Well for the Columbus Crew the stakes got higher on Friday night when the Colorado Rapids beat the Philadelphia Union 2-1, it opened the door for the Crew to take ownership of first place in the Eastern Conference if they can get a result against RSL at Rio Tinto Stadium on Saturday night. The Crew are actually a fairly average team if you look at the numbers, they are 8-6-7 overall with 22 goals for and 20 goals against. On the road they are 2-5-3 with just 6 goals scored and 12 goals allowed. In their last 5 matches the Crew are 2-2-1with just 2 goals scored and 3 goals allowed.
Real Salt Lake at home is 7-1-3 with 22 goals for and just 8 goals allowed, overall RSL is 9-3-6 with 27 goals for and 12 goals allowed. A win would move RSL to 36 points from 19 matches and would move them back into 4th place in the Western Conference, they dropped to 5th with the Rapids win over Philly on Friday night. For RSL it woould mean that their 8 match unbeaten streak would be extended and it would improve their record in their last 5 would be 4-0-1 but first they must find a way to overcome the suspension of Alvaro Saborio and the injury sustained by Jamison Olave in the MLS All Star Match. For RSL they have found their scoring touch in their last 5 matches with 12 goals scored and 4 goals allowed (3 of those in the debacle that was the match against the Revolution).
These two teams have developed a bit of a rivalry over the last couple years, going back to the 2009, when RSL beat the Crew 4-1 at Rio Tinto, only to lose to them 3-1 at Columbus, then in playoffs when the defending MLS Cup champs Columbus were beat in the first round by the upstart RSL, who won both legs of the series. Last year the teams split their regular season matches with each side winning at home, and then this year the teams kicked off their seasons facing each other in the Champions League quarterfinals. RSL was able to get a 0-0 draw at Columbus and then finished them off with a convincing 4-1 win at Rio Tinto Stadium. RSL had a 1-0 lead for most of the match the first time these two faced off in MLS action this year, but the Crew came back to get two goals in the final 15 minutes and got the win. Now the teams will face off once again.
After the jump you will find my key matchup, my wildcards, and my prediction for the match:
Key Match Up:
Offense vs. Defense -
Now that may seem simple but give me a couple sentences and you will see what I am talking about. For RSL they will be missing one of their top strikers (Alvaro Saborio - 5 goals, 2 assists) due to suspension, the Crew may be without their top striker (Andres Mendoza -7goals, 1 assist) due to a hamstring injury. RSL will be missing the 2010 MLS defender of the year as Jamison Olave is out with an injury, and the Crew will be missing their top keeper, Will Hesmer, who is listed as questionable. This means that the battle will be fought and could be won with some guys who aren't the normal suspects. Will RSL go with 17 yr. old Luis Gil up top with Fabian Espindola, could we see Cody Arnoux make his MLS debut (he played over 60 in a scrimmage last weekend), maybe Paulo Jr. gets back into action this weekend, or Jean Alexandre could fill in. For RSL we know that the likely choice to replace Olave would be Chris Schuller, but maybe you play Robbie Russell as a central defender?
The Crew have some injuries in their midfield but I expect that most of their top guys like Robbie Rogers and Eddie Gaven will see action, I think Rich Balchan is likely to miss the match but their biggest questions will be in goal where it is likely that Andy Greuenebaum will get the start. Funny thing is Andy has a better GAA than does Will Hesmer against RSL. Up top for the Crew you could see any number of guys as they have been looking all year for the partner to Andres Mendoza, so if he can't go that position is wide open. At the start of the year it looked like Emilio Renteria would be their guy, but he has only seen action once, as a sub, in the last two months. It has been Tommy Heinemann who has been favored lately but he has just 1 goal in his 17 matches and has battled a number of injuries this year, they could go with Justin Meram who has yet to score in a MLS match and made his MLS debut just two months ago. The logical choice would be Jeff Cunningham, he has 5 goals and 2 assists against RSL, but has mainly been used as a sub by Columbus with just 4 starts this year and just one goal.
So this match probably won't be determined by one of the expected names, but like so many MLS matches it will likely be decided by who scores first. Columbus is 6-0-0 when scoring first, 2-6-4 when giving up the first goal, and RSL is 9-1-1 when scoring first, and 0-2-2 when giving up the first goal. Perhaps the most telling stat coming into the match is that RSL has shut out their opponents 10 times, while only being shut out 4 times, the Crew have shut out their opponents 8 times but have been shut out 9 times themselves.
Filling in for the reigning MLS defender of the year is no easy task yet, Chris Schuler has shown that he is up to the task this year. He has 6 starts so far this year, and like Jamison he has proven that he can be a target player on offense as well, he got his first MLS goal this year and it was the game winner at New England this spring. At 6'3" he is an opposing player who while he may not be as bulky as Olave, has shown that at 24 years of age that he has the ability to play at the top level in MLS. You might want to keep your eyes on him when he moves forward to provide additional targets on set pieces.
Robbie Rogers -
A couple years ago, there was a ton of buzz about Robbie Rogers, he was getting a lot of time with the USMNT, there were rumors of him heading off to Europe to play, but the reality is that he has become the Bart Simpson of MLS, a classic underachiever. The 24 year old, had a great year in 2008 when the Crew won MLS Cup, 6 goals and 3 assists but since then he has just 4 goals over the last 3 seasons, and just 1 assist in the last two years. He has 343 minutes of action against RSL but has yet to score a goal or get an assist. I am hoping it stays that way today.
Jasen Anno -
Yes with all the controversy about Saborio this week, and the fact that so many matches this year have been decided by bad calls, missed calls, or simply confusing calls by the officials I am keeping the ref as a wildcard. Jasen has been in charge of 27 MLS matches and his numbers scare me, while he only calls 22.4 fouls per match, and issues just 3.1 yellows per match (both fairly low), it is the fact that he has issued 17 red cards and 7 PK's in the 27 matches he has officiated. That means that 25% of matches will see a PK called, and over 50% will have a red card issued, those numbers are very, very high.
This will be RSL's 12th home match of the season, that means just 5 more after this one, so a win is a must if they want to keep themselves in the running for the Supporters' Shield. It will require RSL to do what they do best, possess the ball, make quick and accurate passes, and take lots of shots.
I expect that RSL will need to work much harder to keep possession than they usually have to do, the Crew like to slow down matches via possession, so if RSL can get more than 57% of the possession I think they will be able to force the Crew to chase them. Both of these teams are good passing teams and usually complete 75% of their passes or more, I think RSL will need to be very sharp today and complete 82-85% of their passes to prevent any turnovers that could lead to dangerous offensive chances.
The Crew love to take shots and are averaging 15 shots per match in their last 3 matches, but only 1 of 3 end up on target and they have just 1 goal scored in their last 3 matches. In their last 3 matches RSL is averaging 19 shot per match with just over half of them being on target, and they have scored 9 goals in those last 3 matches. I expect a lower number of shots due to the Crew's better defense but if RSL can get 15 shots with 7-8 on goal I expect they will force a couple mistakes from Andy Greuenebaum and find their way to a 2-0 win.
OFF MY SOAPBOX