Bouncing back from a painful cup exit is a difficult thing to do for any side, but the Claret-and-Cobalt will want to avoid the "continental hangover" effect against Vancouver Whitecaps FC at Rio Tinto Stadium on Saturday.
With the match the final regular season contest before the start of MLS Cup playoffs, three questions will be on the top of Jason Kreis's mind: How does RSL approach the match? What personnel should be used, and who is available? And, finally: How does regular season form sit in the priority?
As detailed in Thursday's post on The Sovereign, there's plenty left to play for, even when we're just talking about the regular season. The pain of losing against Herediano is still there, but as it so often does, time marches on and the Claret-and-Cobalt are being pushed into another meaningful match. Despite the subdued build-up — it's hard to imagine it's easy to escalate after this week — it could still potentially affect RSL's ability to host the MLS Cup and to qualify for CONCACAF Champions League.
As such, finding the right balance will be critical for Jason Kreis. As much as fans have had a hard week, the players will feel it doubly so, and whether that's best solved by putting them in a high-pressure scenario or by having them relax a bit and just play is hard to really say effectively. This is, as they say, why he's paid the big bucks.
With two additional injury concerns coming out of the Herediano match, Jason Kreis has more than the approach to the match to worry about. Both Will Johnson and Chris Schuler came out of the match because of injury, and with Jamison Olave and Ned Grabavoy kept out of proceedings altogether on Tuesday, pickings are looking slim.
If Schuler and Olave are both out, it seems likely that Kwame Watson-Siriboe would be used if fit — but at this point, that may be a fairly substantial "if." The only other immediate option would be to push Chris Wingert inside, dropping Kenny Mansally in at left back.
If Grabavoy is indeed out, Luis Gil (if sufficiently recovered from mid-week and from illness) would almost certainly take his place; if Will Johnson is out, it's hard to look past Jonny Steele — if just for defensive contribution. Steele has, to my mind, received a lot of criticism for his play, some of it justified — but his work rate and defensive ability are the closest available in midfield next to Will Johnson's.
It's often bandied about that form is the deciding factor moving into playoffs, sometimes with some evidence, other times with significantly less than that. Regardless, RSL will want to keep Vancouver's form spotty — in their last nine matches, they've won just once, a solitary 4-0 victory over Western Conference whipping boys Chivas USA. Further, it seems odd, but with a win, RSL could find their best form since June.
After Real Salt Lake failed to win their last six matches to end 2011, there were concerns about the ability of the squad to respond positively in the playoffs. A strong win at home against Seattle aside, there wasn't much momentum to carry forward.
Regardless of the statistical realities (or irrealities, as the case may be) of form leading into playoffs, it stands to reckon that keeping his troops injury-free will be high on the priority list for Jason Kreis. If he's to go into playoffs with only one recognized center back available, an overwhelming sense of deja vu will pass over all of Utah. That may be as much an influencing factor as anything.
Tuesday night’s scoreless draw against C.S. Herediano may have eliminated Real Salt Lake from this year's CONCACAF Champions League, but the team still has plenty left to play for before the MLS Cup Playoffs begin next week.
RSL will take on Vancouver Whitecaps FC at Rio Tinto Stadium in the MLS regular season finale on Saturday (Kickoff at 7 p.m. MT on CW30), and playoff seeding, potential MLS Cup hosting and qualification for next year’s CCL could very well all be on the line.
We’ll start with playoff seeding. The Claret-and-Cobalt currently sits in third-place in the Western Conference, tied on points with Seattle but trailing Sounders FC by virtue of the goals scored tiebreaker. Barring a big blowout win on Saturday, RSL won’t be able to make up the five goals it trails Seattle by to win the tiebreaker. That means that the Utah side needs to get a better result than Sounders FC does this weekend – the Cascadia club plays at L.A. on Sunday night – in order to finish with the West's second-seed.
Finishing second in the West would mean that RSL would host the second-leg of its Western Conference Semifinal series against Seattle. Finishing third would mean the team would host the first-leg and travel to the Pacific Northwest for the second.
