jason Kreis's side has been in a bit of a minutes crunch this season, and for some, pushing them to play both Saturday and Wednesday stretched their fitness thin. As such, players like Javier Morales and Kyle Beckerman are both in positions where playing again Saturday is probably too soon. A bit of a rest for the two of them, who are rarely afforded them, will be essential in the long-term, but in the short term, we have to wonder about replacements.
On Wednesday, Ned Grabavoy played at the top of the diamond, and he was fairly effective doing so. Last Saturday, he played in the side of the diamond. This Saturday, he might play at the base of the diamond. The remarkable part is that he can play those three distinct positions effectively.
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.
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.
Real Salt Lake's Rocky Mountain Cup-losing 2-2 draw at Colorado on Saturday was not the result of lackadaisical output, nor was it the result of injuries, nor of worrying fissures within the side's tactical makeup. What, then, was the cause?
Once again, Real Salt Lake conceded a game-tying goal from a hopeful cross; it is something we've seen repeatedly over the last three matches. In these cases, it's easy to point at the quality of defenders on display, but poor defenders in good positions are less likely to allow those sorts of goals. No, it's not an issue of the quality of defenders, but of the quality of defending take place. Nick Rimando rightly pointed at organization as an issue in the draw and the losses that preceded it. He's not at all wrong.
Goals in transition
Again, this is in part down to organization, but the issue starts further up the pitch. When the ball is lost cheaply at any position, the opposition is handed an opportunity to counter in numbers. They're also given an opportunity to send in hopeful crosses, as with the defense on the back foot, they are less capable of defending crosses into the box. We keep seeing it, and it's difficult to really solve with one fell swoop, but it's hurt us before, it hurt us this time, and it will hurt us again — even if we solve the issue.
It's a function, in part, of the way in which we play that we allow chances. As an attacking side that puts numbers forward — a tactical risk Jason Kreis admits — we must find the best way to deal with the transition, because it's going to happen.
A lack of defensive identity
This one perhaps is the cause of the preceding two points. When your defenders are unable to build rapport through playing time, understanding who exactly is where becomes a difficult proposition. A difficult question to answer: When last did we play the same defensive line in consecutive matches? The question boggles the mind. This season, we've seen Nat Borchers paired with Chris Schuler, Kwame Watson-Siriboe, Carlos Salcedo, Aaron Maund, and now Brandon McDonald. And we're only halfway through the season. Now, much of that change has been forced, but to go from having a genuine pairing that started the majority of matches in Borchers and Jamison Olave to this? There should be no surprise that we lack identity.
The question now: How do we create it? Who is closest? And will a pairing galvanize before the playoffs?
Real Salt Lake hits the road to take on the Colorado Rapids on Saturday night at 6:30 p.m. Saturday night’s game will be the final game in the Rocky Mountain Cup.
Here are a few interesting storylines to watch ahead of Saturday’s match:
Rocky Mountain Cup on the line
This one’s pretty simple: If RSL wins on Saturday, it will take home its seventh-straight Rocky Mountain Cup. A loss or a tie and the Rapids take home the trophy for the first time since 2006.
Rimando and Beckerman poised for returns
After spending all of July away from the team on international duty and with the MLS All-Stars, RSL captain Kyle Beckerman and goalkeeper Nick Rimando look poised to make their return to the Claret-and-Cobalt on Saturday.
Both Beckerman and Rimando trained with RSL on Friday. Claret-and-Cobalt Head Coach Jason Kreis indicated after training on Thursday that both could start on Saturday.
RSL defender Tony Beltran also missed all of July while with the national team and the All-Stars. He won’t be available on Saturday due to suspension.
Beltran isn’t the only RSL player suspended for Saturday’s match – fellow defender Chris Wingert and midfielder Yordany Alvarez are also out for the match after receiving punishment from the MLS DisCo.
Abdoulie Mansally and Lovel Palmer are likely to replace Wingert and Beltran on the back line, while Beckerman should take his usual defensive spot for Alvarez.
Real Salt Lake forward Alvaro Saborio returned to the Claret-and-Cobalt in sparkling fashion last week, registering his third career RSL hat trick in the Utah side’s 4-3 loss at New York. Saborio has had a good deal of success against Colorado in his career, scoring five goals and notching one assist in nine regular season games against the Rapids.