A lot of questions, both Real Salt Lake who are coming off their first home MLS loss in over two years and for the Vancouver Whitecaps who this week made a change at head coach, have a lot of questions to answer both to themselves and to their fans. Saturday night the two teams will be looking to answer some of those questions at Rio Tinto Stadium.
It was a couple weeks ago that RSL head coach pointed to the 4-1 home win over the Los Angeles Galaxy as the last time RSL played a really impressive match, and while everyone got caught up in the excitement of the Champions League run by the team, many missed the obvious risk of having so much at stake that early in the year. Now the team has had a month to move on, they have had several weeks to come to grips with the injury to Javier Morales, and they knew that Gold Cup call ups would leave them shorthanded. I thought last weekend's match against the Sounders would provide them with the perfect chance to get back to what they are capable of, but missed opportunities and then the red card to Olave gave the Sounders chances to do what nobody had done in 24 months, hand RSL a league loss at home. Saturday they get a chance to exercise the "funk" of the last month against an expansion team that clearly has their own issues, the biggest question is will they take advantage of it?
The Whitecaps can put "since 1974" on their jerseys but they can't avoid the reality that this is MLS, not the NASL, not the USL, but this is MLS and they are an expansion team. Perhaps the failure to understand that was what lead to the firing of their head coach after just 12 matches (roughly 1/3 of the MLS regular season)? The reality is that they have struggled since their exciting win in their ever MLS home match, that 4-2 win over Toronto had to get everyone excited by the possibilities but since then the team is 0-5-7. They have changed their style from the wide open attacking style to a more possession based style and understanding that in MLS you have to play defense first or things will get really ugly in a hurry. Their defense is anchored by Jay DeMerit, who simply is really good at what he does and in their last 6 matches they haven't given up multiple goals, they have 2 clean sheets this year but both were 0-0 draws. Wednesday saw them make a change in goal as Jay Nolly was sent to the bench in favor of MLS veteran Joe Cannon, one of 4 changes (3 on defense, 1 in midfield) that new coach Tom Soehn made for his first match in charge.
after the jump, the Key Match Up, Wildcards, and my prediction:
Key Match Up
RSL's patchwork midfield vs. Vancouver's ?? midfield
For RSL they will have at least two midfielders who weren't likely starters when the season started due to the injury to Javier Morales and the Canadian national team call up of Will Johnson. We have seen a couple of guys get some minutes in recent weeks, Collen Warner, Nelson Gonzalez, and even Luis Gil, while both Andy Williams and Ned Grabavoy became regular fixtures in the midfield. While RSL has struggled in recent weeks, the problem hasn't been possession or defense in the midfield it has been a lack of finishing by everyone, including the midfield. So can RSL do a mix of the "Usual Suspects" and "Young Guns" in the midfield to find the results they are looking for? I think so, we say a lineup of all most all "young guns" in New England and they did just fine but the mixing of guys who don't practice and drill together is a bit tougher and takes some time. I would love to see Jason take a big chance and go more aggressive and offensive with the midfield, perhaps this foursome (Collen Warner, Kyle Beckerman, Andy Williams, Nelson Gonzalez) would give us a real boost of energy and perhaps take some of the offensive burden off of the forwards.
For Vancouver I would expect to see the possibility of more changes to their lineup and perhaps even to their formation (4-4-1-1), on opening day the 4 in the middle were Davide Chiumiento, Gershon Koffie, Terry Dunfield, and Russell Teibert. The next week there 3 changes to that lineup and the changes have continued every week since then as no two matches in a row have seen the same 4 guys in midfield for the Whitecaps. It is hard enough to build consistency on an expansion team with so many new players coming to a team but when you chose to or are forced to change your lineup every match it is even harder to build any level of consistency. We know that the chances will continue this match, as it is likely that Chiumiento will move up top as the second forward with the suspension to Eric Hassli, and with Terry Dunfield, Nizar Khalfan, and Michael Boxall all on national team duty there will have to be more changes to the overall lineup for the Whitecaops again this weekend. Those changes and overall inconsistency should allow RSL to control possession and dictate the pace of the match on Saturday.
Nelson Gonzalez -
Nelson has been one of those players that fans have been waiting for him to step up and force the staff to let him play more, he has always shown a very creative flair with the ball and now with injuries and call ups he may get his chance. Last week he came on late and provided a nice influx of pace and energy, he found his way behind the backline of Seattle and worked his way into the area and picked up a late goal in the losing effort for RSL. It is clear that Nelson has decided that June may be his best chance to make a statement with his play and effort on the pitch, that could mean a lot of trouble for opponents who don't know what his is capable of.
When Vancouver took Salgado with the first pick in the MLS Super Draft, some people scratched their head as it was thought that he wouldn't be able to play until his 18th birthday in September. However that proved not to be the case as the Whitecaps plead their case and now the young forward is starting to show why Vancouver put so much into securing his services. Despite being just 17 years old he is 6'4" and plays with a level a maturity beyond his years, and while he has only seen 288 minutes of action so far this year, he already has scored his first MLS goal and proven that he can be a handful for opposing defenses.
Juan Guzman -
Oh we saw how both of these teams were impacted by the officials in their last match and now we get Juan, you probably don't recognize his name as he has only been in charge of 3 matches so far in MLS. He has averaged calling 30 fouls per match, issued an average of 3 yellow cards per match, he has given one red card, and pointed to the PK spot twice. So with so much on the line for both teams, you have to worry that we will see the match likely impacted by the whistle and book of Juan Guzman
Well for Real Salt Lake the pressure is mounting, both from within and from the outside of the organization, as everyone knows that they are better than their 1-1-2 that they ended up with in the month of May. It is clear to everyone who watches the team that they are looking for a way to fully recover from all the affects of the Champions League matches early in the year, and then the injury to Javier Morales. Now you can toss in the international call ups that have Alvaro Saborio, Arturo Alvarez, and Will Johnson gone from the team for the next few weeks, and the task becomes simple. Prove that you are indeed the deepest team in MLS and get back to the form that you are capable of, and there will be no better opportunity to do that than facing the Whitecaps at home and starting up a new home unbeaten streak.
Vancouver continues to improve and with Tom Sohen in charge I have no doubt that they will become a better team, but you can't change a team overnight and RSL must take advantage of what might be some players trying too hard to make an impression on their new coach. For RSL this means a clean sheet, even without Olave they have proven that they can keep opponents from finding the back of the net, and that should be the first goal of the match. The second goal should be to dominate the possession of the match, it has been one of our strengths over the last couple seasons and even in the losing effort last weekend RSL had the better of possession, I wouldn't be surprised if we are able to get 60% of the possession on Saturday but it means we will need to go back to attacking the ball quickly and winning the 50-50 balls. Finally is shots and goals, in 2010 RSL had the most goals scored of any team in MLS and so far this year the team has looked much less potent on offense, but I don't believe that is actually true. I think it has been that RSL has been playing with too much caution, looking for the perfect passes and shots, I believe that if you take shots and put passes into the area that good things will happen and I hope that RSL will go back to being a team that takes a lot of shots and makes opposing keepers work hard to prevent us from scoring.
I think this match should end up with a clear RSL win, going to say it ends up 2-0.
OFF MY SOAPBOX