For Real Salt Lake the playoffs appear to be safe in hand with 46 points it is very unlikely that FC Dallas will be able to secure the 14 points they would need to catch RSL with just 5 matches left and for RSL to get no points from their final 6 matches of the season. That doesn't by any stretch of the imagination mean that RSL is secure in second place in the Western Conference, Seattle and the LA Galaxy are both within 3 points of RSL's current total. So the battle to secure one of the top 3 spots and avoid the "wildcard" play in match is as tight as it could be for Real Salt Lake with 6 matches left in their season.
The same can be said for RSL's opponent on Thursday night, the Houston Dynamo, who currently hold the 4th place spot in the Eastern Conference, but are within 4 points of the next two teams in front of them and just 3 points in front of the next three teams behind them(Columbus, D.C. United, and Montreal). They Dynamo have been very good at their new home stadium this year as their 8-0-5 record attests to along with their +14 home goal differential. Remember that Houston started with that long road trip this year as work on BBVA Compass Stadium was being completed.
Both sides are going to be short staffed on Thursday nights match, between injuries, suspensions and national team call ups and that will clearly have an impact on what types of lineups the head coaches can put on the pitch. Here are the combined lists for each team:
Houston Dynamo: Injuries - OUT: DF Warren Creavalle (L ankle sprain); DOUBTFUL: MF Adam Moffat (R adductor strain); QUESTIONABLE: FW Calen Carr (L knee swelling). National Team Call Ups: Boniek Garcia (Honduras); André Hainault (Canada); Jermaine Taylor, Je-Vaughn Watson (both Jamaica).
Real Salt Lake: Injuries: OUT: GK Lalo Fernandez (R wrist fracture); DOUBTFUL: DF Jamison Olave (L hamstring strain); QUESTIONABLE: DF Kenny Mansally (L knee MCL sprain); PROBABLE: DF Chris Schuler (L foot bone bruise). National Team Call Ups - RSL: Kyle Beckerman (USA); Alvaro Saborío (Costa Rica); Will Johnson (Canada). Suspensions - Chris Wingert (caution accumulation).
After the jump, the Key Match Up, Wildcards, and more:
Key Match Up:
Chris Schuler & Tony Beltran vs. Calen Carr and Macoumba Kandji - With Chris Wingert suspended and Kenny Mansally still injured it will likely mean that RSL head coach Jason Kreis will play Chris Schuler on the outside of the back line as opposed to his normal center back position. Now Schuler has done this before for RSL but not against a speedy winger like Calen Carr, it should be interesting to see how Chris handles the pressure in his first match back from a long injury layoff. Schuler would have a big size advantage over Carr, but on the opposite side of the pitch that size advantage is even greater as the 6' 4" Kandji will be matched up with 5' 8" Tony Beltran. Tony has been used to matching up with bigger guys, but not many big guys move as quickly or as aggressively as does Kandji. I have watched Kandji since he joined MLS, and wondered what it would take for him to break out in MLS, I thought he would be able to produce more since joining the league but after 5 goals and 7 assists in his first two years with the New York Red Bulls, he has had just 4 goals and 5 assists since 2010. To be fair he did deal with a huge injury in the 2010 MLS Cup, and has had limited minutes since then. This year he has 15 starts and appeared in 23 matches which has resulted in 3 goals and 2 assists so far this year.
I think it that this will be the most interesting match up on the pitch Thursday night.
Nat Borchers - For Real Salt Lake the many missing players will leave a lack of experienced leadership on the pitch, it is very likely that Nat will be wearing the captain's armband for RSL on Thursday and that comes with a big responsibility. Not only will Nat need to work hand in hand with Nick Rimando to keep the back line organized, but he will also need to be RSL's coach on the pitch providing leadership to the guys filling in at various spots, and he will need to be the teams voice with the officials. In the past matches with Houston have gotten very physical and with both teams fighting for points as well as missing players it could get ugly in a hurry on Thursday. Nat will need to remain above the chaos and keep the boys calm, while ensuring that the officials are doing their jobs.
Brad Davis - While he hasn't gotten a lot of press this year, he has once again been what drives the success or failure of the Houston Dynamo's on the pitch. Half of his 6 goals this year have been game winners for Houston, and his 11 assists include 3 more game winners, so 6 of the teams 11 wins have been a direct result of a play by Brad Davis. The amazing thing is that is nothing new for him or the team, it is simply how good he is both on set pieces and in the run of play. Nobody crosses a ball better than he does (sorry Beckham fans). Against RSL he has been a killer with 3 goals and 11 assists in 17 matches he has played against RSL. It will be interesting to see how this new 4-3-3 formation impacts his numbers and ability to create chances for himself and his teammates.
Ismail Elfath - I know you are asking yourself who is that, well you should know that I always consider the official in charge of the match as a wildcard and this may be the wildest of them all. To say that the matches between RSL and Houston have been heated in recent years is an understatement, so on a week when there are just 4 MLS matches scheduled I am confused why US Soccer, PRO, and MLS would assign a rookie to this match? This will be Ismail's 6th MLS match and he calls a low number of fouls, just 22.6 on average and has a low number of yellow cards as well with just 2.2 per match, so why is he a wildcard? 4 red cards and 3 PK's in just 5 matches, and you put this guy in charge of this match, one that has seen more than its fair share of controversy and physical confrontations over the years. Really, one has to wonder who is running the asylum that picks the officials for matches.
My RSL Starting XI:
It is rare when I pick RSL to lose a match, but that is exactly what I think is likely to happen on Thursday. With so many pieces missing, with the conditions in Houston (The forecast high is 98, with a heat index of 107, humidity will be over 50%) and against a team that is simply dominant at home (no losses, +14 goal differential) it won't be impossible but it will be very difficult for RSL.
So here is what RSL must do if they want to prove my prediction wrong, they must score quickly (we have just 5 goals in the first 30 minutes of matches, but Houston has allowed 14 of their 33 in the first 30 minutes). We must score first, RSL is 12-1-0 when we score first and Houston is 1-7-2 when giving up the first goal. We must counter the weather by making the ball do the work, that means our passes will need to be sharper than ever and they will also need to be longer than our normal short passes.
I would love to say that I think RSL can pull off a 1-0 upset of Houston and hand them their first ever loss at home, but with us never having won a match in Texas I just think history is against us and this is likely to be a 2-1 loss for RSL.
So what are your thoughts and expectations about this big match?
OFF MY SOAPBOX