Well the last time these two teams faced off the match was decided by the official, this time there will be a national audience and the teams that have won 3 of the last 4 MLS Cups face off on ESPN2.
One team will be seeking revenge, the other is looking for a level of consistency, and one thing is almost certain about the matchup of RSL and Houston, controversy will be one of the themes of the day. For RSL, they question the two PK calls given in minutes to Houston and then no calls going their way, so far this year 4 PK's have been issued against RSL, they have yet to have an official point to the spot in their favor. Houston has been consistent over their last 6 matches, loss, win, loss, win, loss, win, it doesn't matter if they are at home or on the road they haven't been able to string together results over the last month and RSL is hoping that trend will continue.
Both teams have suffered from and are now close to recovering from some impactful injuries, for Houston they are close to getting Ching back into their starting lineup (just in time for a national team callup) but they have a huge question mark next to Luis Angel Landin, who is suffering with concussion like symptoms. Out for the Creamsicles are Cameron, Weaver, and Robinson, and they are still looking for replacements for the departed Holden and Clark. Real Salt Lake's list is looking better than in recent weeks as we last week saw the return of Javier Morales to action, and this week don't be surprised if Ned Grabavoy is on the bench and ready for action. Fabi, Robbie, and Nelson are all listed as questionable but I expect that Robbie will likely get the start if he is able to go.
A win for RSL would move them into second place in the West behind the red hot Galaxy and only San Jose would be able to catch them over the weekend.
After the jump, my key matchups and wildcards for this match:
Jamison Olave vs. Houston & MLS Officials:
In the two meetings between RSL and Houston last year, Olave was shown a red card in both matches. This year he was twice called for fouls in the box and both were very, very soft as replays showed, but when you are 6'3" 210lbs and look like you could play linebacker in the NFL it is hard for MLS officials to understand that he is not only one of the fastest guys on the pitch, he is one of the most talented. There is far too often an assumption of guilt when it comes to Olave, and far too often it is the wrong call. Jamison will make mistakes, he is only super-human after all, but since the Chivas friendly late last year, he has played with a much better control of his emotions and it has helped his game.
So the question is will Houston look to push his buttons and try to get a reaction, will they dive and wiggle around like dead fish on any contact? I hope they play the game and I hope that head official Alex Prus will allow them to play. He has been the head official in 162 matches, he issues an average of 3.3 yellow cards per match and has pointed to the penalty spot 47 times (once every 3.45 matches), and he has issued 35 red cards (once every 4.63 matches). Here is hoping he calls it down the middle.
So in 8 matches Houston has been called for 84 fouls and issued 11 yellow cards and 2 red cards, for Real Salt Lake they have been called for 88 fouls, issued 14 yellow cards and have yet to be shown a red card. If men are allowed to play a man's game, well then we should see a very entertaining match, and hopefully the play on the pitch will decide the outcome.
Javier Morales vs. Lovel Palmer:
So this will be Javi's second match back in the starting lineup and while you could see some "rust" on his performance, this week he will get to see a lot of Houston's replacement for Ricardo Clark, Lovel Palmer. After a couple trials Houston lured him away from Harbour View in Jamaica, the 25 year old is a talented player but I don't think he will be able to deal with Javi. When Morales is in his zone there are few defensive midfielders who can deal with him and if you watch the play of Palmer you see that he can be beat. I believe that the new faces in new roles has been one of the main issues for Houston as they look to replace guys who were MLS All Stars and USMNT players. Palmer will get some support, likely in the form of Richard Mulrooney, but the 33 year old simply isn't as quick as he used to be and the reality is that both will likely have their hands full with Javier.
Robbie Findley vs. expectations:
Well we saw it last year with Yura Movsisyan, he was the hot player at the end of the 2008 season and for the first couple months of 2009 he was distracted and pushing to get goals. In time it came out that a part of his struggles could probably be blamed on the contract negotiations with RSL and MLS as his agent shopped him around Europe in search of a bigger paycheck. Now we have the 2010 version of the story, same agent, and a similar story, Robbie was incredible down the stretch for RSL and in the playoffs last year. So far this year he hasn't found the back of the net, and now in the last couple days the stories about his agent, contract negotiations, and I am left to wonder if all of it could be again distracting Robbie.
