To say that this might be the biggest match of the year for both of these teams is not an overstatement. For Real Salt Lake they are trying to battle back from the first back to back losses in 18 months and this is one of their final five matches at home. For New York, they have underachieved all year until last week when they won the Emirates Cup in London, and now they have to prove to their fans and critics that they can perform at the top level in MLS, with a 6-5-12 record the find themselves on the verge of losing one of the automatic playoff spots for the top 3 teams in each conference.
These teams have a fairly long history given the short time that RSL has been in the league, it was the MetroStars (before they were the Red Bulls) that played host to the very first RSL match ever. That match was played in tropical storm conditions and saw RSL earn the first point in MLS with the 0-0 draw. New York also hold the record for the worst defeat of RSL in a 6-0 match in New York in 2006. New York had the honor of being the first team to play against RSL at Rio Tinto stadium in 2008, a match that ended in a 1-1 draw. Later in 2008 the Red Bulls returned to Rio Tinto Stadium for the Western Conference final and pulled out a 1-0 win to earn their spot in the 2008 MLS Cup Championship match.
Only one current Red Bull player has ever scored a goal against RSL, that is Dane Richards, but the speedy midfielder won't be scoring on Saturday as he is suspended for a red card he received in their match against FC Dallas a couple weeks ago. Six guys on the RSL roster have scored against New York, lead by Andy Williams and Fabian Espindola, who both have two goals, