Friday night football arrives at Rio Tinto Stadium this week, as two of the top teams in the Western Conference will do battle to see who can close the gap with first place San Jose. The Vancouver Whitecaps were able to get a 2-1 win over those first place Earthquakes last weekend, while Real Salt Lake picked up 3 points and the Rocky Mountain Cup with their 2-0 win over the Colorado Rapids. Both Vancouver and RSL are entering the final third of their MLS season with 22 matches down and just 12 to go, for RSL they have just 4 home league matches after this one, so every point will be vital.
Of course last year the away leg of this match became known as "drain gate" as Vancouver had installed a grass pitch without any drains just 24 hours before their scheduled match with RSL, not because they were playing us but rather because they had a friendly with Manchester City a couple of days later. Well to nobody's surprise it rained in Vancouver and without drainage the pitch was unable to be played on and the RSL match had to be rescheduled for later in the season. RSL won the first match 2-0 at Rio Tinto Stadium, but were victimized by a horrible call against Collen Warner in the 43rd minute that resulted both in him getting a red card and Vancouver a PK, in fact the Whitecaps would be given a second PK early in the second half on their way to a 3-0 win over RSL.
It is hard to consider this match a rivalry, I mean we have no history beyond last year with Vancouver, who are in the middle of that whole Cascadia thing, but for both teams this match holds a lot of importance. Vancouver is looking to do what Portland hasn't been able to, that is to improve enough to not only make the playoffs but to do try and make a big splash in them. RSL is looking to secure their spot and close in on the Earthquakes for the top spot in the West and MLS in general, but to do so without risking their chances in the upcoming Champions League group stages which get underway next week. So HUGE is what I called it and that is what I am sticking with.
After the jump, my Key Match Up, Wildcards and more:
Key Match Up:
RSL defense vs. Whitecaps offense- Now this is a more general match up, but consider that Vancouver has scored 6 goals in the last 4 matches, and that RSL have given up 5 (all in once match) in their last 4 matches. So you have a Vancouver side that has only been held without a goal once in their last 4 matches, while RSL has only been scored on once in their last 4 matches.
In their last 4 matches the Whitecaps have gotten goals from 4 different players as Darren Mattocks and Barry Robson both have 2 goals each, while Dane Richards and Gershon Koffie each have put one into the back of the net. Their confidence level in their offense so high that they traded away both Sebastian Le Toux and Eric Hassli, who had scored 6 goals and had 4 assists while with the team, that of course is boosted by the arrival of Kenny Miller, who only came on for the final 12 minutes of their last match but might be pushed into more action against RSL. The Whitecaps have only been held without a goal 5 times this year, one of the lowest numbers in MLS, but they have also only had 7 matches where they have scored multiple goals (compared to RSL's 11).
With the exception of the San Jose match, RSL's defense has looked much like the unit that had multiple Defender of the Year Candidates in recent years. However RSL will likely have to be without Jamison Olave on Friday night, as he picked up a bit of an injury in the Rapids match, and hopefully will be back ready to go on Tuesday in Champions League action. That means we are likely to see Kwame Watson-Siriboe get his 3rd start since joining RSL, we have seen him fill in for both Olave and Borchers in recent weeks and I have to say that I have been fairly impressed in how he has adjusted to our system. I think both Beltran and Borchers have minor knocks but nothing that I would expect to impact their ability to go 100% on Friday night. We might also see Kyle Beckerman rest again, as he played a bit last night in the All Star match but had to deal with flight delays today & with the CCL match on Tuesday it will be interesting to see if he starts or not.
It should make for an interesting match up to see which will win the battle, I expect a lot of offensive pressure from the Whitecaps who showed last week that they were more than capable of handling the San Jose Earthquakes, something RSL struggled with.
Camilo - While he hasn't scored a goal since the middle of May, his 3 goals and 3 assist are good for 2nd place on the team in each category among current players. While he leads Whitecaps scorers against RSL, both of his goals came from the PK spot and not the run of play. Still he is a very creative player who isn't afraid to take shots, his 34 lead the Whitecaps.
Fabian Espindola - Like Camilio it has been been awhile since Fabi found the back of the net, 6 matches since his last goal and while has still played a major role in the RSL offense and creating for others to the tune of 3 assists in the last 6 matches. With it unlikely that Jay DeMerit will play due to the All Star match and travel issues afterwards, Fabi could expose YP Lee who likes to get forward a lot and either Martin Bonjour or Alain Rochat both of whom are very physical but lack the pace to deal with Fabi. There won't be a better time for Fabi to get back in that scoring grove as RSL gets ready for Champions League action.
Kevin Stott- The upside of Kevin Stott being in charge of Friday's match is that you at least will get some level of consistency which is a very good thing for everyone. This will be Kevin's 227th MLS match, he calls an average of 25.6 fouls per match, issues an average of 3.4 yellows, has pulled out 58 red cards and pointed to the PK spot 47 times. He could have his hands full on Friday night as I have a feeling this could be a fairly physical match.
My RSL starting XI:
This could be a very interesting match if the Whitecaps decide to apply the same high pressure that they did at home last weekend against San Jose, or it could look a lot like the Seattle match a few weeks ago if they come in and try to defend and counter. I expect they will come in with the confidence of their win over San Jose and try to play an up tempo attacking style, which will force a very solid effort from the RSL midfield and defenders but also should allow a lot of room for Saborio and Espindola to exploit the defense of the Whitecaps. This is like a match where possession will be fairly close but if RSL can keep Vancouver tied up in the midfield and force their outside play to the inside then we should be able to slow them down.
I look for both sides to come out quickly and look for a first goal, the Whitecaps are 8-3-3 when scoring first, while RSL is an impressive 10-1-0, Vancouver is -7 on the road with 8 goals scored and 15 goals allowed, while RSL is +10 at home with 21 scored and 11 allowed. If RSL's defense can shut down the outside runs of Camilo and Dane Richards then you can expect our midfield to dictate the match and when they do so RSL is very tough to beat.
I am going to say 2-1 for RSL in a tough fought match, that could see one team end up down a man based on the recent physical play of Vancouver.
OFF MY SOAPBOX