The biggest win of the season, at least if we're talking in pure numbers, came on Saturday when RSL hit Chivas USA for a dominant 4-0 victory. It was the first sight of the RSL we know and love in weeks — months, maybe. The killer instinct, the eye for a pass: It was all there on display.
Fabian Espindola and the Assist Hat Trick
If you'd told me we'd see a player grab the first "assist hat trick" in RSL history, I'd have nodded knowingly. "Yes, yes. Javier Morales is quite amazing, isn't he?" And while my specific statement wouldn't be untrue — he is quite amazing — I wouldn't be quite right. So I do a double take: Fabian Espindola. The long-haired, mercurial striker sometimes accused of being too "selfish" with three assists? Say it ain't so.
It was perhaps one of Espindola's brightest games in an RSL kit. He was darting to and fro, popping up on the left and on the right, serving as the immaculate second striker. Of course, he was helped along by a poacher's performance from Alvaro Saborio, who made the perfect runs, and Javier Morales, who pulled defenders to and fro as he is known to do.
Was it something tactical that enabled this? It's hard to say — but with Luis Gil pushing forward, Javier Morales was given a bit more room to create, Chivas USA defenders were forced to scramble and defend — and most importantly, Espindola constantly drew two or three defenders. As such, his ability to get good passes off meant Chivas was short defenders, as they were drawn wide. It's what I call the Fabi Effect.
One for the record books
Two big records were set on Saturday. The first: Fabian Espindola's three assists are the most assists recorded for an RSL player in a single match. The second: Alvaro Saborio became the first RSL player to score multiple hat tricks. It was the club's fourth overall, and if you are to look at the players who helped transform the club, he's one of them.
Even cooler: With his 17th goal of the season, Alvaro Saborio has now scored more goals in a single season than any other Real Salt Lake player, beating out Jeff Cunningham's 2006 record of 16. He's unlikely to win the Golden Boot (very unlikely, even) with San Jose’s Chris Wondolowski a remarkable five goals ahead at 22.
Absentees and Replacements
Ned out, Gil in: With Ned Grabavoy out through injury, Jason Kreis handed Luis Gil an opportunity to impress. Impress he did, although in the miserable 25 minutes — from 20 to 45, by my count — he wasn't tracking back properly. It wasn't what caused problems for the side, but it didn't help. We saw a hugely improved performance on that side in the second half, and if he can continue to make performances like those final 45 minutes, he has a bright future yet.
Olave out, Schuler in: With Jamison Olave out with yellow card suspension, Chris Schuler stepped in and ably handled what came his way. Still, what came his way — and Nat Borchers' way, for that matter — wasn't much, and there was nothing entirely too dangerous about the Chivas attack on Saturday.
Real Salt Lake put in a dominant performance on Saturday night, scoring two goals in the first 12 minutes on its way to beating Chivas USA 4-0 at the Home Depot Center.
Here are some interesting numbers from the Claret-and-Cobalt’s victory in Southern California.
The number of goals scored by RSL forward Álvaro Saborío in Saturday’s game. The hat trick was Saborio’s second of the season – he bagged three goals in the 3-0 win over Portland on July 7 – and just the fourth in RSL history.
The number of goals Saborío has scored in 29 league games this year – the best-ever single-season haul by a RSL player. Saborío’s Saturday hat trick broke the single-season record previously held by former Claret-and-Cobalt forward Jeff Cunningham, who led the league with 16 goals in 2006.
The number of multi-goal games Saborío has in 91 career matches across all competitions for RSL. The Claret-and-Cobalt is now 30-5-5 all-time in games in which the Costa Rican international scores.
The number of assists RSL forward Fabían Espíndola had on Saturday night. It was the first time in RSL's 249-game MLS history that one player had three assists in a match.
The number of goals allowed by RSL on Saturday, the team’s fifth shutout in its last seven matches across all competitions. Claret-and-Cobalt goalie Nick Rimando tied his season-high with six saves to earn Saturday’s clean sheet – the 98th of his illustrious MLS career, putting him second behind FC Dallas goalie Kevin Hartman
RSL’s current seed in the Western Conference standings. The Claret-and-Cobalt – which entered the weekend in third in the West – is two points ahead of L.A. and three ahead of Seattle after both teams tied this weekend.
RSL’s 2012 point total. The club has now earned at least 50 points in three-consecutive seasons, joining the 2005/06/07 D.C. United squads and the 2010/11/12 L.A. Galaxy sides – who reached the milestone by drawing 1-1 at Colorado on Sunday night – as the only teams in MLS history with that unique distinction.
The number of wins Real Salt Lake has this year – another single-season club record. The 16-win total is one higher than the 15 the Claret-and-Cobalt had in 2010 and 2011. RSL has three regular season games remaining to add to its new club-record total.
The number of wins Real Salt Lake now has at the Home Depot Center. RSL – which has 24 MLS road wins in club history – will return to the HDC this coming Saturday for a crucial match against the L.A. Galaxy.
