Some big playoff news last night, as LA defeated San Jose 3-1 to advance to the Western Conference Final and Houston held on against Sporting Kansas City to move on to the Eastern Conference Final.
Whichever team advances from tonight’s Western Conference Semifinal second leg between RSL and Seattle will travel to LA to take on the Galaxy in the first leg of the Western Final on Sunday night. If RSL advances, the Claret-and-Cobalt would host the Galaxy in the Conference Final’s second leg on Sunday, Nov. 18.
Houston advancing in the East keeps RSL’s dream of hosting the MLS Cup Final on Dec. 1 alive. The fifth-seeded Dynamo was the only Eastern Conference Semifinalist that finished with fewer regular season points than RSL and – as such – they’re the only side that would have to travel to Rio Tinto Stadium for MLS Cup.
Obviously, there’s a ton of work to be done for RSL to get to that point. First up: Tonight’s Western Conference Semifinal second leg against Seattle at Rio Tinto Stadium. Winner of the match goes through. Kick’s at 8 p.m. MT and a very, very limited number of tickets are still available. We’ll see you out here.
There’s been some interesting injury news coming out of Seattle over the last couple days.
First, it looks like Sounders FC leading scorer Eddie Johnson is set to play on Thursday night. Johnson – who didn’t make the 18 for the scoreless draw at Seattle in the series’ first leg on Friday due to a hamstring injury – told reporters earlier this week that he’d “for sure” play in the second leg at Rio Tinto Stadium on Thursday.
“I've come too far to not be a part of this special thing we've got going on as a team,” Johnson said on Monday. “We know how much it means to our fans and our organization in getting to the next round. It's not going to be easy. We've had our ups and downs as a team, we've overcome adversity midway through the season, and it's been good to see the team gel."
Johnson – who initially injured his hamstring in the first half of Seattle’s Oct. 28 regular season finale at LA – should provide a significant boost to the Sounders attack. The U.S. international is fast, good on the ball and great in the air, scoring eight of his 14 goals this year with his noggin.
It remains to be seen if Johnson starts on Thursday as he’s likely not at peak fitness after being out of training for 1 ½ weeks. If he doesn’t make head coach Sigi Schmid’s first XI, expect to see him come in off of the bench if the Sounders need a goal.
Johnson isn’t the only significant Seattle player dealing with an injury this week. In fact, Johnson isn’t even the most important Sounder who has a bit of a knock. That’d be midfielder/captain Mauro Rosales, who didn’t train at all on Monday and only barely on Tuesday after suffering a hamstring injury in Friday’s scoreless draw.
"He went through the early part of the warm-up for us today and then we sent him in, so it's definite progress from yesterday," Schmid said on Tuesday. "We just have to see how he feels tomorrow and keep going, progressing day by day."
Rosales, 31, was a huge player for the Sounders this year, scoring three goals and notching 13 assists – tied for third in the league – in 2012. He was also strong in Friday’s first leg, delivering both first half corner kicks that Seattle nearly scored on and hitting a total of 16 crosses in from the right flank.
Johnson was one Rosales’ favorite targets this year, with the Argentine midfielder assisting on six of Johnson’s goals. Interestingly, every single one of Rosales’ assists to Johnson came when the forward finished with his head.
Obviously, Johnson coming back into the fold for Seattle on Thursday would mean big things. But Rosales being out could be even bigger. We’ll see how it all unfolds on Thursday – Kick’s at 8 p.m. at Rio Tinto Stadium. Be there.
Fantastic stuff from RSL videographer Nick Lamping above. Nick takes you behind the scenes of RSL's trip to Seattle for the first leg of the Western Conference Semifinals. The video shows RSL traveling to and training in Seattle, as well as the Claret-and-Cobalt's 0-0 draw against Sounders FC at CenturyLink Field from last Friday. It really is a solid piece - make sure you give it a watch.
