In just over 3 weeks the MLS regular season will be over, for Real Salt Lake the playoffs are a done deal as is advancing in the Champions League to the quarterfinals, but there is much to play for as the journey to Toronto begins. I know that many people that doubted RSL last year, don't think we can make it past teams like New York or FC Dallas to lift the MLS Cup again in 2010, but they don't really know RSL do they? For me even with a playoff spot clinched last week the next four matches may be the most important ones of the season, starting with the New England Revolution.
We saw last week the depth that RSL can use on the pitch and remain competitive against top opponents, and after some travel issues early in the week RSL got a hard fought road result at Toronto, scoring their first ever goal at BMO field (site of the 2010 MLS Cup match) in Champions league play. RSL chose to avoid travel hassles and stayed on the East coast, so everyone should be well rested, and with RSL now back to a much more normal schedule, all that is left is to see what kind of lineup Jason will go with on Saturday night? I had heard rumors last week that perhaps it would be a mixed lineup again, but I got late word that we will be heading into Gillette Stadium with our top lineup and looking for 3 points.
For the Revolution, the starting XI has been a mixed bag all season as they have suffered one of the worse seasons for injuries that I ever remember in MLS. This week their injury list looks like this: OUT: DF Kevin Alston (L hamstring strain); FW Zak Boggs (concussion); GK Preston Burpo (R leg fracture/surgery); DF Cory Gibbs (infection); FW Taylor Twellman (concussion); DOUBTFUL: MF Nico Colaluca (L knee sprain); FW Roberto Linck (R adductor strain). Yes that means they will struggle to fill a 18 man roster, and you would think as one of the teams eliminated from the playoff that head coach Steve Nicol might play his younger players to get them some experience and to evaluate them heading into 2011. Not so quick, the Rev's have put up quality results (2-2 draws) against both the top team in the Eastern Conference, the Columbus Crew, but also against the "hottest team" in MLS FC Dallas in the last 10 days. So one has to wonder what will RSL find waiting for them, the team with just 7 wins all year (2nd worst in MLS) and the most goals allowed (45), or the one that just went toe to toe with top teams without flinching?
After the jump, Key Match-ups, Wildcards, and my prediction
Marko Perovic vs. Kyle Beckerman-
The best offensive weapon for New England has been Marko, who has 6 goals and 2 assists. He is a crafty midfielder who has great vision and distributes the ball well. Kyle will need to keep a close eye on him, while not losing track of Shalrie Joseph as well. New England will like play 5 midfielders and look to maintain possession of the ball and thus control the pace, I expect that RSL will counter this tactic with high and constant pressure to ensure that the Rev's offense doesn't have time to organize. The key will be if Kyle can establish his normal dominance of the central part of the pitch, and force New England to play wide.
Alvaro Saborio vs. Darrius Barnes/Emmanuel Osei-
It looks like injuries will again cause the Rev's to adjust their backline and no matter if it is a 4 or 3 man backline they are going to have their hands full, it is bad enough having to deal with the speed of a Robbie Findley, or the passion of a Fabian Espindola, but when you add the clinical finishing of Alvaro Saborio, well you end up with the most lethal offense in Major League Soccer. No team has scored more goals than RSL, who are lead by Saborio's 9 goals and 4 assists. No team has allowed more goals than the 45 of New England, and while their defense has been a hodge podge mix each week, there are no excuses for a team that allowed just 37 all of last year. RSL has taken advantage of their defense once already this year and will be looking to do so once again.
The move by Steve Nicol this year was former Eastern block players, in particular those who spent time with the Serbian U21 team it seems, first was Marko Perovic and then in summer transfer window the Revolution signed 31 year old forward. Ilija had played all around Europe before heading to MLS and he has been a welcomed addition to the New England lineup, which has been decimated with injuries and inconsistency in 2010. In just 742 minutes over 10 matches the newcomer has found the back of the net 3 times already (tied for 3rd in goals on the Revolution), and added an assist as well. This will be the first time for the RSL defense to see Stolica, and while I have no doubts that they will be up to the task, he could be a difference maker for the Revolution.
After 14 minutes of MLS action there is already a great buzz going around about Paulo Junior, well he is off the injury list and could be available for action today in New England. This 22 year old forward came to RSL via a loan from USL's Miami FC, and he made an impression the staff right away during practice sessions and hasn't stopped winning over fans, teammates, or the staff since. He has great quickness and a nose for goal, when he came on for the last 14 minutes of the match against the Chicago Fire, within a minute he found himself in a dangerous position and fired a shot that was saved by the post. He continued to apply pressure on the Fire backline for the rest of the match. Should he find himself playing on the funny turf of Gillette today, he is one who has shown he will take a shot when given even the slightest glimpse of goal.
Oh Mr. Salazar, how I would have loved to leave the officials off my list of wildcards but RSL fans have seen you far too many times in your 119 previous MLS matches, and while your numbers of 27.2 fouls called per match and your average of 3.6 yellows per match don't worry us much. 46 times you have pointed to the PK spot, better than once every 3 matches, and 39 times you have reached to the back pocket for that red card. I have said in the past that you are one of those officials who wants to be seen and heard as a part of the match, you want to make sure you are noticed by everyone, and that isn't a good thing, but we have no choice today but to hope that perhaps you will stay out of the limelight.
For a team that spend its first couple seasons playing on turf you would never think that RSL is 0-7-5 all time on the turf away from RES, with an awful -15 goal differential. Well as you might have noticed this RSL team has very little in common with the previous version. With their playoff spot clinched, RSL will now look to secure the top spot in the Western Conference, as well as fight their way to the top spot in all of MLS and the 2010 Supporters' Shield, both things that will prepare them for the playoffs. RSL's fitness has been tested with such a hectic month, but they have come through with great numbers, RSL has lost just once since April. Yes in the last 7 months only one team has beaten RSL in MLS play (more on that in a couple weeks).
For New England, they are playing for pride and positions with the team, they are out of the playoffs and now they simply want to show their fans that they are getting ready for 2011 and willing to fight until the final match of the season. They also will be looking for some revenge as RSL handed them a 5-0 thrashing at "El Castillo" earlier this season.
In recent weeks the Rev's have found out how to score early, but overall they have scored just 7 goals in the first 30 minutes of matches, RSL has scored 12 in that same time period. The Revs have allowed 14 goals in the first 30 minutes of matches, while RSL has been very stingy allowing just 4. Of course we saw that RSL can score late, as Nat Borchers got the teams 9th goal in the final 15 minutes of a match this year, New England has only scored 4 in the late minutes of matches. RSL has allowed 4 goals to be scored against them in the final 15 minutes, but the Revolution have allowed a whopping 10 goals at the end of matches.
New England has done something that RSL hasn't done in MLS play, they have allowed the first goal to be scored against them and then come back to get wins, they are 2-11-1 when giving up the first goal. RSL are 13-1-1 when scoring first and just 0-3-4 when allowing the first goal.
I look for RSL to come out early and look to adjust to the turf and push forward as it looks like New England will go with a 3-5-2 formation, the speed of Findley and accuracy of Saborio could pose real issue for the Rev's early and I expect RSL will come out with a 1-0 lead within the first 30 minutes. On their way to a 2-1 win that will leapfrog them in front of LA, who plays on Sunday.
OFF MY SOAPBOX