Sunday's season opener is the first chance Real Salt Lake has to seek revenge on last year's three bitter losses to San Jose Earthquakes, but with both sides suffering from significant injury problems, the season opener is filled with question marks — and opportunity.
Defending long balls
San Jose is — shall we say — not the most sophisticated team in the league. They aren't known for swashbuckling play, nor for inventive attacking. There's nothing particularly wrong with this: They have an effective style for the players in their group, and their 2012 Supporters' Shield speaks toward that. A style of play involving long balls over the top — perhaps service for newly DP-ized Chris Wondolowski, perhaps to one Steven Lenhart — requires attention from the central defenders.
Chris Schuler and Kwame Watson-Siriboe, likely the starting pair on Sunday, are both very good in the air, but they'll need to ensure they're alive to things coming at them. A veteran head like Nat Borchers would be useful here, but these two are more than capable — it's just a matter of proper communication and defensive understanding. Additionally, RSL captain Kyle Beckerman's likely to be called upon heavily to retrieve loose balls knocked down, then he'll need to quickly distribute to wider areas to push play forward.
Top of the diamond
With Luis Gil returning to camp — no, wait — the team (a glorious feeling not having to use preseason terms!), Jason Kreis's decision about who to play at the top of the diamond became a bit more complicated. With Javier Morales out, the immediate choice for a replacement isn't entirely clear.
Gil hasn't trained much with the team as yet, but fitness isn't a concern, and he knows the side well. Some would say he represents a better option on the side of the diamond; that may be true in relation to the players on hand, but the coaching staff — and Tab Ramos, US U-20s coach — value him as a more traditional playmaker in the number 10 spot.
Sebastian Velasquez presents perhaps the best on-the-ball option to replace Morales's skill set, and he's shown well there in preseason. He's grown substantially since he came into this side a year ago, and that he's in contention for a starting spot when there are more veteran players available speaks very well to his progress.
Ned Grabavoy offers something there, but his natural position is perhaps a bit deeper. Khari Stephenson can play there, but it's perhaps not the spot where we'd see him, should he play Sunday. Even John Stertzer saw a bit of time there, but he's very much an outside shot here.
Avoiding red cards
It hardly seems like it needs spelling out, but avoiding inopportune red cards (as if there's ever an opportune one) is essential. Sendings off to Kyle Beckerman, Jamison Olave, and Fabian Espindola last season spelled "doom" in the sky with prominent contrail letters.
When key members of the squad are pulled from matches at key moments, the entire dynamic of a match is changed rather forcibly. It's an obvious thing, but discipline and attention to the refereeing style on hand will be crucial.
A quick update on RSL opponent San Jose ahead of Sunday’s season opener at Buck Shaw Stadium:
Two target strikers down
Earthquakes forwards Steven Lenhart and Alan Gordon will both miss Sunday’s match due to injury. Both players had career years in 2012, with Lenhart scoring a career high 10 goals and Gordon tallying a career high 13.
Importantly, the absence of Gordon and Lenhart leaves San Jose without a target forward on Sunday. That means less space for 2012 MVP Chris Wondolowski, who won’t have a big bruiser up top to occupy the center backs for him.
Flank play diminished through injury
San Jose midfielder Marvin Chavez and right back Steven Beitashour will join Lenhart and Gordon in the stands on Sunday, both missing the match due to injury.
Like Lenhart and Gordon, Chavez had a career year in 2012. The Honduran international tied for third in the league with 13 assists and registered three goals from his spot at the outside of the midfield. Beitashour also had a strong season, earning an All-Star nod and registering six assists in the 2012 campaign.
Much of the service that comes from the wing – and goes to Wondolowski in the box – was supplied by Chavez and Beitashour in 2012. Their replacements likely won’t be as effective as they would’ve been on Sunday, something that bodes well for RSL, which is dealing with a few injuries of its own.
Real Salt Lake midfielder Kyle Beckerman and goalkeeper Nick Rimando can both hit major MLS milestones in Sunday’s season opener at San Jose, with Beckerman looking for his 300th career regular season appearance and Rimando aiming for his 100th career regular season shutout.
Barring anything unforeseen, Beckerman on Sunday will become the 20th player in MLS history to reach 300 career regular season appearances. The Claret-and-Cobalt captain will move into a tie on 300 appearances with D.C. midfielder Dwayne De Rosario, who is suspended for United’s season opener at Houston and March 9 match at RFK Stadium against RSL.
Beckerman will be the seventh player with RSL ties to hit 300 appearances, joining Jeff Cunningham (365), Chris Klein (333), RSL Head Scout Andy Williams (332), Rimando (319), Carey Talley (315) and RSL Head Coach Jason Kreis (305) as former/current Claret-and-Cobalt players in the exclusive club.
Rimando is looking to become the second player in MLS history to reach 100 shutouts. He’s currently in second-place on the MLS career shutouts list, trailing only unsigned ‘keeper Kevin Hartman, who has 112 regular season clean-sheets.