And in case you haven't heard yet, let this serve as an official notice that the second leg of the West Semifinal series on Thursday at Rio Tinto Stadium kicks off at 8 p.m. MT, not 7:30 as previously scheduled. The broadcast information for the game has also changed - it will now be shown live on NBC Sports Network instead of on a tape-delay on CW30.
It's rare that two sides so perfectly matched meet, but with Real Salt Lake once again taking on Seattle Sounders, a tactical battle was inevitable. With Seattle focusing in wide areas and RSL creating through the middle, the match was more tactical than technical in its nature.
Stopping wide play
There are two sides to this coin: On one hand, we should consider how well Seattle was able to get crosses into the box. On the other, we should consider that those rarely had any real effect.
A six-for-38 crossing rate — about 16 percent success, including corners — speaks to the cross quality. It's a low mark for Seattle, but the number must be a little startling — allowing 38 crosses is a bit dangerous. But by and large, those were rushed, and the central defenders — Borchers and Watson-Siriboe, largely — were able to clear most of the danger.
Understandably, Seattle focused their crossing efforts on their right side. With Mauro Rosales and Christian Tiffert taking up positions there, RSL relied heavily on Chris Wingert, who performed well, especially given the glut of attack coming on that side.
Flipping the midfield
To clog up the passing lanes in Seattle's attack, Jason Kreis made an interesting decision to switch the sides Ned Grabavoy and Will Johnson operated on. With Grabavoy on the left, Rosales and Tiffert were able to pick up play a bit, but we more easily regained possession on that side.
Johnson on the right allowed an excellent partnership with Tony Beltran, forcing Seattle's play outside the final third. Combined with Seattle's generally right-sided play, the other flank was RSL's. With Johnson cutting in just a bit more central than he usually does when playing on the left, clogging passing lanes effectively.
With Grabavoy and Johnson switching sides and playing in channels, Kyle Beckerman was left to control the center of the park. His defensive contribution was largely acting as a body in the center — Seattle's penchant for avoiding the center of the park in attack meant he wasn't called on as he is against other MLS sides.
As a result, Beckerman acted more as a distributing central midfielder, occupying the middle third almost exclusively. It's a stark contrast from the occasions in which he's deployed in an anchoring role and acts as a third center back — on Friday, he was tasked with transitioning from defense to attack.
With Javier Morales taking up his typical wider positions, the connection between the two was strengthened: Beckerman picked the ball up in the middle of the park, pushed it off to Morales, and the attack moved forward. Additionally, Alvaro Saborio, in fine hold-up form, was a vital cog as RSL looked to build in attack.
Real Salt Lake got its Western Conference Semifinal series off to a good start on Friday, tying Seattle Sounders FC 0-0 at CenturyLink Field to set itself up nicely for Thursday’s return leg at Rio Tinto Stadium.
Here are a few interesting numbers from Friday’s first leg:
The amount of goals RSL has conceded in four games against Seattle this year. The Claret-and-Cobalt has kept Sounders FC off the board for 389 straight minutes, last conceding against Seattle in the 61st minute of the second leg of last year’s Western Conference Semifinal on Nov. 2, 2011.
The number of consecutive scoreless draws RSL has played across all competitions.
The number of minutes RSL has gone since last conceding. The Claret-and-Cobalt last gave up a goal in the 17th minute of the team’s 2-1 win at L.A. on Oct. 6.
The number of saves Nick Rimando made on Friday night. Four of those stops were absolutely spectacular.
The number of stitches Rimando got after Friday’s game. Rimando suffered a facial laceration and a broken nose – which was re-set after the match – when he collided with Seattle midfielder Christian Tiffert in the 66th minute of Friday’s game.
The number of postseason minutes captain Kyle Beckerman and Rimando have played for RSL. The pair has played every single playoff minute in the team’s history.
The number of RSL playoff games midfielder Will Johnson has appeared in. Johnson has appeared in all of the Claret-and-Cobalt’s postseason matches.
