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Real Salt Lake vs. Philadelphia Union - match preview

RSL vs PHI QRC
RSL vs PHI QRC

Well how many of us remember this time 5 years? RSL was a lowly expansion team with just one win, ah the good ole days of lowered expectations and a huge parking lot with room right next to the stadium for tailgaters.  Of course there was the horrible pitch at Rice Eccles, our team was a hodge podge of  players tossed together from signings, trades and drafts.  

Now we are the defending MLS Champions and a new expansion team is coming to town for the first time, something we should get used to it will happen 3 more times in the next two seasons.  For now it is the Philadelphia Union who come in at 1-5-0 and looking for a way to turn their season around, for them there may be no better way than to bloody the nose of the champ in his own house.

But RSL is looking to prove something themselves, after a tough stretch of road matches to open the season they are looking for points in a hurry at home.  A 7 of 9 stretch started last weekend with a 2-1 win over Toronto, and now RSL look to even their record at 3-3-1 by beating up on the new kid.  The new kid has had issues, 3 red cards in 6 matches, undisciplined mistakes by almost everyone on the pitch, RSL will look to exploit a former friend as Chris Seitz will be in goal.  RSL plans on giving him a gift before the match, his MLS Cup Championship Ring and then they will look to punish him in net.

While RSL have adjusted their schedule to not conflict with the playoff fever connected with the Utah Jazz, a day game will be a welcomed change at Rio Tinto and the forecast is the best we have seen in weeks with the low 70's and no chance of snow.  So the weather shouldn't play a factor in the match, but what will the key matchups be?

Find out after the jump:

Key Matchups:

Nick Rimando vs. Chris Seitz 

If you look at what Nick did during the playoffs it was a no brainer for RSL to trade Chris Seitz, but if you go back to week 6 when Nick got hurt in the match against Colorado the door opened and while Chris was on loan that weekend he was in goal just a couple days later when LA came to Rio Tinto.  That match made MLS history as it was the first time 3 goals were scored in stoppage time, RSL gave up two of those goals after leading for most of the match.  A PK by Landon Donovan and a mystery goal by Mike Magee, neither goal could be blamed on Chris but RSL was 0-2-1 with him in goal, including the only loss at home for RSL all year to KC.  

It was 15 matches and 3 1/2 months later that Chris would not only get his revenge on KC but force the RSL staff to ponder his future.  RSL headed to KC and took and early 1-0 lead, but shortly before halftime a straight red card to Ned Grabavoy left RLS a man down for the entire 2nd half.  In all KC fired 17 shots, 8 on goal with 11 corner kicks and Chris was there every time and RSL walked out with just their second road win of the year.

RSL had to question if they would keep the young prospect who just showed a ton of heart and ability or go with the keeper who was quickly becoming a RSL legend, the next 2 1/2 months would be the deciding factor as RSL made the playoffs and Nick was simply unbeatable on the path to MLS Cup.  You can't really replace a MLS Cup MVP without a very good reason, so while RSL had turned down a number of weak offers for Chris, they did just days after the Cup win make a trade with Philly that sent the RSL number two to the expansion side.  

Now the two will face off, not in practice that has happened a ton over the last few seasons but in a match that could be a career maker or breaker for Seitz.  Being a keeper with a new team has to be rough, ask DJ Countess or Jay Nolly.  Chris has made some nice saves but he has also made some blunders and misplays and quite simply the expectation of the staff and fans of the Union are high and unless he starts producing results they may be forced to make a change.

For Nick his GAA may be 1.33 this year but half the goals scored against him have come from the PK spot (4 of 8) and that is a tough thing for any keeper to withstand.  He will be looking to shine and show everyone why he is the MVP of the MLS Cup, by shutting down the upstart Union side.

Javier Morales vs. The Philadelphia Union

Yup I am putting the returning midfielder up against the entire Union team, as it will likely take an exceptional effort to silence Javi who is returning to action for the first time since the Seattle match. Now over his injury and bout of strep throat he will look to return to his early season form which saw him score 3 goals in the first two matches of the season.  Can the Union find a way to do what San Jose and Houston couldn't do?  We may know the answer early on as Morales scored in the 14th minute of the season opener in San Jose, and in the 18th minute against Houston.

The Union have give up 11 goals in their 5 matches including two in the first 15 minutes of matches, none more dramatic than the first minute goal they allowed LA's DeLaGarza to score last weekend.  The boys from Philly also have issues keeping 11 men on the pitch as in just 5 matches they have been issued 3 red cards.  I think the Union might come out with a mentality much like Toronto tried last weekend, to see if they can weather the RSL attack until the second half and then maybe be able to bring in their big gun Sebastian Le Toux, who has 4 of their 6 goals.  

Their defense has been a weak spot as Danny Califf has not been the leader many expected, and one issue may be size as only Shavar Thomas, who has been relegated to the bench is the only defender over 6 foot.  This could be huge for RSL on set pieces with the size of Borchers and Olave and the leaping ability of both Robbie Findley and Alvaro Saborio who will be targets as Javier resumes his role as the set piece taker for RSL.  I simply don't believe that the Union will be able to prevent Javi from being the creative force that he is and he will likely end up with either a goal or an assist in the match.