Hosting MLS Cup
The league made a change to the MLS Cup format this year, switching the host site from a neutral venue to the home stadium of the team with a higher point total. If RSL should make it to Cup, it would need to have a higher point total than the Eastern Conference champ in order to host the final at Rio Tinto Stadium.
The only team in the East that RSL cannot finish above is Sporting Kansas City, which is seven points ahead of the Claret-and-Cobalt. Things are a lot tighter with D.C., Chicago, New York and Houston, all of which could finish above or below Real Salt Lake depending on how things go this weekend.
Here’s how it breaks down: If RSL beats Vancouver on Saturday, it will finish the season with 59 points. That will automatically put the team ahead of New York and Houston. It won’t, however, necessarily put the team ahead of Chicago or D.C., which play each other at Toyota Park on Saturday.
D.C. would finish one point ahead of RSL if both teams win, Chicago – which right now has one fewer goal scored than RSL – would tie RSL if both win, and RSL would finish ahead of both D.C. and the Fire should those two teams draw.
RSL could finish behind all five Eastern Conference teams – thereby eliminating any chance of hosting MLS Cup – should it lose on Saturday.
Two of the four American slots for the 2013/14 CONCACAF Champions League have already been filled. The first was taken by Kansas City, which qualified by winning the U.S. Open Cup in August. The second was filled by the San Jose Earthquakes, which nabbed a spot by winning the MLS Supporters’ Shield.
The two remaining American CCL spots will go to the teams that qualify for MLS Cup. Because San Jose and Kansas City have already qualified for the CCL, if either/both of those teams make it to Cup, the remaining CCL spot(s) – one or two, depending on if one or both make it to Cup – would go to the team(s) that finished with the next highest regular season point total.
All of that means that RSL - currently fifth in the league table - can qualify for the 2013/14 CCL by: A) Making it to MLS Cup B) Finishing third in the MLS regular season standings with one of San Jose or Kansas City making MLS Cup or C) Finishing third or fourth in the MLS regular season standings with both San Jose and Kansas City making MLS Cup.
Got all that? Great.
We'll be back next week with a full rundown of how everything shook out.
Tactics are only a piece of the puzzle in a soccer match, but in the case of Real Salt Lake’s scoreless draw with Herediano on Tuesday that eliminated the Claret-and-Cobalt from the CONCACAF Champions League, they were perhaps the most important piece.
The first 45
The first half of the match was riddled with shots from RSL. Forward Fabian Espindola had golden opportunity bounce off the crossbar for the team’s most prominent chance. It was perhaps frustrating that none of the seven shots on target translated into goals, but that's less a tactical concern and more an execution concern.
Herediano had left RSL with space around the outside of the box, and with this, they were able to make connecting passes and burst inside. More than half of RSL's passes were in the attack half, and from this, a plethora of shots were on hand. Six of the 12 shots came from inside the box, and four of those were on the left side. Fabian Espindola was having a screamer, despite his crossbar-struck shot.
Additionally, RSL did really well to pick up on any danger provided by Herediano, who hadn't yet begun the bunkering process. Aware that a goal would do them well, they got forward, sometimes in numbers. But eight interceptions and 20 clearances in the first half alone is indicative of a home side playing to its defensive strengths.
The second 45
The second half saw the entire dynamic of the match shift. Herediano tucked into an even more narrow shape, surrendered possession until very late, and resorted to a bunkering approach. With anywhere between six and ten men in the box at any given moment, they had a distinct advantage in defending approach play.
When RSL's options were limited by injury — Will Johnson and Chris Schuler both exiting — Kreis's substitution options were significantly limited. Sebastian Velasquez was the sole truly attacking substitution, and while he was able to work into some excellent positions, one or two more attacking subs would have certainly helped.
As time started to run out, Herediano shifted its approach slightly: The players took opportunity to retain possession and move toward the corner flags. It was very much a standard approach of a side looking to retain a scoreline, and it certainly played into their hands. RSL was forced to send men back to regain possession, and from there, the attacking setup was broken up.
By the time RSL could transition back into attack, Herediano had eaten valuable time off the clock. It was a strong way for the visitors to end the match, and it scuppered any thought of a late goal from the home side, ending RSL’s CCL dream.
