So what happens in the waning days of the Major League Soccer season when a team that has been eliminated meets up with a team that has already secured their playoff spot? Well we will find out tonight as the Vancouver Whitecaps will play host to Real Salt Lake, you know that match that was supposed to take place this summer but had to be cancelled on game day just hours before the start of the match because it was raining.
Oh the saga that is "Waterpitch", so we know this much just 24 hours before their schedule match with RSL the Whitecaps choose to put down sod over their artificial turf surface (which was good enough for MLS teams to play on but not Man City) in anticipation of their World Football Challenge friendly match a couple days later. Well it appears that when they installed the grass surface they forgot to think that they might need some type of drainage in case of rain, so when it rained they were forced to make a decision. Risk the surface by playing their regularly scheduled MLS match on it, and probably be forced to deal with a torn up surface for their friendly match, or simply a couple hours before the scheduled match against RSL to cancel it because of "rain". Now MLS has rescheduled matches for natural and man caused disasters before, and since but never just hours before the match was schedule to start and never for normal seasonal rain.
The end result of it all was the match that was scheduled for July 16th will now take place on Thursday Oct, 6th. Instead of a full strength side RSL will be without Kyle Beckerman, Will Johnson, Alvaro Saborio, and Jean Alexandre all of whom are on national team duty. Considering 3 of them are regular starters for the team, you have to believe the Whitecaps get a bit of an advantage. When you add in some injuries and the yellow card accumulation suspension of Fabian Espindola and RSL had to stretch to get a full 18 man roster to take on their trip back to Vancouver.
For the Whitecaps their season is almost over, but their upside is that they now are able to play on their new pitch at BC Place and as a team they are playing better than they were at the start of the year. Make no mistake they are still an expansion team and that means that most of their success has come from great individual efforts as the collection of players try to get used to playing with each other and become a team. They are still trying to figure out how to play defense as they have given up 50 goals so far this season and have a -21 goal differential. You would think this would be an easy match for RSL, but you would have thought that about playing DC United and the Chicago Fire as well, in MLS nothing is easy.
After the jump, my key match up, wildcards, and my prediction for the match:
RSL's Offensive woes vs RSL's Defensive woes
Yeah I know it is kinda rude to not include Vancouver in the matchup but for RSL this is about getting ready for the post season and after a run of 5 straight wins (only the 3-1 win in New York was really impressive) the team has really struggled on both sides of the ball. RSL has scored just 2 goals in their last 3 matches despite facing teams that have allowed 111 goals to be scored against them this year, on the other hand RSL has given up 9 goals in their last 3 matches, which is the same number of goals hey gave up in their first 15 matches.
RSL won't be at full strength on defense Thursday night, Tony Beltran is still out injured, Chris Wingert is still got his "Hellboy" cast, Robbie Russell is dealing with hamstring issues, and backup keeper Kyle Reynish is still out with ankle issues. But Wingert will play with the cast, and while expect Robbie Russell to be a game time decision it is easy to move Wingert over and bring in Chris Schuler who has really done well this year filling in wherever he has been needed. Last year they were two of the three finalists for defender of the year, but Jamison Olave and Nat Borchers haven't live up to that reputation this year and while I can't blame anyone it is clear that something has gone wrong for RSL on the defensive side of the ball over the last month or so.
On offense we will be shorthanded, 27 of our 43 goals scored this year were by players who won't be available on Thursday, and three key players make up a majority of that chunk of offense. Alvaro Saborio and Fabian Espindola both have 10 goals and 2 assists this year, and Kyle Beckerman has added 3 goals and 9 assists. Those three accounts for half of our game winning goals this year, and all but one of our PK's this year have been taken by these guys. So there is no doubt that RSL will need someone to step up big time for them, will it be Arturo Alvarez? You have to believe he thought he would play a bigger role when he joined the team but he has just 718 minutes of action over 15 matches in a number of different positions. Will it Paulo Jr.? Coming into the year this was the guy everyone expected to have a great season and prove to be a breakout player but after a hot start he suffered a number of injuries and since returning to the roster, he hasn't been nearly as exciting or productive as RSL fans started to expect. Then there are the real wildcards, Cody Arnoux has been recovering from surgery all year and has just 24 minutes with the first team but a lot of us expect big things from him. There is also midseason pickup Chris Agorsor, he hasn't gotten a chance to play with the big boys yet, but he has shown well in reserve matches before picking up an injury but he could be on the 18 man roster as well.
The question is which of these groups will recover from their current funk first, or can both of them find a way to step it up as the regular season winds down?
Arturo Alvarez -
I have seen moments that remind me why RSL was so happy to be able to get Arturo on their roster, and I have seen the moments that have caused him to frustrate fans in Dallas and San Jose. I keep waiting for us to figure out exactly what it is that we want him to do for us and how, heading into the playoffs where his experience and skill could be a difference maker, he gets a chance to impress. Injuries, call ups and other things have limited his minutes but when Arturo told El Salvador that he wouldn't be able to play for them during these FIFA dates he made a choice to stay and support his club. This is his chance to impress and show what he can do.
Mustapha Jarju -
Are you scratching your head and wondering who this is? Well he is the 24 yr. old Gambian striker that became the 2nd DP for the Vancouver Whitecaps back in July just before "Waterpitch" and while he hasn't seen a ton of action (393 minutes in 9 matches, 4 starts), he has looked very impressive to me. He comes to MLS from Belgium where he was very productive During the 2010-11 season, the 24-year-old scored 25 goals and added 13 assists in all competitions, including 18 goals in 33 league matches, four goals in six playoff games, and three goals in two Belgian Cup matches. He hasn't found the back of the net yet in MLS action but I have a feeling he will be a handful for the RSL defense.
Chris Penso -
Are you freakin kidding me, how does this joker still have a job, 4 red cards, 7 PK in just 12 matches in MLS and perhaps the worst thing is remember this (http://tweetgif.com/3532/full)? Yes it was Chris Penso who pointed to the spot on that one. Well clearly it is too late for RSL to make a run at the Supporters' Shield so maybe we will start to see matches called a bit more evenly. I expect that this match will likely end up with at least one huge controversial call, and with Penso in charge it is likely the wrong call will be made. There is nothing we can do about the officials, so while I still list them as wildcards, the game must go on.
Well on paper you say that RSL should win this match easily even without some of their stars, I mean the Whitecaps are an expansion side that is in all honestly very much like the 2005 version of RSL, a team that won just 5 matches, a collection of draft picks, expansion draft players, and some other signings. But you have to remember this is a team that was building on the foundation of their USL/NASL team, this is a franchise with a legacy in soccer, and while they proclaim 1974 on the back of their jerseys but don't be fooled they are still an expansion team.
For me the biggest thing is what Jason and Garth echoed this week, we need to see our defensive work improve, so for me the goal is a clean sheet. Will our short staffed offense find a way to score a goal against a very suspect defense? Yeah I think RSL can at least duplicate the 1-0 win that the Portland Timbers were able to get at BC Place last weekend. So I am going with a 1-0 win for RSL.
My Starting XI:
Nick Rimando, Chris Wingert, Jamison Olave, Nat Borchers, Chris Schuler, Andy Williams, Ned Grabavoy, Arturo Alvarez, Luis Gil, Paulo Jr. and Cody Arnoux
Tim Melia, Blake Wagner, Rauwshan McKenzie, Robbie Russell, Collen Warner, Javier Morales, Chris Agorsor
OFF MY SOAPBOX