The Castoffs vs. The Champions

There are 10 players on the Union who have faced off against RSL, lead by Alejandro Moreno who has clocked 756 minutes with 2 goals and an assist. Second in minutes is former Chivas defender Shavar Thomas who has been relegated to just one appearance for the Union.  The only other players to make an impact against RSL are Fred with 3 assists in 376 minutes, and Jordan Harvey with 2 assists in 363 minutes of action.  

I think Castoffs might be a bite rough, the expansion draft always finds some diamonds in the rough, and for Philly it is clear early on that Seattle's loss is the Union's gain as Sebastian Le Toux has been one of the few bright spots early on for Philly.  His 4 goals and 1 assist in 4 matches is impressive and as he returns from injury he will likely help the Union to get more positive results.  I also think Columbus leaving Alejandro Moreno unprotected  was a gift to the Union and his 3 assists lead the expansion side.

The Champions had hoped their opening weekend success would have lead to better results in their first 5 matches, but out of their first 5 matches two were lost as a result of 3 PK calls (Houston and Columbus) and one was lost due to mental mistakes on set pieces (LA).  Last weekend they faced a bunkered in Toronto team but with overwhelming possession they were able to pick apart the defense and twice found the back of the net, the reality is they could have and should have had more goals.  

RSL has only two losses at home in the last two years, a trend that extends back to their days at Rice Eccles Stadium, but the swagger of RSL has clearly been tied to their new home stadium, where last year they outscored opponents 34-11 on the way to a 9-1-5 record.  So far in 2010 those numbers are 4-3 with a 1-0-1 record, last year they had a couple of huge offensive matches 4-1 against Columbus and 6-0 against New England (the keeper that night was Brad Knighton- now with Philly) and they will look get those types of numbers against Philly.  So far this season only 2 of RSL's 9 goals have come from their forwards and this too will be something that RSL looks to change against the Union.

Wildcards:

Sebastian Le Toux -

He is listed as questionable but he is going to be in the 18, and the reality is that he has provided 75% of the goals scored by Philly.  He is a quality player and was last year with Seattle as he moved with the team to MLS from the Sounders USL program.  If he gets into the match, look for the Union to play every ball they can to him in hopes that he will be able to find a way to get it past the RSL defense and Nick Rimando.

Robbie Findley -

RSL has seen this before, a striker comes into a season with huge expectations and then struggles early in the year to find the back of the net.  Last year it was Yura Movsisyan who didn't get his second goal of the season until the 12th match of the year.  It may be the early season pressure of being the go to guy after a solid 2009, it could be the pressure of trying to make the USMNT for the World Cup, it could be that teams are simply marking him closer and not allowing him chances.  Robbie only has taken 11 shots so far this year, and 4 of them have been shots on goal.

There is no doubting the ability of Robbie, I have often heard it said that if Robbie has a fault it is that he is too much of a team player and often looks to create for others vs. being selfish and wanting all the chances for himself.  I mentioned on "It's Called Football" earlier this week that the conflict of what role Robbie should play could be part of the issue.  Should he be a starter?  He has everything a coach could want in a starter. Should we use him off the bench?  In 2009 half of Robbie's 12 goals came when he entered the match off the bench.  However Robbie performed well in the playoffs as a starter getting 3 goals in the 4 playoff matches.  Whatever role Robbie plays, he has the full support of the staff and fans, and the goals will come no matter what color shoes he wears.

MLS Officials (Hilario Grajeda) -

When a team has had 4 PK's given against them while not getting any of the calls on clear fouls in the area to go their way, you have to believe that the MLS Officials are a real wild card in a match.  Philly have gotten 3 red cards in 5 matches and 2 PK's against them as well.  

Hilario has just 29 MLS matches under his belt, but had shown the red card 7 times (once every 4 matches) and pointed to the PK spot 6 times (once every 5 matches), he averages just under 4 yellow cards a match.  He has been the center of controversy a number of time, just google his name and you will find things like this:

During any other season, we would be irate. We would call referee Hilario Grajeda the worst referee in MLS history (well, we probably wouldn't, not with Kevin Stott's lifetime of work, but maybe we'd lift the title for a week). Or we would call his non-call the worst non-call ever... OK, you know what, screw it. The game is irrelevant, the result, a 1:1 tie with New England, is irrelevant, the season is long over. Whatever. The non-call by Grajeda was the worst non-call in the history of soccer. Yes, that includes anything Stott ever did.

But so far in 2010 he has been in charge of two matches, he issued one yellow card in the 3-0 win for Houston over Chivas USA, and he pulled the yellow card 4 times in the 0-0 draw between KC and LA a couple weeks ago.  Here is hoping that he allows the match to be played by the teams and tries to keep himself out of any controversy.

Prediction:

Listen before you think I am just going through the motions in picking a RSL win, you have to remember that it was 2007 that an expansion team came into RSL's home stadium and beat them.  It was Toronto on July 4th that rained on the RSL fireworks that night.  But RSL is a different team than they were 3 years ago and it is unlikely that the rudderless Union will be able to pull together enough of an effort to breakdown RSL.  I have a real feeling that this one could be similar to the blow out of Columbus last year as Javier and Robbie both look to leave their mark on the match and Saborio looks to continue to be a threat.  This one ends up 4-1 RSL, and yes RSL will get their first PK attempt of the year.

OFF MY SOAPBOX