Real Salt Lake put in a good effort, but couldn’t find the back of the net on Tuesday night, tying Costa Rican side C.S. Herediano 0-0 in the Group 2 finale to fall out of the CONCACAF Champions League.
Here are a few interesting numbers from the match:
The number of fans who braved the cold and the rain to come out to Rio Tinto Stadium on Tuesday night. It was the fifth-consecutive sell-out and 10th full house of the year for RSL, both club records.
Thanks so much for your support, RSL fans.
Minutes since RSL last gave up a goal. The Claret-and-Cobalt hasn’t conceded since allowing L.A. forward Robbie Keane to score in the 17th minute of RSL’s 2-1 win at the Galaxy on Oct. 6.
The number of key passes – defined as a pass that leads to a shot – for RSL midfielder Javier Morales on Tuesday night.
The number of shots RSL took on Tuesday night compared to the number of shots Herediano took on Tuesday night.
The difference in the number of successful passes for RSL – which had 473 completed balls – and Herediano – which had 172 – on Tuesday night.
The number of weeks until RSL begins its Western Conference Semifinal series against Seattle Sounders FC. Specific dates, times, seeds and broadcast info for the home-and-home series have yet to be determined.
The players see it. They know how you’ve embraced this team and they know how you’ve – unlike any other fan-base in the league, perhaps unlike any other in the entire region – embraced this tournament.
They know how badly you want Tuesday night’s must-win CONCACAF Champions League Group Stage finale against Costa Rican club C.S. Herediano. They want it just as much, both for themselves and for you, too.
“This needs to happen for our fan-base,” midfielder Will Johnson told reporters a few days ago. “They have adopted the CONCACAF Champions League like no other fan-base in the league. They believe in it. They love the tournament, as we do. So for us to continue on in that tournament for our fans is very important."
If RSL is to win either 1-0 or by multiple goals on Tuesday night to win Group 2 and advance to the CCL Quarterfinals, they’ll need all of your support. Believe it or not, it really does make a difference.
“With our fan base behind us, I really feel they’ll be the ones that can push us over the top,” Johnson told media.
For those of you coming out to Rio Tinto Stadium for the 8 p.m. match, show up early. Be loud. Propel RSL on to victory. Remember that this is the team’s biggest game of the year - possibly the biggest since the 2011 CCL final against Monterrey. They need you tonight.
Keep on being the great fans you’ve been all year.
And, as always, #Believe.
Real Salt Lake faces an absolute must-win on Tuesday night, when it will take on C.S. Herediano in a decisive CONCACAF Champions League Group 2 match. Of course, few things lead to a loss of tactical cohesion quite like these must-win games. RSL will have to stay supremely focused in several areas if it's to get the result it needs at Rio Tinto Stadium on Tuesday.
Posturing: Defensive or offensive
In order to progress, Jason Kreis's side must win by either a 1-0 scoreline or by two clear goals. It's one of those tough scenarios that requires some intense concentration from all involved. It raises questions about the approach to the match.
As a first option, RSL could score a goal then opt for a more defensive posture, as a single goal by Herediano brings the necessary scoreline to 3-1 — it could be a big ask against a defensively resolute side. With Jamison Olave a doubt, a usually solid partnership of Nat Borchers of Chris Schuler could be tested significantly.
As a second option, RSL could go in guns blazing, secure in the knowledge that regardless, they'll need at least a goal to go forward — and there are few better ways to get a goal than to simply go for it.
Defender Nat Borchers — unsurprisingly — would choose the first option: "We're going to have some patience, just make sure everything's switched on defensively, and the goals are going to come."
Missing puzzle pieces
With Alvaro Saborio out through yellow card accumulation, and Fabian Espindola and Jamison Olave in doubt for Tuesday, Jason Kreis will certainly be wringing his hands over the decisions he'll soon be forced to make.
Saborio's absence is perhaps the biggest: RSL's leading goalscorer — this season, in CONCACAF Champions League, and overall — is certain to be missed, as there are no other real hold-up players on the team. Justin Braun will be hoping to fill that role, but until his on-ball ability reaches a higher level, he may struggle for minutes.