Conference opponents and expansion compatriots Chivas USA currently has the worst record in the West — and Real Salt Lake wants to keep it that way. With four games remaining in the regular season, the third-place Claret-and-Cobalt will be looking to improve its standing in its battle for a top-three seed in the West before the playoffs begin in just over a month’s time.
Familiar foes failing to find their feet
Having met Chivas twice already in 2012, you'd think Real Salt Lake would be in a strong position to predict the Goats outlay and approach. But the hapless Southern California side – which, despite expectations that they were in a position to improve this year, has barely a half-chance to reach the points total achieved in 2011 – seems to not quite know itself.
That makes for a tetchy occasion, with Chivas USA’s unpredictable nature likely to create some concerns. Robin Fraser, former RSL assistant coach and second-year Chivas head coach, knows Jason Kreis's persuasions like few others in the league; while this may give a slight tactical advantage to the Goats, they have found tactical execution a difficult concern.
Jason Kreis, as is his wont, will undoubtedly roll out in the same narrow-diamond-midfield approach — his single deviation from it in several years coming this season, though it wasn't a significant shift — and the onus will be on Fraser and company to deal with it. That proactive approach defines Jason Kreis.
Who replaces Grabavoy?
With carrilero Ned Grabavoy apparently out for the contest with a quad injury, the right-sided box-to-box role is up for grabs. In recent contests, Jason Kreis has shown a penchant for picking Luis Gil there — his attacking play perhaps the tipping factor — but Jonny Steele will be hopeful to get a look in.
The position, a possession-based one that requires a unique combination of calm and bite, has been perhaps transforming into something less one-sided in recent months, leaving the biggest shout for Luis Gil, who has a knack for finding the right spots at the right times.
With Will Johnson on the left, the need for another high-energy defensively minded player is abated, leaving Jonny Steele with less of a chance to start: The Northern Irish midfielder has bite to his game and gets across the pitch well, but is sometimes found lacking in possession — all told, he is simply too similar to Will Johnson, and this hurts his starting chances.
Olave out, Schuler back
With Jamison Olave out through yellow card accumulation, a new defensive pairing emerges again. Chris Schuler is set to make his second start since an unfortunate foot injury, this time playing in the middle – he went the full 90 at left back in his first game back from injury on Sept. 6 – alongside experienced head Nat Borchers. Schuler, a prodigious talent himself, shouldn't find it difficult alongside the veteran.
With Schuler returning, Olave approaching full fitness, and Nat Borchers remaining a steadying influence at the back, Kwame Watson-Siriboe, upon his return from injury, will find competition for places a challenging task. Until then, Kreis can count himself slightly lucky: Every time one of his center backs has gone injured or absent through suspension — save for a spell when Chris Wingert was played there — another has made a step up to fitness (or, in the case of Kwame Watson-Siriboe, arrived at the club in the first place.)
For all of you gamers out there: Below is a hi-resolution downloadable cover featuring RSL captain - and, undoubtedly, Utah's favorite fisherman - Kyle Beckerman for your brand new FIFA 13 game.
Oddly enough, Beckerman isn't the only RSL employee to grace the cover of EA Sports' FIFA franchise. Claret-and-Cobalt General Manager Garth Lagerwey - then playing as a goalie for the now defunct Miami Fusion - was featured in an action shot on the back cover of a late '90's edition of FIFA for PC. Lagerwey says he was very surprised when he first saw himself on the game box, doing a double take before confirming that it was in fact his No. 26 jersey in the screenshot.
We highly doubt that Lagerwey's cover is still available anywhere, but you can snag Beckerman's cover by by right-clicking the below image and choosing 'save image as' to download.
Real Salt Lake’s attention will be turned to Costa Rica for Tuesday night’s CONCACAF Champions League Group 2 match between C.S. Herediano and Panamanian side Tauro FC.
The game has major implications for Group 2. For tiebreaking reasons we’ll get into further on Wednesday, second-place RSL will be hoping that visiting Tauro – which has already been eliminated from contention for the Quarters and will play its last CCL match Tuesday night – will either pick up a result or lose by just one goal at first-place Herediano, which takes on RSL in what will be the decisive Group 2 finale at Rio Tinto Stadium on Oct. 23.
Kickoff for Tuesday’s match is at 8 p.m. MT at Estadio Nacional de Costa Rica in San Jose. You can check out a live stream of the game over at CONCACAF.com.
Update: Herediano beat Tauro 2-1 on Tuesday. RSL will have to beat Herediano either 1-0 or by two goals in the Group 2 finale at Rio Tinto Stadium on Oct. 23 to win the group and advance to the CCL Quarterfinals. Click here for a full breakdown of RSL's CCL situation.
Fully updated Group 2 standings are below:
|Real Salt Lake||3||2||1||0||3||1||2||6|
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.
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.