The number of consecutive sell-outs of Rio Tinto Stadium RSL is shooting for on Thursday night. A limited amount of tickets to the match are still available and can be purchased here.
Of the 13 all-time meetings between RSL and Seattle across all competitions only three - a 4-1 Seattle win in the 2011 U.S. Open Cup and both 2011 Western Conference Semifinal games - have been decided by more than one goal.
The number of times RSL has advanced from a home elimination game in six tries. The Claret-and-Cobalt will be hoping for number 2 on Thursday night.
It seems like it was only yesterday that Real Salt Lake was on their way to Seattle to take on the Sounders on Oct. 17. These two sides just can't seem to stop playing each other, and with that, another entertaining match is likely to ensue in the first leg of the MLS Western Conference Semifinal.
Stopping wide play
The Sounders are an interesting matchup for more reasons than just historical: With their flank play, they represent a distinct ideological shift from Real Salt Lake's through-the-middle approach. Will Johnson and Ned Grabavoy will be forced to step into wider areas to challenge Seattle's full backs, and Chris Wingert and Tony Beltran will be forced to push a bit higher than they would against most sides to challenge Seattle's wingers.
This puts a bit more of an onus on Kyle Beckerman to cut out passes when Seattle transitions from the wide areas to more central areas, focusing acutely on players like Christian Tiffert and Mauro Rosales, the two biggest sources of Seattle's key passes.
On the defensive
Going behind in the first leg of a playoff series makes the second leg more difficult. It is perhaps fortunate, then, that RSL is going into this match with a brilliant defensive record, having conceded only three goals in 990 minutes of play across all competitions. It's a remarkable measure, but it doesn't stop goals from occurring.
Performances on the road have at times been lacking, evidenced by the fact that RSL has conceded 20 goals and scored only 19, leaving them with a negative differential away from home. But going on goal differential can be a bit misleading: San Jose has conceded 21 (+8 GD), Seattle 22 (+2 GD), LA Galaxy 27 (+1 GD), and Vancouver Whitecaps 24 (-14 GD).
Seattle has conceded only 11 goals at home, the best mark in all of MLS. It makes the proposition a bit trickier: Does Real Salt Lake come out and try to nick a goal or two against the team with the best home defensive record? I'm inclined to think that Jason Kreis recognizes this and will instruct his players to worry first about defending — something they've been quite good at in the last month or two — and to look for goals through counter attacking play.
It's been evident before (save in the most recent MLS match against them, though they did go down a man) that Seattle isn't afraid to commit players in attack. It could be an influential factor. I'm not saying RSL should bunker, mind — that's the sort of stuff the team’s never been great at. But if Seattle wants to swing crosses in with reckless abandon, RSL's back line — whoever it may be — will have the ability to deal with it. It's when wingers cut inside that there may be more worries.
A huge thanks goes out to Rancid drummer Branden Steineckert for writing, recording and producing "Believe RSL - Version II." Additional thanks to Isaac Halasima and Deep Blue Films - regular producers of RSL campaigns - for their creative contributions in the shooting, production and editing of this video.
Watch Branden's incredible follow-up to his original "Believe" anthem above. Trust us, you don't want to miss it.
RSL takes on Seattle in the first leg of the Western Conference Semifinal series on Friday night at 8 p.m MT on NBC Sports Network. The second leg will be at Rio Tinto Stadium on Nov. 8.
Ready for Friday night’s MLS Cup Playoff opener at Seattle?
We are too. Unfortunately, there's still over 48 hours left 'til the first leg of the Western Conference Semifinals kicks off on NBC Sports Network at 8 p.m. MT.
You'll just have to let the above 2012 season highlight package tide you over until then. Go ahead and enjoy the doozy of a video with your favorite candy bar. It is Halloween, after all.
Last week, we went in-depth on the various scenarios that would affect RSL’s playoff seeding, chances of hosting MLS Cup and potential qualification for CONCACAF Champions League. In that post, we told you we’d be back with an update after the regular season wrapped up this weekend.
