Thanks to Columbus’s win over Chivas USA on Wednesday night, Real Salt Lake will have a shot at clinching a place in the playoffs this weekend.
The Claret-and-Cobalt will lock up a spot in the postseason for the fifth-straight season with a win over the Portland Timbers on Saturday at Rio Tinto Stadium (Kickoff at 6 p.m. MT on NBC Sports Network). RSL is currently in fourth-place in the Western Conference, trailing the third-place L.A. Galaxy by virtue of the goals scored tiebreaker.
It’s vitally important that Real Salt Lake leapfrogs either L.A. or second-place Seattle - which is two points ahead of both RSL and L.A. and holds a game in hand on both sides – and nabs a top-three seed in the West. Finishing fourth would put RSL in a one off elimination game against the West’s fifth-seed, with the winner of that match advancing to the two-game Conference Semifinal series against the conference’s first-seed.
Playing in the 4-v-5 elimination game would make RSL’s road to MLS Cup very difficult, forcing the Claret-and-Cobalt to play seven games in 25 days just to get to the final. While not impossible, advancing through that brutal schedule would be a very tall order. Things would be much easier for RSL if they can grab a spot in the West’s top-three. Make sure you help the team get there by arriving at Rio Tinto Stadium in full voice – and early – for Saturday’s 6 p.m. kick.
RSL kept its CONCACAF Champions League hopes alive on Tuesday night, getting a last-minute penalty kick goal from forward Alvaro Saborio to win 1-0 at Tauro FC.
Here are some interesting numbers from the Claret-and-Cobalt’s victory in Panama City.
The minute referee Mauricio Morales whistled for RSL’s penalty, calling Tauro goalie Vladimir Villareal for a foul on Saborio inside the box. It was the second straight RSL game in which a decisive penalty kick was called in the 93rd minute after RSL goalie Nick Rimando was whistled for a PK – which was then converted – in the 93rd minute of the Claret-and-Cobalt’s 1-0 loss at Houston on Sept. 6.
The number of goals Saborio has scored in 91 games across all competitions for Real Salt Lake, the most in team history.
Saborio’s record from the penalty spot in his RSL career. The Costa Rican international had a bit of a scare on his spot kick on Tuesday night, as Villareal got both hands on the ball before deflecting it into the back of the net.
The number of yellow cards Saborio has picked up in the CCL Group Stage after getting cautioned in the second half of Tuesday's match. That total means that Saborio will be suspended for RSL's all-important Group 2 finale against first-place C.S. Herediano at Rio Tinto Stadium on Oct. 23.
The number of days RSL went between road victories before winning at Estadio Rommel Fernandez on Tuesday night. The Claret-and-Cobalt carried a seven-game road winless streak across all competitions into Tuesday’s match, with its last road win being the 3-0 victory on June 16 at Chivas USA.
The number of minutes RSL defender Jamison Olave played on Tuesday night. It was Olave’s first competitive action since he injured his hamstring during RSL’s CCL loss at C.S. Herediano on July 31.
RSL midfielder Ned Grabavoy’s pass completion percentage from Tuesday night. Grabavoy – who filled in for the suspended Kyle Beckerman at defensive midfielder against Tauro – completed 40 of 41 passes and added five pass interceptions.
The number of minutes Real Salt Lake midfielder Sebastian Velasquez played off the bench on Tuesday night. It was his first game action since coming off the bench in RSL’s loss at San Jose on July 14.
Facing a do-or-die scenario, RSL kept things tight until the death: The game-winning goal from Alvaro Saborio (how many times has that phrase been uttered, I wonder?) was the result of hard work from the whole side. That, in itself, wasn't entirely interesting from a tactical perspective, but like so many low-scoring battles, there was so much more to it than that.
No Kyle? No problem
Despite not seeing Kyle Beckerman or Yordany Alvarez, RSL never looked too troubled through the center of the pitch. Ned Grabavoy stepped up to the plate, serving up some good positioning and defensive awareness to scupper attacks through the middle.
Neither Beckerman's absence through yellow card suspension nor Alvarez's through continued troubles with the ever-tricky immigration process ensuing from his refugee status ended up troubling RSL too greatly. Against a bigger, more physically oriented side — the sort seen week-in, week-out in MLS — RSL may have been troubled, but Grabavoy's aerial abilities weren't much tested.