Good luck to both Kyle and Nick as they shoot for these huge marks at San Jose on Sunday.
After taking Monday and Tuesday off, Real Salt Lake returned to training on Wednesday ahead of Sunday's MLS regular season opener at defending Supporters' Shield winners San Jose Earthquakes.
RSL trained on Wednesday at the Utah Sports Lodge, putting in about 90 minutes of work on a turf field at the indoor facility before heading back to Rio Tinto Stadium. Missing from Wednesday's training were injured players Javier Morales and Chris Wingert as well as midfielder Luis Gil, who is traveling back to Salt Lake City on Wednesday from the CONCACAF U-20 Championship in Puebla, Mexico. Injured defender Nat Borchers was at the session, training individually on the sidelines throughout. Borchers is expected to be back in action in mid- to early-April.
RSL will train again in Utah on Thursday before departing for San Jose, where it will practice on Friday and Saturday. The Claret-and-Cobalt is hoping to train on Thursday at America First Field in Sandy, but may be forced indoors again due to weather conditions.
Sunday's season opener will kick off at 8 p.m. MT on CW30. The 30-minute Ford Pregame Show will begin at 7:30 p.m. MT on CW30.
Real Salt Lake color commentator Brian Dunseth had some interesting things to say about RSL’s depth during On Frame on ESPN 700 on Monday night, declaring that the Claret-and-Cobalt – despite all of its offseason changes – is unquestionably the deepest team in MLS.
“This is a much deeper team than it was last season,” Dunseth said. “I know that’s crazy to say, but for me this is the deepest team in Major League Soccer, hands down, no competition anywhere else.”
It’s easy to see where Dunny’s coming from. The Claret-and-Cobalt is stocked at nearly every position this year, going a solid four or five deep at forward, nine or 10 deep in the midfield and eight or nine deep in the defense. RSL even has some solid competition at the goalkeeper spot, with 2011 and 2012 MLS Cup winning ‘keeper Josh Saunders backing up RSL mainstay Nick Rimando.
All of that is a big change from last season, when RSL didn’t have many bench options at any position, let alone at all four.
“You look at over the last three, four years and RSL is one of the best teams in Major League Soccer,” Dunseth said. “Then you add Josh Saunders, who’s played in three out of the last four MLS Cup Finals for the L.A. Galaxy; Robbie Findley comes back; you get Joao Plata, arguably the most dynamic player in CONCACAF Champions League play from a MLS-based team last year; Lovel Palmer, a guy with MLS experience; Khari Stephenson, he’s slid in perfectly with this group; you add Cole Grossman, who’s played some games in Columbus; Rich Balchan, potentially, if he signs, the same thing; Aaron Maund from Toronto.
“Then you get to the draft picks. Devon Sandoval has been very, very good in a short amount of time in preseason. John Stertzer, he’s pro ready and we talked about this right after the draft, this kid can slot in and play. Then you have Olmes Garcia, a young physical talent who has all the capabilities in the world to be a good player.”
And those are just the new players. Dunseth didn’t even mention returnees Sebastian Velasquez – who looked very good in preseason – Kwame Watson-Siriboe, Kenny Mansally and Yordany Alvarez, all players who have proven that they can play in MLS and will get minutes in 2013.
“Right now, I just don’t see how you can argue the point,” Dunseth said. “This is the deepest team in Major League Soccer based on games played and experience.”
Real Salt Lake lost the Desert Diamond Cup Final 0-1 to Seattle Sounders FC on Saturday, giving up a goal from a counterattacking ball over the top. In a match in which the Claret-and-Cobalt dominated early proceedings and should have put at least a goal or two on the board, the story is less about winning and losing and more about preparation for the season's opener, now less than a week away.
Pacing the match
The first half saw both Real Salt Lake and Seattle creating chance after chance, with Marcus Hahnemann demonstrating that perhaps 40 isn't too old to play in goal in this league. Those chances came from across the field of play, with long shots nearly again making the difference. It's funny how that works.
The early pace of the game was frenetic, but it also saw three clear-cut chances for Real Salt Lake. Two of those were created from hopeful shots — one from Sebastian Velasquez and one from Kyle Beckerman — and the other was created from an Alvaro Saborio header. Inevitably, the side tired late on as many of them played their first consecutive 90 minutes of preseason — with the season roaring into view, that's essential.
The pacing suffered as a result, but the more important consideration was getting a fit group of players ready for a match on Sunday. Losing the Desert Diamond Cup stung ever-so-slightly — to our oft-repeated foes, no less — but in the end, the most important thing wasn't winning.
Defending the counter attack
Once again, we've seen this side fall to a counterattacking goal by Seattle, caught on the break with our defenders rather left to dry. A long ball over the top sprung Seattle, a spate of individual errors gave them an opportunity, and a good finish sealed the match.
