Real Salt Lake vs. Colorado Rapids - Rocky Mountain Cup Match Preview

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Ok the history of it all, if you ever wondered why leagues tend to frown on over the top celebrations one only has to look at the Rocky Mountain Cup.  The competition was formed by supporter groups of both teams when RSL joined MLS in 2005, but for most fans of Real Salt Lake their real rival was Chivas USA, their expansion brothers.  All of that changed on September 2nd 2006 (a birthday gift I will never forget), when upon securing the Cup a couple of Rapids players decided to celebrate by taunting some RSL fans.  Well that moment turned the Rocky Mountain Cup into a real competition and the rivalry with the Rapids became more and more heated, to the point where many consider it the most bitter rivalry in MLS.

On the pitch the Rapids still hold a slight edge of 8 wins and 22 goals to RSL's 6 wins and 21 goals, 6 times the match has ended even (including both last year).  

Six players on the RSL roster have scored against Colorado, Fabian Espindola, Ned Grabavoy, and Alvaro Saborio all have found the back of the net twice, while Andy Williams, Nat Borchers, and will Johnson have each scored once.  In goal for RSL will be Nick Rimando, who has faced the Rapids 23 times in his career and has a lifetime 0.80 GAA against the Rapids.  

The Rapids also have guys who know how to score against RSL, Brian Mullan, Conor Casey and Omar Cumming each have 3 against RSL, while Kosuke Kimura, Macoumba Kandji, Jeff Larentowicz, and Tyrone Marshall each have 1.  Of course Kandji is out, as is Conor Casey, but perhaps the most important player who will be missing is the guy who got Dave Checketts attention back in 2006, Pablo Mastoreni.

after the jump, Key Matchups, Wildcards, and my prediction for the match

Key Matchups:

Champion vs. Champion

So you know few things got under the skin of Rapids fans worse than RSL keeping them out of the playoffs in 2009 and then going on to lift the MLS Cup in Seattle.  Then last year RSL had a huge regular season, making history and breaking records only to get beat by FC Dallas and then having to sit home and watch the Rapids lift the Cup in Toronto.

So flash forward to the start of the 2011 MLS season, RSL is making a run in the Champions League, and the Rapids will get their first taste of the same tournament this year and will find out the toll that a half dozen extra matches and lots of travel can bring.  To start the season both sides got wins in their first 3 matches and as a result both sit at the top of the Western Conference, of course last weekend Colorado played their 4th match.  It was a rematch of the 2010 MLS Cup, but this time they came out on the losing end of a 3-0 result at FC Dallas.

So now the defending MLS Champion will face off against a team who will be fighting to be the Champion of CONCACAF, if history is any indication this will be another exciting matchup that could come down to the final minutes.  So be there early (RSL scored 2 goals in the first 10 minutes in their last home match) and don't leave until the final whistle as both matches saw RSL come from behind with stoppage time goals.

Midfield vs Midfield

One of the strengths of both teams has been the play of their defensive midfielders, few in the history of MLS have been as good as Pablo Mastroeni who normally is the leader of the Rapids on the pitch.  Of course on the RSL side there is one of the former students of Pablo, Kyle Beckerman.  Oh it is a shame that Pablo will be out with an injury, but the matchups of the midfields are still going to be one of the major keys to the match, RSL will likely go with their normal 4-4-2 with the pinched diamond. This means that Javier Morales will get some help from Andy Williams when it comes to some creative play making.  Ned Grabavoy will start for suspended Will Johnson and provide some defensive help to Kyle Beckerman.  If RSL need an offensive boost late don't be surprised if Collen Warner gets in as a sub, should we be protecting a lead late, you may see Jean Alexandre come in.

Colorado struggled in the midfield last weekend as they clearly didn't have a good plan for replacing Mastroeni, they put Joseph Nane in his place and it simply didn't work.  So I expect some big changes for the Rapids, I think you will see Jamie Smith (who had 1 goal and 8 assists last year) come into the lineup with Jeff Larentowicz and Wells Thompson taking up the defensive roles in the middle, and Brian Mullan on the other side.  This of course will expose them a bit to the speed of RSL but provides them with their best defensive option and on the road after giving up 3 goals on Saturday, I expect this is what they will do.

I simply believe that the RSL midfield is the best in Major League Soccer, but don't be surprised if the Rapids play things very tight in the midfield in an attempt to slow the RSL attack and break up as many passes as they can. Things could get chippy in the midfield early in this match.

Wildcards:

Caleb Folan

It was less than a month ago when the Rapids got their man, Irish international forward Caleb Folan.  He has played for Leeds United, Chesterfield, and most recently for Hull City.  With just 227 minutes in action for the Rapids he has already made his mark with 2 goals.  With Conor Casey out with an injury the 6'2" Folan will be filling his spot, he is a great target player who has a lot of talent on the ball, a perfect partner up top for Omar Cummings.

I expect that he will be a handful for Nat Borchers and Jamison Olave, but you don't get to be the top center backs in MLS if you aren't up for a challenge.

Fabian Espindola

Have you ever watched what happens when you coil a spring as tight as you can?  Well from the first moment of the 2011 season Fabi has been that spring, waiting to release and let all that energy go.  He may not have found the back of the net yet, but he has been a force of nature on the pitch, making huge runs, earning corner kicks, and forcing defenses to react to him.  His passing has become better and better each match, and his hard work has been inspirational to the staff and the fans.

His passion has always been a real strength and this year he has keep that passion under control and avoiding unnecessary cards.  It may not be this match, but I can ensure you of one thing, Fabi is going to continue to have a huge impact on RSL's results and when he finds the back of the net, beware he may be a man on fire.

Baldomero Toledo

Well so far this year one of the biggest story lines in Major League Soccer this year has been the officials and the abundance of red cards.  So sure enough who do you put in the most intense rivalry match, yeah the guy who couldn't handle the intense New England vs. Vancouver rivalry.  What does that mean, easy it means I will be very surprised if there isn't at least one red card or a PK issued in the match.  That my friends is a real wildcard that will impact the outcome of the match.

My Prediction:

On paper you would think  you could pick the red hot RSL to win this match with ease, but the Rapids are not a bad side despite how they performed last weekend.  RSL will be looking to defend their home pitch, while the Rapids will be looking to show last weekend was a fluke.  All the normal things you look to predict in a match get thrown out the window when it is a rivalry match, but unlike the leg at Rio Tinto last year the Rapids won't get to benefit from a lineup filled with reserves, no they are going to likely see the same team that will take the pitch at Monterrey in a week.  They are going to see RSL at their very best, focused, determined, and ready to defend "El Castillo".

If Pablo were in the lineup I would think the match would be much tougher but the Rapids haven't had much time to adjust to playing without him, and their entire gameplan rotates around him.  This means that I give RSL a real distinctive edge in this match, and I am going to pick a 3-1 final score.

OFF MY SOAPBOX

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