SANDY, UT - OCTOBER 22: Players of Real Salt Lake pose for a picture before a game against the Portland Timbers at an MLS soccer game October 22, 2011 at Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy, Utah. Real Salt lake and the Portland Timbers played to a 1-1 tie. (Photo by George Frey/Getty Images)
Well it was a long strange season, and for a second straight year RSL finds themselves in a tough first round matchup in the playoffs, in fact this is the second year in a row that RSL will be part of a matchup between the number two and number three teams in the league. If you want a perfect argument on what is wrong with the current playoffs well this is it, but when you use conferences to determine the playoffs you get things like this.
The Sounders and RSL are fairly evenly matches, over the past 3 years they are 2-2-2 against each other, and this season they both won the away matches by a 2-1 score. Both sides like to try to dictate the pace and style of the match by controlling possession, both have defensive minded generals in the middle of the field that really are game changers.
There will be a chill in the air at gametime at Rio Tinto Stadium on Saturday but I expect the action on the pitch to heat up quickly in one of the most anticipated playoff series in recent MLS history. After the jump, my Key Match Up, Wildcards, and my prediction for the match.
Key Match Up:
It has been over 5 months since RSL's cornerstone midfield duo were on the pitch together in a match, first the injury to Javier Morales the kept him out for months, and then when Javi was able to return to the pitch Kyle was gone on USMNT call up and then serving a suspension. So after a long layoff the Kyle and Javi show is set to brush off any dust and get back to what they started in 2011, those first 6 matches that had both of them on the pitch RSL was 5-1-0. I do expect a bit of time will be needed for the duo to get back to their old form, but with these two playing together for 3 years I don't expect it will take too much time.
Sounders fans had to be hoping it would be Mauro Rosales in the midfield with Alonso, but Rosales didn't make the trip to Salt Lake for Saturday and is questionable for the 2nd leg on Wednesday, so Brad Evans it is. I have to say that Brad Evans is one of the more interesting players on the Sounders roster to me, nothing that you would call flashy, just a solid player with a knack of doing the right ting at the right time. Evans has 5 goals and 5 assists this year, but the numbers are a bit deceiving as 3 of those goals have come from the PK spot (an area the Sounders struggle at, they only converted 6 of 9). The biggest thing for me is that 4 of his 5 assists have been game winning assists, that is a huge percentage and shows his ability to impact matches. While he has only started 17 matches this year, he has been a big part of the Sounders success this year.
Perhaps the best two defensive midfielders in MLS will get a lot of attention in this series as Osvaldo Alonso and Kyle Beckerman will see a lot of each other as they fight for every ball and look to set the tone for their teams. Each player uses great positioning, a strong work rate, and fierce determination to help their team find the victory, perhaps the only difference this year is that Kyle Beckerman has a been a bit more offensive minded in the absence of Javier Morales for most of the year. Osvaldo has 3 goals and 3 assists in almost 2900 minutes of action, while Kyle has 3 goals and 9 assists in just over 2400 minutes this year.
If Javier Morales was back to full fitness and form I would have no problem giving RSL a real edge in this match up, but with Javi still getting back to his top game and Kyle coming back into the lineup for the first time in over a month, this matchup is much more evenly matched than some might expect. These four players should provided some real fun action to watch.
Not a household name and this year he has just 9 starts for the Sounders (he has played in 23 matches) and just 1008 minutes of action but his 5 goals and 2 assists are huge numbers when you consider that over half of them have been game winners. 3 of his goals are game winners and 1 of his assists is also a game winner, in fact it was his goal in the 84th minute at Rio Tinto back in May that gave the Sounders the win in that match. I don't expect him to start but I wouldn't be surprised if he is one of the first subs that Sigi uses.
Javier Morales -
Javier continues his road back to being one of the top creative players in MLS, since his return the RSL offense has struggled with just 2 goals scored in their last 5 matches, Javi did have the assist on one of those goals. Each week his passes have looked a bit sharper, each week his footwork on and off the ball has looked a bit more like what we are used to seeing, and now it is the playoffs and for RSL to be successful they will need Javier Morales at the top of his game.
Mark Geiger -
Each week I list the referee as a wildcard, this week is no different but I have to admit I smiled when I saw who would be in charge as I think Geiger is one of the more consistent officials in MLS this year. Now both times these teams matched up this year the match ended without 22 players on the pitch, I really hope that doesn't happen this time.
My RSL Starting XI -
Well these teams are evenly matched on the pitch, and I expect a fairly wide open style of play between the two, if they play like they did in the regular season. The first match saw 33 shots and 12 shots on goal combined, the second match saw 30 shots and 7 shots on goal. The difference in this match could easily come down to discipline, there were 3 red cards in the regular season matches between the two teams. It is interesting that in a league where the home team usually has a huge advantage that both of these teams were able to overcome that and get wins on the road.
RSL will simply need to play within their abilities, do what they do well, possess the ball, complete short passes, force their opponent to open up and then attack. Too often they have fallen into ruts, only attacking up one side of the pitch, or only attacking up the middle, to beat a very good Sounders team they will need to vary their attack, and capitalize on any mistakes. I look for 55% of the possession, 80% on passing and at least 12 shots with 5 on goal for RSL to be able to get the win. It will take a top effort but I think RSL can get a 2-0 win if they can keep their focuses for the full match, Portland was able to take advantage of a bit of a mental let down in stoppage time to get a result last weekend, it is up to RSL to prevent that this week.
Here is what the match looks like in a visual form:
OFF MY SOAPBOX