Fabian Espindola's potential absence, compounded with Saborio's, would be doubly concerning: Already, Paulo Jr. is likely to start, but having him in as the available-first-choice striker would necessitate a potential shift in approach. With both Saborio and Espindola absent, RSL would be forced into either changing shape, continuing with Emiliano Bonfigli, or giving Justin Braun a chance.
An absence to Olave would be the easiest to solve: Chris Schuler has shown well since returning from his foot injury, and I suspect if called upon, he'd continue that fine form.
Approach play from the midfield
With some shift in personnel inevitable, the key will likely be in the play of Will Johnson and, should he be deemed fit, Ned Grabavoy. Both would need to get forward at will, burst into the box, and connect with Javier Morales.
This would abdicate some responsibility on the forwards, leaving less need to swing long balls in and providing more work for Herediano's defensive line. As they'll be secure with a draw, RSL will need to apply significant pressure there.
It will be the second-consecutive year that RSL will face the Sounders in the Western Conference Semis. We all remember last year’s series: The Claret-and-Cobalt turned in a dominating 3-0 win at Rio Tinto Stadium in the first leg and held on in Seattle to win 3-2 on aggregate and advance to the Western Conference Finals.
We’ll be back soon to talk about RSL’s huge, must-win CONCACAF Champions League match against C.S. Herediano at Rio Tinto Stadium on Tuesday night.
Kyle Beckerman and Nick Rimando were back. Paulo Jr. was withdrawn from the lineup through injury. Emiliano Bonfigli was handed his first start. With the story lines set in motion, one fell swoop of a red card changed everything.
Cards change games
It's pretty obvious, of course, that a red card changes the dynamic of a match. When Zach Scott was sent off in the 30th minute, Seattle went from thrusting forward in attack with aplomb but losing out in tempo to being further and further packed into its own half, with two reasonably flat lines of four players providing a difficult wall to break down.
Despite throwing on a second and third attacking midfielder (first Sebastian Velasquez, then David Viana), Kreis's side couldn't cut through the mess of players. Sebastian Velasquez had some good moments on the ball and nearly had a goal and David Viana had some great approach play, but without a big man in the box to hoist crosses toward, RSL had to attack on the ground, and Seattle did just enough to get by.
Despite the complaints of Seattle coach Sigi Schmid, the two yellows and subsequent red were both justified. The first came for Scott’s takedown of Fabian Espindola on the flank during a breakaway, and the second came when he crunched into Javier Morales from the back.
Breaking down the walls
It's easy to disparage the team after failing to capitalize on a man advantage, but that stream of thought tends to ignore the surprising defensive solidity of Seattle. By packing eight outfielders into a tight area, Seattle was able to effectively clog the passing lanes and restrict the movement of RSL's midfield.
As a result, Javier Morales was forced to drop deep, and Luis Gil and Jonny Steele were both pushed wide as they tried to break through. The introduction of Velasquez and Viana wasn't decisive, but with three players on the pitch capable of invention and close control, RSL looked significantly more likely to find the gaps. It's no coincidence that the best chances came after the 80th minute, when the method of approach was changed significantly.
Playing in a free role, Velasquez was able to take up positions both deep and in the box, confusing markers and disrupting continuity. It nearly paid off when he had a shot bobble off Michael Gspurning deep into stoppage time.
Kyle Beckerman the pass master
RSL's captain and chief deep-lying playmaker hardly put a foot wrong against Seattle. His efforts can be boiled down into one statistic: 123 passes accurately completed, 137 attempted. It's the first time this season that any one player has completed 100 or more passes in one MLS match this year.
That he did this all after flying into Seattle late Tuesday night after a national team camp is even more remarkable. He may not have played, but match preparation isn't exactly a zero-effort thing.
The captain can hold his head high after that performance. He was in rare form.
Real Salt Lake picked up a valuable point on Wednesday night, moving closer to clinching a top-three seed in the Western Conference by playing 10-man Seattle Sounders FC to a 0-0 draw at CenturyLink Field.
