Yes I said, and yes I mean it. We are 32 matches into the 34 match MLS season for Real Salt Lake and the least important thing on Friday night will be the Rocky Mountain Cup. Now yes I get that for some fans the RMC is still a big deal, for me it lost a lot of importance when RSL lifted the MLS Cup back at the end of the 2009 season. We all remember that but do you remember October 24th 2010? That was the night that the RMC no longer mattered to me, that was the night that RSL had to win in order to make the playoffs and the opponent was the Colorado Rapids, and on a chilly night at Rio Tinto Stadium RSL not only won the match 3-0 but started their journey to MLS Cup. It was the 3rd year in a row that RSL had done enough to keep the RMC and the second year in a row that we ended Colorado's chances at the playoffs. At that point I realized that we had moved past the RMC as something that held any real value for me, the silverware I wanted as a fan was bigger than the RMC.
Now I will give Colorado a bit of credit last year for doing something to bring some credit back to the rivalry, they went to Toronto and won the MLS Cup. Now for some that leveled the field, but come on RSL in just their 5th year of existence won MLS Cup, it did take Colorado a decade longer to get to that level. There is something at stake on Friday night that I consider worth getting excited about, first a RSL win will keep Colorado from clinching a playoff spot and would open the door for Portland and DC United to try and catch the Rapids for a playoff spot. Second it would almost for sure secure the 3rd place spot in the Western Conference for RSL and set up the first round playoff series with the Seattle Sounders. Those two things I think are more important than the RMC, but yeah it would be nice to deny the Rockies that as well.
After the jump my Key Match Up, Wildcards, and Prediction:
Key Match Up:
Pablo "the stuffer" Mastroeni & "Big Red" Jeff Larentowicz vs. Javier Morales -
Each week since Javier Morales has returned to the lineup I have been waiting, waiting for him to show the flashes of offensive ability that make him one of the most dangerous players in MLS. After months on the shelf with his injury, and now after a few weeks of being back on the pitch, I am still waiting. First comes the challenge for fitness, the ability to go for 90 minutes and then comes the match sharpness that we expect. Added to that challenge is the fact that each week the lineup has changed, who is beside him, behind him, and in front of him, and while that will be the same this week as Kyle Beckerman and Collen Warner are both suspended and Will Johnson and Ned Grabavoy are unlikely to see action due to injuries. Will this be the week when Javier is able to lift the team up, put them on his shoulders and carry them to victory? Since his return RSL hasn't won a match, so the pressure will be on.
When you see the duo of Larentowicz and Mastroeni in the midfield for the Rapids you know that they are there for defense and to control the middle of the pitch. Most matches they do that fairly well as the Rapids have kept their opponents to 1 or fewer goals in 23 of their 32 matches, while the Rapids have scored 2 or more goals in 12 of their 32 matches. So they are both very good on the defensive side of the ball, this year Jeff Larentowicz has done something he has never done before, he has scored 6 goals a best for the 7 year veteran. In fact he is tied for the team golden boot with Caleb Folan and Conor Casey who both have 6 goals as well. So while Jeff and Pablo will have their hands full with Javier, Javi will need to keep his eyes on both of them when the Rapids are on offense.
Omar Cummings -
I know it seems a bit strange listing Omar as a wildcard, his 14 goals last year were a big part of why the Rapids made it to MLS Cup and over 09 & 10 seasons he had 22 goals and 15 assists in regular season action. I listed him as a wildcard because many of us thought he would be gone from MLS after a few teams showed interest from Europe in the offseason, but injuries kept Omar from minutes early in the season and have impacted his form and numbers all year long. He has just 3 goals so far this year but has added 6 assists to go with the goals, that from just 16 starts so far this year. Well with Conor Casey (did you know that nobody likes Conor Casey?) and Caleb Folan listed as questionable it will likely fall to Omar to find a way to be a dangerous threat on offense. The Rapids have just 3 goals in their last 5 matches and two of them have come from defender Drew Moor, so someone has to step up for the Rapids offense, will it be Omar?
Chris Agorsor -
So last week in Vancouver the RSL offense was missing a number of players, Alvaro Saborio was on national team duty, Fabian Espindola was suspended, Paulo Jr. was there but rather ineffective, Cody Arnoux tried to spark some offense in the second half for RSL but with just 10 men it was tough. Then in the final 10 minutes RSL looked very dangerous and to me it was the pace and energy of 21 year old Chris Agorsor that impressed me most on a very disappointing night. It was the first 10 minutes of MLS action for Chris who joined MLS this offseason and was who's rights were won by the Philadelphia Union in a weighted lottery. The Union released him this summer and RSL picked him up, he was doing well with the reserves until an injury sidelined him until just recently. For me the flashes of speed give the RSL attack another element that hasn't been a strength this year, I have to believe that we might get to see some of that speed and nose for goal on Friday night.
Ricardo Salazar -
Well it is Referee Week in MLS, and for both RSL fans and Rapids fans the officials have been far from worthy of a week of praise and adoration. When these teams faced off earlier this year it was a missed offside call in stoppage time that gave RSL the 1-0 victory, and given the last few weeks I expect more controversy before the final whistle blows in this one. Ricardo will be in charge it will be his 142nd MLS match, he calls an average of 26.8 fouls per match, issues 3.5 yellows per match, he has issued 42 red cards and pointed to the PK spot 54 times. Oh how I just hope we can see a match where the official isn't the deciding factor.
Well the Rapids have just 6 wins at home this year, but they also have just 2 losses at home, but for them anything less than a win will leave their post season hopes in real jeopardy, so I expect a lot of pressure from them early and often and that is something RSL haven't responded well to recently. The fact that RSL have given up 12 goals in their last 4 matches doesn't fill me with confidence, neither does the fact that we have only scored 2 goals in our last 4 matches.
This match comes down to a two basic facts, if RSL can score first they are likely going to win. RSL is 15-3-1 when scoring first and 0-8-2 when giving up the first goal. RSL has scored 14 goals in the first 30 minutes of matches, Colorado has scored 13 in the first 30, RSL has given up 14 goals in the first 30, while the Rapids have given up just 11 in the first 30 minutes of matches. We have seen late drama in matches between these two teams in the past but I expect that the team that scores first will get a result.
The second fact is the officiating, will the match end up 11 vs 11? Each side has had their share of ejections this year, RSL has had 7 players sent off (opposing teams 8), while the Rapids have had 5 players sent off (opposing teams just 3). The Rapids have been issued 4 PK's and converted 3 of them, while RSL has had 5 PK attempts and converted each of them.
I think this ends up a 2-1 match for RSL as things start to click on the offensive side of the ball for RSL, but this could be a very interesting match.
My RSL Starting XI: Nick Rimando, Chris Wingert, Jamison Olave, Nat Borchers, Chris Schuler, Andy Williams, Yordany Alvarez, Luis Gil, Javier Morales, Fabian Espindola, and Alvaro Saborio
Bench: Time Meila, Robbie Russell, Rauwshan McKenzie, Artruo Alvarez, Chris Agorsor, Cody Arnoux, and Paulo Jr.
OFF MY SOAPBOX