What will happen when the second place team from the Eastern Conference heads out to face the second place team from the Western Conference? Despite each team missing some of their biggest names and most impactful players there are still plenty of names and talent left to make the match a quality one.
Both teams have 11 wins and both sides have a lot to play for, New York is still trying to adjust to their two new DP signings becoming part of their team, a task made more difficult with Rafa Marquez, Dane Richards, Roy Miller, Bouna Coundoul, and Juan Agudel all on national team duty. New York also has some injury issues as Chirgadze, Sassano, Nielsen, and Hall are all listed as out with injuries. For them the task at hand is to close the gap with the Columbus Crew who are currently in first place in the East with 47 points, New York has 37 points from their 11-7-4 record.
For Real Salt Lake, they will be without Will Johnson and Alvaro Saborio who are both on national team callups, but only a minor injury for Jamison Olave has him listed as probable. The task for RSL is MLS history and a chance to close the gap with Columbus and Los Angeles in the race for the Supporters' Shield. RSL have 40 points from their 11-4-7 record, and have a 21 match unbeaten streak at Rio Tinto Stadium which is one match short of the all-time MLS record.
After the jump, the key match-ups, the wildcards and my match prediction:
Thierry Henry & Juan Pablo Angel vs. Nat Borchers & Jamison Olave-
Perhaps there will be no better test for the RSL central defenders, Juan Pablo Angel has found the back of the net 3 times in his 4 matches against RSL, and Thierry Henry has scored his first goal in MLS and one has to wonder if it will be the first of many. I think you have to rate the combo of Borchers and Olave as one of the very best duos of central defenders in all of Major League Soccer, in front of Nick Rimando the collective RSL defense has allowed just 16 goals so far this year and just 6 in their 11 matches at Rio Tinto Stadium.
Both Henry and Angel have both exceptional size and incredible skill, JPA has 12 goals and 2 assists and is probably the best striker in MLS. Thierry Henry has only found the back of the net once since joining the team but he has also added 3 assists to short MLS resume. While many of the players who would provide service to the forwards will not be there they still have a number of players who will look to play the ball into areas where the two can prove how dangerous they can be.
Real Salt Lake gets the benefit of one of the most technically sound central defenders in Nat Borchers, he has the size 6'2" and knowledge of the sport to provide a solid force in front of Nick Rimando. Nat is one of those guys who rarely makes mistakes, and can be counted on to be simply do the right thing every time. Next to Nat is Jamison Olave who can only be described as a "freak of nature", he is 6'3" and 210lbs and looks like he could probably play linebacker in the NFL, but if one were to just think about his size they would be missing the whole story. Olave has incredible speed and has often come from behind onrushing attackers only to steal away the ball or poke it out of play in order to allow the team to regroup.
This match-up is one that should appeal to both hard-core and casual soccer fans, but I give a slight edge to the defenders who will be at home.
Joel Lindpere vs. Kyle Beckerman -
The Estonian midfielder has probably never seen anything like Kyle Beckerman, and if he should try to judge him based on his dreadlocks well then he will be in for a very long night. Lindpere is considered one of the top newcomers to MLS this season, and Kyle Beckerman is one of the best defensive midfielders in Major League Soccer.
Joel Lindpere has been one of the go to guys for the Red Bulls this year, he has started all but one of their matches and has played a number of positions. He has contributed 2 goals and 4 assists so far this year, both of his goals have been game winners. Fans of MLS know that before the arrival of Henry and Marquez, that the Red Bulls were a much improved team and a major reason for that has been the play of Joel. The Red Bull lineup will be a mix of their normal starters (Angel, Lindpere, and Tim Ream- the only field players with more than 20 starts) some guys who have played quality minutes (Stammler, Albright, and Mendes- each with at least 10 starts), with a number of guys who have seen very limited action this year, Kandji, Borman, Tchani, and Sutton. It will be interesting to see how a very different lineup than what they put on the field last week will be able to do with changes all over the field
How does one describe Kyle Beckerman? You can talk about his hair, or that at 5'11" and just 165lbs he is a bit small of frame, his laid back attitude off the pitch, but none of that matters because when he steps on the pitch he is simply one of the best holding midfielders in the league. Before his arrival at RSL he was one of the most hated players of most Salt Lake fans, but once he arrived here and played with that same aggressive style, that same animal mentality on the pitch, he quickly became an icon for RSL with his signature look and devilish attitude on the pitch. Most people have seen Kyle around the league for a decade and would think that he might be close to the end of his career but at just 28 he has many good years still in front of him.
Again this is a great battle but the edge has to go to the home player as Kyle clearly kicks his game into another gear when playing at Rio Tinto.
There may not be a more polarizing player on the RSL or USMNT roster than Robbie Findley, He has played just 47% of the available minutes for RSL this year and yet he boasts 5 goals and 3 assists, that is one goal every 189 minutes of playing time. That rate is almost equal to RSL's leading scorer Alvaro Saborio (1 goal every 181 minutes) and superior to that of Fabian Espindola (1 goal every 247 minutes of playing time) and Javier Morales (1 goal every 270 minutes of playing time). Yet people will focus more on the shots that he has missed, than the ones he has made. Robbie has always tended to play better in the big matches for RSL, one only has to look at his form in the playoffs last year, and that could be a very good thing for RSL on Saturday as there will be few matches as big as this one will be for the team. Don't be surprised if you see Robbie streaking down the sideline and into the box early in the match and the only question is will he take and make the shot?
I had seen some clips of Kandji early last year when he was playing in the USL and he looked to be a player with a ton of potential. When he went to the struggling Red Bulls I worried if he would simply fade into the background of a awful team or if he would be able to spark a fire for them. I am not sure which is really the case yet, but Kandji is the type of striker that should cause fear in most central defenders, he has great size 6'4", is fast and seems to have a quality first touch. The question is what will happen to him with the arrival of TH14, the continued incredible play of Juan Pablo Angel, will he get quality minutes and touches? For the match on Saturday it looks as if he will be playing on the wing of the Red Bull midfield, maybe he will have found a new home?
I hate to have to keep including the officials in my match previews but RSL fans know that for both good and bad that far too often this year the officials have made an impact. Ricardo has been in charge of 116 MLS matches and what makes me cringe is that he has pointed to the PK spot 45 times, and issued 39 red cards. He calls a fairly typical 27.3 fouls per match and issues 3.6 yellow cards per match. It will be interesting how he will treat TH14 and if he will like so many officials in the first years of goldenballs give him an advantage in 50-50 calls.
If history is any indication, then RSL is in a bit of trouble as they are just 1-3-6 all time against New York, but there is a silver lining for RSL as New York has never won a regular season match in Salt Lake, they are 0-1-4 with RSL holding a 9-7 advantage in goals scored in Utah.
The Red Bulls have pulled off 3 wins in their last 4 matches and are playing well, but RSL have lost just one match in the last 4 months and are going to be fighting for a MLS record 22nd straight undefeated matches at home. RSL have been ending up with a number of draws but I have to believe that even without "the Pretty" as many refer to Alvaro Saborio, that RSL will find a way to get a hard fought win. This one will end up 2-1.
OFF MY SOAPBOX