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Real Salt Lake vs. Colorado Rapids - Rocky Mountain Cup Leg 1- match preview

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2009 MLS CUP Champions flag
2009 MLS CUP Champions flag

Oh the bitter taste that Real Salt Lake has left in the mouth of Colorado fans at the end of the last two seasons, a late goal by Yura Movsisyan in 2008 and RSL is in the playoffs while the Rapids are watching the playoffs.  A 3-0 win over the Rapids on the final match for both teams in 2009 and again RSL are in the playoffs while the Rapids are home in front of the TV, to make this bitter defeat even worse RSL would go on to capture the MLS Cup in just their 5th year as a team.  The 16 year history of the Rapids doesn't involve a moment of winning MLS Cup, in fact they haven't made to the final but once and that was in 1997.

Well the rivalry has been diminished a bit by the MLS balanced schedule, no longer do the teams face off 4 times a year, no not even 3 times a year, but that makes the two matches, both in the final weeks of the regular season, all the more meaningful for both teams and their fans.  It is the time of year where the nights get a bit cool on either side of the mountains and when the Rocky Mountain Cup will be decided, leg one will take place on Saturday at "El Castillo" as Real Salt Lake will play host to the Colorado Rapids.

Oh there is much more at stake than just a rivalry trophy, a win and RSL would punch their ticket to the post season yet again, and would put a dent in any trophy plans Colorado might have.  A win for RSL would also allow them to keep pace the Los Angeles Galaxy who will play late Friday evening, and should LA lose to New York, well that would mean both teams would have 50 points and be tied at the top of the Western Conference.  There is also the 23 match home unbeaten streak that RSL has going, and each additional match sets a new MLS record, there are other records that RSL may set as well this year, but for players, coaches, and fans this year is all about the Trophies.

more after the jump:

 

The Colorado Rapids have found their form at the right time of year, or so it seems, they have won three of their last 4 matches (all at home) by 3-0 margins.  Of course wins over Houston, Chivas, and New England are expected wins for most playoff contending team this year, on the road the Rapids are 3-6-3 but they haven't won a road match since the middle of May and their road wins are over  Chivas, New England and DC United.  Still the Rapids have proven to be a quality team, they have two guys in double digit goals scored as both Conor Casey and Omar Cummings each have 10 goals on the year, while Casey has also added 5 assists, Cumming has added one assist.  That sounds great but Omar Cummings isn't going to play, he stayed in Colorado with an ankle injury, and for the Rapids that is very bad news.  

Gone is Medhi Ballouchy who had 3 goals and 5 assists for the Rapids, traded to New York for Macoumba Kandji, who has a goal and assist on the year but was frustrated by the RSL midfield and defense just a few weeks ago when he was still with the Red Bulls.  The Rapids also picked Brian Mullan, who has done well against RSL with 3 goals and 4 assists in the 17 matches he has played against RSL, the most of any player on the Rapids roster.  The only other players on their roster to score against RSL are Cummings (2 goals), Conor Casey (1 goal, 1 assist), Kandji (1 goal, 1 assist), Jeff Larentowicz (1 goal, 1 assist), and Kosuke Kumura who has a single goal against RSL.

Real Salt Lake have been on form since week 6 of the MLS season and haven't looked back, with just a single loss since May Day, when they had slipped to 7th place in the Western Conference, since then they have climbed up to second spot and been chasing the Galaxy each week and have closed the gap to just 3 points for the top spot in both the Conference and in the race for the Supporters' Shield.  RSL of course also has been busy with a lot of travel and extra matches that have come from competing in the Champions League, they have played 4 matches since the tournament started last month, including a dramatic 3-2 win over Arabe Unido on Wednesday in Panama City, Panama.  So hectic has the schedule been of late (5 matches in 13 days) that RSL will head out of town on Sunday, headed to Toronto for a midweek CCL match at BMO field.

RSL boasts the best scoring offense in MLS, with 38 goals, that effort is lead by Alvaro Saborio (9 goals, 4 assists), Javier Morales (6, goals, 6 assists), Fabian Espindola (6 goals, 2 assists), Robbie Findley (5 goals, 3 assists).  8 other players have found the back of the net for RSL as well.  