Grabavoy constantly kept RSL ticking, distributing short passes reliably – he was 40/41 passing on Tuesday – and picking up five interceptions.
Shifting sands of defense
Once again, Tauro rolled forward with a fascinating approach to their defending. Perhaps more defensively minded than they might be against lesser opponents, Gonzalo Soto's side ostensibly came out with three center backs and two wing backs, with one of the center backs generally pushing a bit higher in possession — but never beyond the ad hoc line created by the wing backs.
It is an odd system to face for a club like RSL that plays in a league whose sides all basically ape the indelibly British 4-4-2, with wingers and two forwards, one more creative and one more bruising. Although RSL certainly saw a little trouble defensively, that was more down to individual abilities and good combinations from Tauro players.
The heart of Tauro's system on Tuesday night rested in their coping with attacks; a relatively high line at times — one that was at times composed of two outright central defenders and three defensive midfielders (two quite wide), and at other times saw three center backs bound up tightly to prevent runs into channels from Fabian Espindola and Javier Morales.
It was, all told, a fantastic tactical performance that nearly denied RSL the win they so badly needed. But when they were pushed further and further back, gaps emerged. It was those gaps that saw RSL making its best chances of the night, but when Saborio received the ball on the right side of the penalty area in much the same manner as those chances, it came down to an individual mistake from Vladimir Villareal, Tauro's 19-year-old goalkeeper, who had been strong nearly all night.
Lacking in attack
It was in part down to a strong tactical outlay from Tauro and in part down to an odd reluctance to attack from deep, but RSL was found lacking in attack throughout the proceedings — save the last ten or so minutes, during which things took a positive turn and, in the end, produced a positive result.
Perhaps it was reluctance on the part of Wingert and Beltran to get forward — prompting the midfield to move with it — or perhaps it was an imbalance in the midfield's workings. It is difficult to exactly pinpoint where things went wrong, or perhaps it is that many smaller things went slightly wrong, provoking a confluence of concerns that saw RSL struggle.
With Morales struggling to distribute from the edge of the box, where he ostensibly does his finest work, and Espindola blocked from his runs in channels between defenders, the attack was weakened. Further, the full backs and central midfielders couldn't push as far forward, owing to the presence of wing backs, or, if you will, wide defensive midfielders.
Again, part of that was because Tauro were fantastic tactically, and part was just a slightly wary approach from the midfield.
A CONCACAF Champions League tie is once again upon Jason Kreis's RSL, and a trip off to the canal-laden land of Panama sees the Claret-and-Cobalt taking on Tauro FC. A win for the MLS side leaves them in the running for the top spot in — and the only one to escape from — Group 2, while anything less could well see angst-furrowed brows along the sidelines.
Tauro sat back and defended during RSL's 2-0 win over the Panamanian champs at Rio Tinto Stadium on Aug. 21. They'll need be more positive if they want to thwart RSL's plans on Tuesday and potentially move forward out of the group.
RSL will be doing it all on Tuesday without the services of their captain, Kyle Beckerman, who will miss the match due to a red card suspension picked up in that Aug. 21 win.
When last RSL met Tauro FC, they entered proceedings with a slightly unusual defensive — and offensive — twist, serving up a defensive line that at times held anywhere from three to five players, with overlaps in zones and midfield confusion erupting.
The unpredictability was brought into effect by midfielders dropping deeper and playing just in front of the defense, and in its wake, it disrupted any fluency the Panamanians tried to construct in the midfield. RSL, as a result, bossed the match without much issue — save, of course, creating goals from the run of play, which has been a spot of bother in recent weeks.
Whether those question marks will pop back into the picture may depend largely on Tauro's form and their ability to adjust formation properly and not haphazardly. It doesn't look encouraging for the Panamanians: They've notched only one win from five across all competitions since losing in Utah. Still, they've showed some goal scoring ability during those times, and RSL will need to be as defensively strong as ever.
Who will play holding mid?
After Kyle Beckerman's ejection in the home match with Tauro, RSL is left a little shorthanded in the middle of the park. With the club's captain absent, a replacement for one of the key positions will be essential — but just who that replacement will be throws out a question or two.
Under most circumstances, one might expect Yordany Alvarez to deputize; this season, he's done so with understanding and nous, save some shaky moments. Those shaky moments may be enough to push Jason Kreis toward someone with a bit more consistency in the form of Ned Grabavoy, who has been vaunted as the man for the job.
