It seems like just yesterday for many RSL fans, the trip to Seattle, the 120 minute battle with the LA Galaxy to a 1-1 draw, and then the PK shoot out. That epic battle was the best watched MLS Cup, but it is really just an indicator of the battles between these two team, All time Salt Lake has 6 wins with 26 goals scored. The Galaxy have 6 wins with 25 goals scored, and 5 times the match has ended in a draw. In 2010 the team split with each side winning at home, RSL does hold a home pitch advantage of 3-1-4, that one loss came in 2006 (there were a lot of losses that year).
While some out there are pointing to such a huge matchup as a reason why MLS shouldn't play on FIFA dates, I look at this as a huge test of depth for both teams. National team call ups actually have 4 players missing from action this weekend, LA loses Landon Donovan-USA, while RSL loses Will Johnson-Canada, Alvaro Saborio-Costa Rica, and Arturo Alvarez-El Salvador.
Both sides are also dealing with injury issues: LA GALAXY -- OUT: FW Adam Cristman (L knee surgery); MF Dan Keat (L heel fracture); DOUBTFUL: DF Gregg Berhalter (L knee MCL sprain); QUESTIONABLE: GK Donovan Ricketts (R hamstring strain); PROBABLE: DF Omar Gonzalez (R shoulder sprain).
REAL SALT LAKE -- QUESTIONABLE: DF Jamison Olave (R hamstring strain); GK Nick Rimando (R ankle bone spur)
So neither team will have full rosters, it will open the door for some others to step up in a very big match for both teams, last year the Supporters' Shield came down to these two teams and the gap between them was just 3 points. After the jump, the Key Match ups, the Wildcards, and my match prediction.
Key Match Ups:
David Beckham and Juninho vs. Kyle Beckerman and Ned Grabavoy
Well one has the prestige names a British legend and young Brazilian, the other has the workmanlike determination of journeymen, Kyle Beckerman who enters his 12th year in MLS with 3 different clubs and Ned Grabavoy entering his 7th season with 4 different clubs (note, he started his career with the LA Galaxy). It is really going to be a battle of flash vs. grit, don't get me wrong both Kyle and Ned have the ability to create amazing things on the pitch but both will need to maintain focus on the two players that LA will look to be their creative engines in the match. It should be interesting to see how they matchup, I know how dangerous Beckham can be, and that LA is a better team with him on the pitch (despite the numbers), but without Landon, it will put a lot of pressure on the highest paid player in MLS to perform. Juninho has scored both of LA's goals this year and the player that many expected to step in for the departed Edson Buddle, Juan Pablo Angel has just 27 minutes in their first 2 matches and hasn't taken a shot yet.
I really do like the match up for our guys, they are 90 minute guys who go from whistle to whistle and play everywhere on the pitch, while David and Juninho have been known to be a bit lax when it comes to defensive duty. While we all know how well Beckham can do from set pieces, the key will be not giving him those chances tonight and while that is a big task I believe that RSL will limited the number of set pieces that LA gets.
Nick Rimando vs Josh Saunders
At MLS Cup it came down to a shootout and these were the two keepers that ended up in net for it, with Donovan Ricketts likely out with injury, and Nick Rimando most likely going to be able to go for RSL it will be a rematch of that chilly night in Seattle. Nick Rimando has faced the LA Galaxy 8 times for RSL and 18 times overall in his career, his RSL GAA is 1.60 and his overall GAA is 1.64. Nick has only one MLS match so far this year and it was the clean sheet last weekend against San Jose, and in the 4 meaningful matches played this year by RSL he has allowed just a single goal.
Josh Saunders is a quality backup who has been pushed into a starting role the last couple weeks due to a hamstring injury to Donovan Ricketts, it is likely that he will be in goal tonight. In the 2 matches LA has played so far this year they have allowed just a single goal, so he has a 0.50 GAA, He started his MLS Career in 2003 with San Jose, but has only 966 minutes over the years and a 1.12 GAA when he has played.
The clear edge goes to Nick Rimando if he is 100% but I have to believe that even a 80% Nick Rimando would hold an edge over Saunders. I am hoping for Nick to be ready to go, after winning save of the week honors for week 1, we could need to see him making some more huge saves against a very good LA team.
Michael Stephens - LA Galaxy
While he is just 21 years hold the 2010 1st round draft pick has shown he has what it takes to play in MLS. In his rookie season he was able to play in 25 matches and log almost 1,900 minutes of action. He found the back of the net once, but added 8 assists to his stats and showed that he was able to step in and fill the large boots of Landon Donovan much better than anyone expected. Well with Landon off with the USMNT this weekend, I have to think that we might just see Stephens get some quality minutes and do his best to make an impact in the match.
Paulo Jr - Real Salt Lake
For many RSL fans they have been waiting to see what would happen when Paulo Jr would get a MLS start and most people believe that will happen tonight against the Galaxy. He has been electric when he plays, and is one of the few players who inspires hope among the fans (much like Andy Williams does) with his energy and creative play. If you haven't heard or read his story, you can check it out here in a great article done by MLS writer Simon Borg and he becomes even more inspirational. For this early in the season for a young player with limited minutes to have to come out and perform in such a huge match for the home team, there will be a lot of pressure but after watching him do so well in Champions League, I have a feeling that there will be even more people singing his praises after this match.
Jair Marrufo - the pits of hades
I will ask the question again, why is this man allowed to call soccer matches at any level? He has been suspended by MLS for poor job performance before and if you saw the first leg of the RSL vs COL Champions league match you know that he clearly is lacking in the ability to be a quality official. He has been in charge of 107 MLS matches, calls an average of 25.2 fouls per match, shows 3.3 yellows per match and has issued 27 reds and pointed to the PK spot 38 times.
I don't hold out much hope of a well called match, I can only hope that he is crappy both ways. It would be a shame for such an important match this early in the season to be impacted by a bad official, but it will be.
Two teams very evenly matched on the pitch, and as RSL head coach Jason Kreis said before MLS Cup, we like the matchups. Yes he does, Jason is 3-2-4 against LA since taking charge of RSL, Bruce Arena is 2-2-4 against RSL. No RSL player has more minutes for the team against LA than does Andy Williams, his 981 minutes with 3 assists are the numbers for RSL but he also has 1704 minutes overall with 2 goals and 10 assists against LA. RSL has 8 players on their roster who have scored against LA (2 are on national team duty).
LA has 10 guys on their roster who have scored against RSL in the past, but the leading man, Landon Donovan, with 6 goals and 7 assists (25% of LA's goals ever against RSL, and 30% of their assists) is gone. But two of their forwards, Juan Pablo Angel and Chad Barrett have both had success against RSL, they both have found the back of the net 3 times when facing RSL. Perhaps the real threat against RSL will be Mike Magee, he has two goals against RSL is just 390 minutes of action, second only to Beckham's 2 goals in 90 minutes (both scored in 2-2 draw at Rice Eccles and both goals were very questionable in nature).
This match might be missing some big names but I have a feeling it will be an exciting match in front of a very large and loud crowd. I think Paulo Jr. is going to take full advantage of his opportunity and LA hasn't seen two forwards who can expose their backline the way that Paulo and Fabi will be able to, and the inexperience of Saunders could be the difference in what I think will be a 2-1 RSL win.
OFF MY SOAPBOX