Well, here we are. Let’s get right to it:
RSL secures No. 2 seed
As you probably know by now, Real Salt Lake’s 0-0 draw against Vancouver on Saturday combined with L.A.’s 1-0 win over Seattle on Sunday night gave RSL the Western Conference’s No. 2 seed for the MLS Cup Playoffs. The Claret-and-Cobalt will kick off its postseason campaign on Friday night at No. 3 seed Sounders FC (8 p.m. MT on NBC Sports Network). The return leg for that series will be on Thursday, Nov. 8 at Rio Tinto Stadium.
Claret-and-Cobalt unlikely to host MLS Cup
Unfortunately, it’s not looking very likely that RSL will host MLS Cup should the team advance all the way to the final. The Claret-and-Cobalt would only host MLS Cup at Rio Tinto Stadium on Dec. 1 if it was playing Chicago or Houston. One of the Fire or the Dynamo will be eliminated on Wednesday night, when the two teams play each other in the Eastern Conference knockout game at Toyota Park outside Chicago.
If RSL qualifies for MLS Cup against Kansas City, D.C. or New York, it would play the game on the road.
Cup or bust for CCL qualification
Had RSL won on Saturday, it would’ve finished the season in third-place in MLS and thereby could’ve qualified for the 2013/14 CONCACAF Champions League if: A) The team made MLS Cup or B) San Jose and/or Kansas City made MLS Cup.
Of course, the Claret-and-Cobalt didn’t win on Saturday, it drew. That result left the team in fifth-place in the overall MLS standings, meaning that the only way it can qualify for the 2013/14 CCL is by advancing to MLS Cup.
The takeaway, as always: Let’s just win the whole thing.
Any time you've got 90 minutes with no goals, there's a chance the match was a bit on the boring side — Real Salt Lake’s scoreless draw against Vancouver on Saturday was no big exception. But with plenty of lineup changes and some interesting substitutions, there was plenty of tactical interest to be had.
With backup goalie Kyle Reynish on for regular ‘keeper Nick Rimando, and Chris Wingert and Kwame Watson-Siriboe as the central defenders in front of him, there was always a slight risk that continuity could be disrupted and defensive posturing rendered obsolete. Much to their credit, the slightly makeshift back line did well to snuff out chances before they started — all while both outside backs Tony Beltran and Kenny Mansally were both able to get forward with ease and aplomb.
With Javier Morales out and Will Johnson not starting, the midfield did struggle a bit to create clear chances, but Jonny Steele's defensive contribution (4/4 tackling, 3 interceptions) was a bright spot. Luis Gil failed to inject himself fully in the tip of the diamond, but Ned Grabavoy was in fine passing form and Kyle Beckerman was his usual strong self.
With the game bordering on boring through most of the first and second halves, late substitutions promised at least some sort of shift in momentum. For Real Salt Lake, the arrival on the scene of Sebastian Velasquez, Will Johnson and David Viana did just that.
The most notable was certainly Sebastian Velasquez, who took the opportunity, as they say, with both hands. With late runs into the box, exciting dribbling ability, and a demand for the ball, he showed a hunger and drive that set things alight late on.
Will Johnson, on the other hand, didn't have too much to do — set up as a right back in a shift from his usual left back spot (when moving into a defensive position), with Tony Beltran going to the left, he got forward well but wasn't able to really change the affair in a substantial way. With only 12 minutes on the pitch, that wasn't entirely surprising.
David Viana came on and played 19 minutes in his home debut, but he, like most, didn't show anything entirely too exciting. As a newcomer to the system, the fact that he's getting minutes at all speaks well of his ability, but if he is handed another chance in 2012, he'll want to be more of an impact.
Heading into the playoffs, RSL has done as well in the last five games of the season, gaining more points in the last five matches of the regular season (11) than in any other season. Whether this affects the long-term viability of the playoff campaign is difficult to say definitively, but Jason Kreis is a firm believer that form carries over. It's hard to see it not having at least some impact.