It would be easy for fans, players and the staff of Real Salt Lake to get caught up in the moment of their big 2-0 win over Deportivo Saprissa in CONCACAF Champions League action on Tuesday night and to perhaps go into their 2011 Major League Soccer opener with less focus than necessary. It would be easy except for a couple factors, you won't find many coaches more focused than RSL's Jason Kreis, a team full of hungry players who feel that all their work in 2010 was cut short by not advancing in the playoffs, and by a fan base that simply now believes that even away from Rio Tinto Stadium their team is the best in the league.
Many people were surprised by the run that the San Jose Earthquakes made in 2010, I wasn't one of them. I think any team that has guys like Ryan Johnson, Bobby Convey, Ike Opara, and others had to be taken seriously, a great run at the end of the year got them into the playoffs where they shocked and upset some by beating the DP laden New York Red Bulls and put themselves in the Eastern Conference final. It simply wasn't meant to be in 2010 and to prepare for 2011 San Jose has done a major face lift to their roster but more on that later.
This will be the second year in a row when the two sides will face off at Buck Shaw Stadium for the season opener, last year it was RSL who got the huge 3-0 win to start their season, but by the return leg at Rio Tinto San Jose was able to fight to a 0-0 draw. There have only been 11 meetings between the two sides and the end results have fairly even each team has 3 wins, RSL has 15 goals and San Jose has 14 goals, 5 matches have ended in draws.
Both teams will be facing injury issues, San Jose report the following injuries: OUT: MF Andre Luiz (L knee injury); DOUBTFUL: MF Omar Jasseh (R hamstring strain); FW Steven Lenhart (R knee arthroscopy); FW Scott Sealy (R groin strain); QUESTIONABLE: DF Tim Ward (R hamstring strain). For Real Salt Lake the list is shorter but still impactful: OUT: Jamison Olave (hamstring strain) QUESTIONABLE: DF Chris Wingert (L ankle sprain); PROBABLE: DF Robbie Russell (R ankle sprain)
After the jump the Key Match-ups, the Wildcards and my prediction for the match:
Bobby Convey vs. Andy Williams/Ned Grabavoy:
I have to believe given his performance in the last two Champions League matches that RSL original Andy Williams will get the nod for the starting XI, but you always have to consider Ned Grabavoy as a potential starter, even more on the road. Either way one of them will have their hands full with the creative general of the Quakes Bobby Convey who I feel has been overlooked by the rest of the league for far too long both as an All Star and as a MVP candidate.
I love the potential of two very creative guys like Andy and Bobby battling it out, both are very creative on the ball and have a great vision of the field and where to put the ball so their teammates can get to it. In 2010 both players had a single goal in MLS regular season action, but both put up solid numbers when it came to assists, Convey had 10 and Andy had 7. Bobby hasn't scored a goal in his 4 matches against RSL, but he does have one assist, while Andy has scored two goals against San Jose (one since joining Real). I have to give a small edge to Andy who has simply been great in his last two matches, and may be in the best physical shape since joining RSL.
The other side of the coin is Ned Grabavoy, who has a build in motivator after being waived by San Jose a couple years ago. Ned is a bit more possession and defensive minded but you have to respect his ability to put the ball in the back of the net as well. Ned started both matches against San Jose last year and does have 2 assists when facing them, last year he scored 3 goals and had 1 assist for RSL in league play.
I think the matchup with Ned is a bit more physical and grounded, but just as intense as the matchup with Andy would be. I would say that a very slight edge would go to Convey in the matchup with Ned but if you are a San Jose fan you better not take your eyes off either of them or you may find yourself watching a highlight on the scoreboard.
Jon Busch vs. Nick Rimando:
In a rematch of the two keepers that were in goal for the 2009 Eastern Conference final which was an amazing match and both did their best to keep their teams in the PK shootout, with Nick finally taking the win. RSL has faced Busch a total of 7 times and he has posted an amazing 0.29 GAA for his teams against RSL and in his only Quakes match against RSL he put up a clean sheet in a 0-0 draw, but overall the Quakes have a 1.36 GAA in matches against RSL.
Nick Rimando has faced the San Jose Earthquakes 19 times in his career and he has a 1.09 GAA in those matches, since joining RSL he has faced the Quakes 7 times and has put up a 0.86 GAA. In the 11 matches between the two teams RSL has a team GAA of 1.27 against the boys of San Jose. Last year Nick was in goal for both of the matches against San Jose and both of them were clean sheets with a 3-0 win and a 0-0 draw.
The knock on both of these keepers is their size as neither is close to the 6' mark, but both have great vision of the field, incredible reflexes and reaction time, and there are few others who lead their defenses better than these two. If I have to give an edge it goes to Nick Rimando who was incredible last year with a 0.67 GAA and 14 clean sheets, he has allowed just one goal so far in the 3 CCL matches this year, so he is in top game shape heading into the season opener.
It was a bit of a surprise when the 23 year old Tottenham Hotspurs Reserve was loaned to the Quakes but the young player has battled injuries for several year and perhaps the team is looking to see if he has fully recovered or are shopping him for a move to MLS? I haven't seen him play but the information I can find online is that while playing for the Spurs reserves that he has shown a great ability to score goals. Given that San Jose had only one player score more than 3 goals last year, now granted that was MLS Golden boot winner Chris Wondoloski, I think this move will provide a great one for both player and club.
It has been funny talking with San Jose folks about Arturo, they often seem to have a love/hate relationship with him. They praise his energy and creativity, they rue his dependence on his left foot, and that is something that many RSL fans have huge questions about, can he become more than a one trick pony? He has said how happy he is to be here and how he likes the style that RSL plays, he has looked good in practice but it still remains to be seen how he impacts matches. I expect him to be on the bench for this one, but if RSL should need an offensive boost in the midfield or up top he may be the guy who gets the call.
Well RSL has played 3 meaningful matches so far this year and in two of them we have seen the officials make some controversial calls and have a huge impact on the final results of the matches. Toledo is not one of my favorite officials, he has been in charge of 105 MLS matches, and he has pointed to the PK spot 40 times, and issued 41 red cards. He shows an average of 3.8 yellow cards per match, and calls an average of 25.2 fouls per match. Again all I can hope for is that he calls the match the same way for both teams, if not it could be a long night for RSL.
It has the potential to be a match that catches RSL off guard, they have been playing for a month in CCL matches, they have the attention of most of the MLS for their run in the tournament and are considered by most pundits to be the team to beat in 2011. It might be easy to look past San Jose and start preparing for National Team call-ups or the home opener against Supporters' Shield rival LA Galaxy. It would be a huge mistake to look past any team in MLS, and looking past the Quakes may be what cost the New York Red Bulls their playoffs last year.
San Jose is likely to field a team of players that have never scored a goal against Real Salt Lake, only 2 players on their current roster ever have scored on RSL, Scott Sealy who has been a RSL killer with 4 goals in 569 minutes of action, but he is doubtful for the match with a groin strain, also out is Steven Lenhart (former Crew player) who has both a goal and one assist against RSL from his Crew days. So you have to believe that San Jose will look to take advantage of Jamison Olave being out with an injury and trying to get Chris Wondolowski matched up against Chris Schuler, who is likely to fill in for Olave.
Real Salt Lake come in with multiple players who have scored goals already in 2011, Javier Morales and Alvaro Saborio have to be considered the top threats. The pair scored 19 goals and had 13 assists in 2010 MLS action, and have looked great in Champions League action. I don't think the team is looking past the match or expecting anything other than a dog fight at Buck Shaw, but they are in great form and I think they will be too much for San Jose to handle. This one is a 2-0 win for Real Salt Lake.
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