Grabavoy — more a link-up player than a defensive midfielder — has featured as holding mid a remarkable 12 times since joining the club, with RSL posting a 5-3-4 record when he plays in Beckerman's usual spot. He would offer more emphasis on attack than someone like Alvarez, who serves more as a hard-tackling, ball-winning midfielder. Of course, a side can't attack without first winning the ball — that simple fact may play into Kreis's decision.
Whoever lands at holding mid, the impetus will undoubtedly be on attack: A draw would inch RSL ever closer to a group stage exit, and a loss would certainly seal their fate. Kreis will certainly play all his cards looking for all three points.
As told to Zach Petersen
- My fiancé and I just had a baby girl. It’s something that you could read a million books and watch a million videos, but until she or he is there, that’s when you start learning. I thought I was prepared, but I wasn’t. When she was born the doctor hands me the diaper and says, “Do you want to change her?” I’m like, “Where does this go?” I was clueless. Even though I’m young, it’s still one of the best things that’s ever happened in my life.
- One of the things I love to do is help people. That’s always been my dream. My fiancé and I have a little charity soccer event that we do back home in South Carolina called “Kicking for a Cause.” It happened out of nowhere. It was three days before Christmas a few years ago. We met some kids that were in the same situation that I was in when I came to this country from Uruguay. They didn’t have much and their Christmas wasn’t going to be like Christmas should be for every kid. We decided to do something and sent emails to everyone we could asking for donations. Within three days we had a great response and filled up a Ford Explorer with food and toys and we gave each family $300. Two years ago we raised $2,000 and this last year we did the same thing. Hopefully this year we can do one here and we can take the money and gifts to kids in other countries. That’s the one thing I would love to be known for, is that I lend a hand to anyone and everyone, no matter who you are, no matter what you’ve done or what you will do.
- I have great friends on the team. Lalo Fernandez and Sebastian Velasquez used to live in the same apartment building, so we used to hang out all the time.
- I’ve known Sebastian for so long. We grew up playing together in South Carolina and it’s such a good relationship we have. We play the same position. Other people can easily turn away from friendship because they are competing every day. It’s not like that with us. I think the friendship will always be the same. It’s such a huge blessing to be able to be on the same team with him.
- I have a pretty crazy personality. At first, I’m very shy and very calm, but once I get to know you, more of me can come out and I’m very different.
- Right now life has really slowed down because of the baby. To be honest, I am one of those guys where I get home and I turn on Netflix and watch my shows. I’m happy that way. I love computers and things and we love to go out to eat.
- Utah is such a beautiful place. We love to go to Park City and through all of the back roads. It’s unbelievable. We have a dog, so we love to go to the park and take him there. My life isn’t extremely exciting but it’s fine for me.
- I’m learning a ton with the caliber of players I’m playing with every day. It’s good because they integrate you into the group. They don’t look at you as a kid or a first year. They try to teach and help you as much as possible.
- One of my favorite moments in soccer was when I was at the University of North Carolina where we were losing 1-0 and there were eight seconds left in the game and the ball popped out to me and I shot, scored and tied it up. Then we went into overtime and I got to take the fifth PK, scored and we won. When I celebrated, there was this photo of my mom, me and my brother and the fans. Being able to share that with them was amazing.
- I’ve had three people influence my life a ton: my dad, my religious influence David Benson and my high school coach Dom Wren. If it wasn’t for those three people I would not be here hands down. They’ve always been there in good times, bad times, really bad times and really good times. To be honest, Dom built me to the soccer player I am today. Those people have been really influential to my life.
File this in the unsurprising department: Real Salt Lake captain Kyle Beckerman is in the top-25 selling adidas MLS player jerseys on MLSgear.com, MLSgearCanada.ca and on MLS club websites. Beckerman's No. 5 shirt is ranked 22nd on the star-studded list, which you can check out by clicking here.
Fan-favorite Beckerman has been his usual stellar self this season, registering five goals and four assists in 27 games across all competitions for the Claret-and-Cobalt. The dreadlocked defensive midfielder was also a 2012 MLS All-Star, notching the game-winning assist in the All-Stars 2-1 win over UEFA Champions League title holders Chelsea FC in July.