Here are some interesting numbers from the match:
The number of points RSL needs in its season-finale against Vancouver at Rio Tinto Stadium on Oct. 27 to clinch a top-three seed in the Western Conference and avoid the 4-v-5 seed knockout game. The Claret-and-Cobalt would also clinch a spot in the top-three with a loss or tie by fourth-place L.A. in either of its remaining two games.
The number of goals RSL conceded in three games against Seattle this season.
RSL’s record in its last nine games across all competitions. The Claret-and-Cobalt is unbeaten in its last five matches.
The number of goals Real Salt Lake has given up in its last nine games. In all, RSL has outscored its opposition 12-3 in those last nine games across all competitions.
The number of passes RSL captain Kyle Beckerman completed on Wednesday night, the highest single-game total of any MLS player this year. In all, Beckerman – who flew into Seattle late Tuesday night/early Wednesday morning on a plane chartered by RSL ownership after dressing in the U.S.’s 3-1 win over Guatemala in Kansas City on Tuesday – was 123 for 137 on Wednesday night. He was the first MLS player this year to surpass 100 passes completed in a match.
The number of career shutouts RSL goalie Nick Rimando has after Wednesday’s clean sheet. That total is second in MLS history, trailing only FC Dallas ‘keeper Kevin Hartman.
The number of minutes RSL forward Emiliano Bonfigli played on Wednesday night, the most he’s played in any MLS game this year. Wednesday’s game was Bonfigli’s first-ever start for RSL.
The minute in which RSL midfielder David Viana entered Wednesday’s match. It was the RSL/MLS debut for Viana, who signed with the Claret-and-Cobalt on Sept. 15.
Real Salt Lake and Seattle Sounders are two sides of the same coin: Both are known in MLS for their attacking play, but the former represents a build-through-the-middle mentality, and the latter one more focused on building from wide. As it has so many times since Seattle came into the league, this clash of styles is sure to result in some scintillating play.
But for all the attacking mentality in the world, though, both sides will be suffering from international absences — RSL unarguably more so than the Western Conference rivals.
Coping with absences
The first and most important question is likely how Jason Kreis will deal with the absences of Will Johnson, Alvaro Saborio, Ned Grabavoy, and likely Nick Rimando and Kyle Beckerman. It becomes a difficult proposition, replacing five key players, and it leaves the club facing yet another match with a depleted core. It's a far cry from the one missing piece from Kreis's "best eleven," which is sure to create some frustration.
Grabavoy and Johnson are both noted "two-way" players with strengths in attack and defense as well as possession maintenance. Their likely replacements, Luis Gil and Jonny Steele, are less balanced — Gil is a better attacker than a defender, and Steele the opposite. With Beckerman very unlikely to start (though it does depend on USMNT coach Jurgen Klinsmann's use of him against Guatemala), Yordany Alvarez will need to be doubly aware of the threats presented.
No Eddie, No Cry
However, Seattle will be dealing with absences of their own. Eddie Johnson — a vital cog in Friday's U.S. win over Antigua and Barbuda — gets a free pass from RSL fans for a day, particularly as he's likely to feature against Guatemala, and thus would be doubtful for a Seattle match. Super doubtful. Incredibly doubtful. We're giving him a ride home — a classy move, to be sure — but it's not as if he'll be expected to play.
Without Eddie Johnson's quality on headers and goalscoring ability (he's sitting at 14 goals), Seattle's typically strong crossing (excepting corners) — tied for the best accuracy with Colorado Rapids at 26.4 percent — will undoubtedly suffer. With RSL's Borlave contingent in contention, expect that rate to be a distant goal.
Seattle's passing accuracy, 76.9 percent, compared to RSL's 81.4 percent, and general passing statistics are illustrative of a team that doesn't necessarily build through possession in the same way as Kreis's side. But with passing lanes a bit more open than usual, the flank-heavy Seattle side may be given an opportunity to play a bit more centrally.
Seattle also lists slightly to its right side — 11 percent of its passes move left, 15 percent right (RSL is essentially flipped), but without Adam Johansson, who is away with Sweden, they could struggle to build on that side.