Hopefully the last 24 hours have helped him clear his head a bit, a USMNT camp call up, the possibility of heading to South Africa to represent the US in the World Cup, and his statement that he hasn't made up his mind about his future. One thing is clear for Robbie, scoring a couple goals against Houston is exactly what the doctor ordered and could put a lot of things to rest. Expectations are always hard to meet, and I for one thought that Robbie would have a much better season this year than he did in 2009. I am still holding firm to that belief, Robbie has everything it takes to be a big part of the future of Real Salt Lake, Major League Soccer, and the US National Team, but only time will tell the tale.
The Birdman of Houston:
Dominic Oduro has never scored a goal against RSL in a Houston uniform, but in 395 minutes of action before joining the men in orange he scored 3 goals against RSL. His unique combination of speed, size and skill has caused issues for RSL in the past, and so far this year he has found the back of the net just once, but also helped with 3 assists, while being called for offsides 10 times. RSL will need to ensure they mark him well and that communication is clear on any offside traps they may deploy. The injury to Ching really forced Houston into a 4-5-1 formation, and while Ching is back healthy you have to wonder if they will risk him in a physical matchup with USMNT duty just days away. With Landin being questionable and Weaver out, the man up top for Houston will be Oduro, but with the way both Borchers and Olave have been playing of late, they should be able to deal with him.
Houston will be playing their 4th match in 13 days when they take the pitch on Thursday night, while their travel schedule hasn't been as bad, just 2 of their first 7 were on the road. They have now played their 3rd road match of the year and they are 1-1-1 away from Robertson Stadium, with 3 goals scored and 3 allowed. You have to wonder if the three changes they made to their lineup against Chivas were adjustments to the busy schedule. You never know what you will get with Dominic Kinnear, but against Chivas they got two early goals and then played a more defensive style. We have seen that happen before in the 3-2 RSL loss at Houston last year, where two early goals and a red card allowed Houston to play a much slower style and protect their lead.
If they try that at Rio Tinto on Thursday, they might just find themselves in the same boat that Toronto did. Then add in the elevation that will add even more fatigue to their already tired legs, there will be no mystery water breaks on Thursday evening as RSL will like push and push hard at Houston looking to wear them down and get some revenge for the April fool's day match.
Last week RSL was forced to make a first half sub as Robbie Findley picked up an injury, in came Pablo Campos and he quickly reminded fans why he earned their respect last season. A couple great runs, perhaps one of the best combination plays of the year with Alvaro Saborio, which resulted in the 3rd RSL goal. A wonder chip shot chance that went just wide of goal after beating Chris Seitz. Pablo joined RSL midway through the season last year and was able in just 400 minutes of action to get 2 goals and 3 assists, both of his goals were game winners for RSL. Now with just 61 minutes of first team action in 2010 he already has an assist and several dangerous shots, you have to believe that Pablo will likely see some action against Houston where their backline size has always caused RSL issues, but at 6'3" Campos is a force to be dealt with on set pieces and in the run of play. He has a great touch for a big guy and as we saw last Saturday, he can deliver a great ball into the area, creating scoring chances for his teammates.
These teams match up really well and while the results haven't often gone RSL's way the matches are alway intense (5 of the last 7 have had a red card issued), they are always close (21 goals for Houston, 17 for RSL in 13 matches). Last year the teams matched up 3 times, a 1-1 draw in Houston on June 20th where RSL was down to 10 men for over 30 minutes, a 0-0 draw at Rio Tinto on August 15th where Houston was down to 10 men in the 36th minute and RSL dropped to 10 men in stoppage time of the first half., and a 3-2 loss at Houston on Sept 19th in which RSL was down to 10 men in the 32nd minute, and Houston was down to 10 men for the final 8 minutes of the match. The 2-1 Houston win this year was questionable to say the best, and at Rio Tinto there is a swagger and a confidence that RSL gains. Houston is tired and their inconsistent efforts all year lead me to believe that RSL will walk out with a 3-2 win.
OFF MY SOAPBOX