Captain Kyle is currently with the U.S. national team in Columbus ahead of Tuesday’s World Cup Qualifying match against Jamaica. He’ll return to Salt Lake following the game and will resume training with RSL on Thursday.
Not quite sure how this slipped by us over the weekend, but RSL midfielder Will Johnson picked up a yellow card in Canada’s 1-0 World Cup Qualifying win over Panama in Toronto on Friday and will be suspended due to caution accumulation for the Canucks’ match at Panama on Tuesday.
Johnson didn’t travel with the Canadian team to Panama because of the suspension, instead returning to Salt Lake City to rejoin RSL. The feisty midfielder had the day off on Monday but will train fully with the first team starting on Tuesday.
Johnson wouldn’t have missed any RSL games had he traveled to Panama. RSL captain Kyle Beckerman (U.S.), goalie Nick Rimando (U.S.) and forward Alvaro Saborio (Costa Rica) are all still with their national teams and all have matches on Tuesday night.
The Claret-and-Cobalt return to action on Sept. 18, when they’ll travel to Panama – with Johnson – to take on Tauro FC in a virtual must-win CONCACAF Champions League Group Stage match.
It's always a frustrating night when an expected tactical approach from the opponent is abandoned in favor of something more, say, negative. Last night's match against Houston saw RSL facing up to a side abandoning their controlled style, making an already difficult job even more so.
Passing and Possession
Coming into the match, Kreis and company might have been expecting to face a Houston Dynamo team that tried to play in their possession-oriented style, but what they instead saw was a team reticent to pressure outside their own half. As a result, RSL was allowed huge swathes of possession, with the Dynamo rather content to sit back, clog the lanes, and watch their opponent pass the ball around the back line.
As a result, RSL's defensive passing measures are stellar: Neither Kwame Watson-Siriboe nor Nat Borchers put a pass wrong all night, with 95/95 passing between the two of them. That bears repeating: 95 for 95. No, it didn't cause RSL to win the match, and no, it didn't cause anyone to score a goal, but these things should be applauded.
In fact, it wouldn't be a stretch to say that most of RSL's players completed more passes in this single game than they have in any other game this season. Houston were entirely content letting play just sort of pass them by, which, given their predilection for control, was almost a shocker.
How do you solve a problem like Javier?
Javier Morales, generally the key to unlocking tight defenses plaguing RSL, needs to be on-song when those passing lanes are clogged — or, at the very least, other midfielders need to step up. But when two of four starting midfielders are absent, the weight bears down a little more on Javier's shoulders, and it's not always going to work out perfectly.
So without a massively creative midfield, RSL was always likely to struggle — but one of the options that can start to correct that is more thrust from the full backs. This doesn't always play out as a "swing crosses in" sort of thing, but the amount of space created when wide options are present is a difference-maker. Opposing full backs are pulled out, midfielders get a little extra space, and those vital runs are ever-so-slightly easier.
With only one veritable full back on the pitch in Tony Beltran and the opposite flank filled by a center back only just returning from a 117-day layoff, attacking up the flanks was a bit harder. Beltran got forward well on occasion but showed a bit of reluctance to step too far, perhaps as he was wary of a counterattacking threat, and Chris Schuler's attacking effort was metered to put forward a 90-minute effort.
As such, without huge amounts of midfield creativity, and without much attack from the flanks, RSL found it difficult to get past the two banks of Houston players and through on goal. That may well have come down to one major factor: Absences.
Absences and what they meant
Without Kyle Beckerman's deep-lying playmaking abilities and Chris Wingert's flank work, RSL was found a bit lacking in two vital areas. Throw in absences to Alvaro Saborio and Will Johnson, and you're out finishing and a bit of drive. It's not as if RSL was particularly lacking drive, but the other three absences made a difference — maybe one of a scant few percentage points, but sometimes, that's all that's needed to push on.
Despite putting in a very solid road effort, the Claret-and-Cobalt fell 1-0 at the Houston Dynamo on Thursday night. Here are a few interesting numbers from RSL’s defeat at BBVA Compass Stadium.
Real Salt Lake’s all-time record when playing the Dynamo in Houston. All eight of the Claret-and-Cobalt’s losses in the Bayou City have come by one goal. RSL is now 0-18-3 all-time in the state of Texas.
