Well I don't think the match could have gone any better for Real Salt Lake, with the exception of the injuries to Jamison Olave and Nat Borchers. We are still waiting for updates on what appeared to be a muscle injury to Olave and a knee injury for Borchers. Let me say not that I still don't think Javier Morales is back to his old self, each week he makes progress on both fitness and sharpness and this week we saw him play a major role in the RSL attack. We also saw Alvaro Saborio step up in a big match, which is what we expect of big time players.
I was very impressed that the Sounders didn't come in with a bunker mentality and try to slow the match but they rather came to play and attack in looking for the win. They just ran into a RSL team that seemed to be running on all cylinders on Saturday night.
While the stat sheet might say that Nick Rimando had nothing to do, Sounders officially had no shots on goal, he was still busy as the Sounders did take 12 shots on the night and kept Nick from getting too comfortable. The RSL defense played very well and put a ton of pressure on the ball on both sides of the pitch, it was a shocker that Jamison Olave had to be taken out in the 32nd minute with an injury, but his replacement Chris Schuler once again delivered a big time performance stepping in for the 2010 defender of the year. Nat Borchers was as solid as ever, and was very dangerous on the offensive side for set pieces and corner kicks, have to believe he has a post season goal in him just waiting to come out.
Perhaps two of the biggest defensive performances of the night go to Chris Wingert (with a much smaller cast on now) and Robbie Russell, both were at the top of their game against a very good Sounders team that loves to attack on the edges. I also thought both were very good at moving forward in support of the attack and both delivered some quality crosses on the night, Wingert actually got the assist on the first goal.
The rest of my thoughts after the jump:
I thought perhaps the strongest part of the RSL performance came from the midfield, while the first 20 minutes saw any number of stray passes and miscues (both teams), I thought that once those opening jitters were gone that RSL's midfielders were a dominant factor in the match. Andy Williams continues to amaze RSL fans as he just seems to keep playing like a much younger player, his energy is contagious for sure. Will Johnson in just his second match back with the team, was amazing as he was a force breaking up the plays and passes of the Sounders, while taking 3 shots (all of them on goal) and making Kasey Keller work hard to keep him off the score sheet.
Kyle Beckerman was back and after a few early errant passes he was back to being the player we all know and expect in the RSL midfield, I thought he got the better of Osvaldo Alonso on the night, but he had a lot of help. I still think Javier Morales isn't at 100%, more like 75-80%, but even with that fact he showed that he is still a very good player, while some of his passes went astray, and while his positioning was occasionally off I would still have to give him very high marks on the night as the numbers (2 assists) verify.
While Ned Grabavoy was only on the pitch for a limited number of minutes, he made a huge impact by bringing some fresh legs to the RSL midfield and within minutes of coming on the pitch he found the back of the net for the 3rd RSL goal on the night. A good effort that show that Ned might be back from the injury that has limited his minutes over the last month. Luis Gil came on very late in the match, and allowed Will Johnson to move to the back line for the final minutes after Nat Borchers left with a knee injury. There wasn't much for him to do, but I expect we might see more of him on Wednesday if the first half goes RSL's way.
Up top the work rate of Fabian Espindola is simply mind boggling, when I saw him run down a ball that I am not sure even Robbie Findley could have gotten to, well I knew it was a special night. While none of his 4 shots found the back of the net, Fabi put himself in great positions and forced the Sounders defense to play further back than they probably wanted to. Then there is Alvaro Saborio, this year he has been the most beloved player and the most hated player by RSL fans, I find myself more often among the first group, despite finding some of his habits frustrating. Yet he found himself in the right position on the first goal (yes he was onside) and the second was well, a thing of beauty, so I can forgive him being a bit slow to get back onside or a bit moody when someone doesn't get him the ball when he wants it. Because he simply delivered when the team needed it most.
So what does this all mean moving forward? We are at the halfway point of the series and for RSL the task is simple, win the second leg or lose by fewer than 3 goals. In 10 playoff matches RSL has never given up 3 goals in a match, they did give up 2 goals 3 times, once in a 2-2 draw, once in a 3-2 win, and once in a 2-1 loss. In their 5 playoff matches the Sounders have scored, a single goal and have yet to win a match in the MLS post season.
This year RSL did give up 3 or more goals 5 times, a 3-3 draw, a 3-2 loss, a 4-1 loss, and a pair of 3-0 losses. The Sounders did score 3 or more goals 8 time this year, a pair of 3-0 wins, a pair of 3-1 wins, a 3-2 win, a 4-2 win, a 4-3 win, and a 6-2 win. So they are more than capable of scoring goals in bunches and with both Olave and Borchers less than 100% this match is by no stretch a done deal.
RSL will need to play their top game, which means they will need to defend and attack, there is no way you can bunker for a full match against a team as good as the Sounders, you can't really bunker at all. To keep the Sounders at bay you need to keep them stretched out and chasing the ball, on Saturday RSL had 54.9% of the possession, just one tenth short of what I thought they would need, their 80% passing was right on mark with my expectations and they far exceeded my 12 shots with 5 on goal by taking 19 shots with 11 of them on goal. It is that type of performance that will again be needed on Wednesday night if RSL are going to move on to the next step on their journey towards MLS Cup.
OFF MY SOAPBOX