It's a storyline that's been told and retold over the last few years. It's the danger of pushing men forward in attack, the inevitable downside of high-line defenses and high pressure. A little switch, perhaps, that would cue fullbacks in to those very dangerous moments would be magnificent here, but that hardly seems forthcoming. A bit more recognition of the danger posed by Seattle on the counter would have gone a long way.
Stepping up: The Velasquez 45
Sebastian Velasquez had perhaps the strongest 45 minutes of preseason he had so far — a good sign considering it was his final 45 of the preseason, and improvement over time is never a bad thing — impressing throughout with his ability on the ball and his still-developing vision.
Playing at the top of the diamond, where he's likely to start on Sunday, Velasquez ran the show. Plain and simple, he controlled the tempo, pacing and direction of Real Salt Lake's attack. His departure at the half gutted the side — a statement that speaks well of him and perhaps less so of the players who remained.
Real Salt Lake midfielder Luis Gil notched an assist in the U.S. Under-20 national team's 1-0 win over Costa Rica in the Group Stage of the CONCACAF U-20 Championship on Friday night.
Gil delivered the corner kick that L.A. Galaxy attacker Jose Villarreal nodded home in the 63rd minute. Friday night's win moved the U.S. to 2-0-0 in the Group Stage, giving the Stars-and-Stripes the Group A title.
The U.S. will now face Group B runners-up Canada in the CONCACAF U-20 Championship Quarterfinals on Feb. 26. The winner of that match will advance to this summer's 2013 FIFA U-20 World Cup in Turkey.
With just over a week to go before starting their 2013 MLS campaign, Real Salt Lake's opening-day roster is finally taking shape as the Claret-and-Cobalt have officially added GK Josh Saunders and MF Khari Stephenson to the mix. In an offseason where RSL brass clearly focused on adding young talent, Stephenson and Saunders bring a healthy dose of veteran leadership and experience to the team. Let's take a look at who these players are, what they bring to the table, and what roles they could fill throughout the year.
Stephenson is a 32-year-old attacking midfielder who has been playing professionally since he was picked 28th overall in the 2003 MLS SuperDraft by the Fire. After a brief stop in Kansas City, he decided to try his luck overseas and spent several years in Scandinavia with a couple of clubs. In 2010 he came back to MLS with San Jose and spent a total of three seasons there. He was a regular for the 'Quakes, appearing in 69 matches over three seasons and helping them win the Supporter's Shield last season.
The first thing you notice about Stephenson is that he doesn't look like an attacking mid - without knowing his position, you would probably guess he's a #9 or a center back. That's because, at 6'2", he towers over most creative mids. His size means he's difficult to separate from the ball, something that's not a strength of most MLS #10's. He has the good vision and solid technical ability requisite for his position, and he is willing and able to shoot from distance. We got our first taste of that a few nights ago as he struck a well-hit game-winner from 18 yards.
Stephenson is a versatile player who should be able to play three of the four midfield spots for RSL, and even fill in at striker in a pinch. He could be one of the first players off the bench for Jason Kreis, especially in matches where RSL is leading and needs to salt the game away. His strength on the ball and intelligent possession play should make him a valuable asset in those situations.
The 31-year-old Saunders is a guy who is well known by RSL fans - it was he who came into the 2009 MLS Cup final for L.A. in place of Donovan Ricketts. Of course, RSL came away victorious via penalties in that match, but it's hard to fault Saunders who saved two of seven RSL penalties. If it weren't for an even better performance from Nick Rimando, Saunders would have walked home a champion and a hero to L.A. fans. He didn't have to wait long, though; by 2011 Ricketts was gone and Saunders was the go-to guy, backstopping them to consecutive MLS Cup wins in 2011 and 2012.
Josh Saunders is your prototypical goalkeeper - huge (6'4"), athletic, and a vocal organizer of defenses. But what you have to love about Saunders - and no doubt appeals to Kreis too - is Saunders is a winner. As a pro he's been successful at the highest levels. Of course, soccer is a team sport and he's been fortunate to be on some great teams, but don't discount the confidence and attitude you get from a proven winner.
Saunders will be the clear No. 2 goalkeeper behind Nick Rimando. Obviously we hope Rimando stays healthy enough to play all year, but there are no guarantees, plus Rimando may miss some time if he gets called up by the U.S. national team for World Cup Qualifiers or this summer's CONCACAF Gold Cup. I would expect Saunders to get a handful of games this year in relief of Rimando. The addition of Saunders makes RSL's goalkeeper position the strongest in MLS in my opinion. How many other teams can say their backup GK has played in three MLS Cup finals, and won two of them?
How much of an impact Khari Stephenson and Josh Saunders make remains to be seen, but they will bring some needed experience and veteran savvy to this very young RSL squad.
A former RSL beat reporter for multiple outlets, Jeremy Horton is a regular contributor to RealSaltLake.com and helps cover the team for ESPN 700 AM