The minute that Houston midfielder Colin Clark pounded home his penalty kick – Houston’s second of the game – to give the Dynamo the 1-0 win. It was the second-straight RSL at Houston match that saw the Dynamo score a game-winning goal in second half stoppage time – midfielder Alex Dixon hit a 93rd minute strike to give Houston a 3-2 win over the Claret-and-Cobalt on Aug. 20 of last year.
RSL goalie Nick Rimando’s career mark against PK's in the MLS regular season. Rimando – who will fly back to Salt Lake with the team before joining the U.S. national squad in Columbus ahead of their Sept. 11 World Cup Qualifier against Jamaica – was 1-for-2 on PK’s last night, heroically saving Brad Davis’ effort in the 75th minute before losing out against Clark. Rimando’s 29.8 percent save percentage against PK’s is the best in MLS history.
The number of saves made by Rimando and Houston ‘keeper Tally Hall, both of whom had excellent games. Rimando and Hall both made a pair of incredible stops late in the second half, with Rimando blocking Davis’ PK in the 75th before stoning Dynamo forward Will Bruin’s free header from inside the six in the 82nd and Hall keeping out RSL defender Nat Borchers’s header in the 79th before stopping a 1-v-1 chance from midfielder Ned Grabavoy in the 89th.
Days between games for RSL defender Chris Schuler. Schuler returned to the field for a full 90 on Thursday night nearly four months after suffering a stress fracture in his left foot. The big defender last played on May 12, putting in 70 minutes off the bench in RSL’s 1-0 win at Seattle.
If a body meets a body, and those two bodies happen to play effective possession and passing soccer, such an affair might be considering scintillating. With Real Salt Lake arriving in Houston to take on the Dynamo, the two sides, neither of which are lacking in personality on the pitch, are sitting atop some interesting statistical tables.
These two teams, while both insisting on high rates of possession and passing, exemplify the diversity of styles of play. RSL are the forceful, hard-tackling side, while the Dynamo may look to move the ball around a bit more.
Passing and possession
Houston Dynamo have perhaps been found lacking in cutting thrust at times (evidenced by their 9 draws and 7 losses), which is surprising given their domineering possession, which sits at a lofty 56.6 percent on average. To further make things interesting, their possession average goes up even more when they win (57.5 percent) and down when they lose (54.1 percent) but they always remain quite high up there.
RSL is currently sitting at 53.8 percent on average, with greater possession averages clocking up during losses (55 percent) than wins (53 percent). Given the nature of possession (when one side has it, the other does not), one of these two sides will come out with a lower-than-average possession percentage.
Houston is also the safest-passing side in the league, with 82 percent of their passes finding their target and an average pass count of 478 per match. RSL isn't too far behind, with 81 percent pass accuracy and 441 passes per match.
While this doesn't speak heavily to a claim about the efficacy of such techniques, the fact that the amount of passing on average doesn't change much between wins and losses speaks to a certain dogged commitment to a style. Houston is flying under the radar a bit for this, while RSL has that particular approach bandied about both positively and negatively.
Fouls and bookings
The Dynamo, for all their possession, are one of the least-fouling sides in the league — third from the bottom with 10.7 per match. RSL is sitting a bit higher at 13 per match on average. But that's all made a bit more fascinating by yellow cards issued: Houston have — by some number — seen the fewest yellow cards this season, with 23 being shown. As a point of counterbalance, RSL has seen 51 this season; San Jose, 50; and Vancouver, 57.
This leaves the Dynamo at 12.6 fouls averaged per yellow card shown. Whether this is owing to better tackling technique (although the tackle-won percentage isn't significantly higher than RSL's — 82 percent to 80 percent) or some other factor is hard to easily say. RSL's reverse of that, with 7.2 fouls per yellow card issued, will certainly be a consideration for Jason Kreis.
Absences and returns
Any hope for a boost in form pushed along by RSL's starting contingent will have gone out the window by now, with Kyle Beckerman, Will Johnson and Alvaro Saborio absent through international duty, and Chris Wingert out with yellow card accumulation. It will likely be another one of those depth-tests.
It could also lead to some shifts in the defense, with Chris Schuler inching closer to a full return, Kenny Mansally recovering quickly, and Jamison Olave working his way back. Though Olave seems likely to rest in a bid for full fitness following the long break, the lanky Schuler may well be handed a start on the left defensive flank.