If you thought RSL was all about their offense well you would be wrong, they also boast the best defense in MLS with just 16 goals allowed, 13 clean sheets.  All of this is anchored by the best goal keeper in MLS this year, Nick Rimando with a 0.65 GAA, and 12 clean sheets, the MVP of the 2009 MLS Cup has raised his game to a whole new level this year.  He is supported in his efforts by the best pair of center backs in MLS, Jamison Olave and Nat Borchers, and outside RSL has found incredible success with the rotation of Chris Wingert, Robbie Russell, and Tony Beltran.  

Then you have the guys in the middle like former Rapids player Kyle Beckerman who now is the on field leader and Captain for RSL, Will Johnson, Andy Williams, Nelson Gonzalez and the list could go on to name each of the players on RSL's roster as almost all of them have made huge contributions so far in 2010.

Now it is time for the

Key Match-up:

 

Kyle Beckerman, Javier Morales, Andy Williams, and Will Johnson vs. Pablo Mastroeni, Brian Mullan, Jeff Larentowisz, and Jamie Smith-

The battle will be won or lost in the midfield, and it is interesting that RSL is lead by a player who was once the most hated man in Salt Lake City.  When Kyle Beckerman wore a Rapids kit, most RSL fans boo'ed him from the start to finish of matches, but once that long haired hippy was in our colors he quickly became a on field leader and one of the most popular players on the team. When Javier is on, there are few creative midfielders better in MLS, but he is coming of a bit of an injury and may only see limited minutes.  

There is no player that I know of who give more on the pitch than Will Johnson, and having found his scoring form against Arabe Unido in the midweek match and he could be a real force to deal with for the Rapids.  Then you have a guy I consider a real threat for comeback player of the year, Andy Williams, after a year to tragedy and triumph in 09, it has simply been amazing to watch Andy this year.  He has played in every MLS match this year, and his 5 assists are second on the team, but he brings a flair and energy to the team that simply can't be described.

There was a point when Pablo was one of the most feared central defenders playing in MLS, he was a regular with the USMNT, and saw action in the 2006 World Cup and has been an anchor of the Rapids for as long as most people can remember.  I think the addition of Jeff Larentowicz is one of the biggest keys to the Rapids being much closer to the playoffs this year than in the last few years, tough as nails and not afraid to get physical.

The Rapids made a recent move to pick up Brian Mullan from Houston and will use the aging 32 year old to boost their creativity and offensive output from the midfield in a "win now" move.  They also look to Jamie Smith to provide some chances for their strikers, he tied for first on the team with 5 assists.  We may also see Wells Thompson come on to provide some offense for the Rapids.

It is fairly clear that RSL has a real advantage in the midfield but the clash of styles of the pinched diamond vs. the flat four should make for some entertaining matchups between the various players on the pitch.

Wildcards:

Paulo Junior-

The Rapids may not know what hits them when Paulo Junior hits the pitch, in limited minutes he has shown that he isn't afraid to take shots and that he knows where the goal is, only the post kept him from scoring against the Fire last weekend.  He has good speed and knows how to get into very dangerous positions, as the RSL players learn what he can do, he is likely to become a very nice addition to RSL's roster of forwards.  

Macoumba Kandji-

When the Rapids traded away Medhi Ballouchy to the Red Bulls for Kandji, it left many people scratching their heads, the Rapids already had two quality forwards and a lack of depth in the midfield.  Kandji is a player that I think has a huge upside if someone can get him to start playing up to his potential, size, speed and a good touch.  With Omar Cummings out with an injury, we could see Kandji play a big role for the Rapids.  Of course RSL dealt with him a couple weeks ago when he came to town with Henry.

Ramon Hernandez-

Once again the officials are a wildcard and in a very heated rivalry match one has to wonder how Ramon who has only 27 previous MLS matches under his belt will deal with it.  He calls an average of 28.5 fouls per match and issues an average of 4.3 yellow cards, and both those numbers are a bit above average in MLS.  He has issued 7 red cards, 1 every 3.85 matches, and he has pointed to the PK spot 6 times or an average of once every 4.5 matches.

My Prediction

This is match #4 in my 5 matches in 23 days campaign and this match could very well hold RSL's Supporters' Shield hopes, they must win if they want to keep pace with LA.  The Rapids really want some revenge but will likely come looking for the draw.  With so many matches decided by who scores first, it is interesting that Colorado has allowed 11 goals in the first 30 minutes of matches while RSL has allowed just 4.  

I think RSL will continue the "Reign of RSL"  with a 2-0 win, one goal in the first 30 minutes and then a late goal in the last 15 minutes.  This match could quickly get ugly as there is no love lost between these two teams.

OFF MY SOAPBOX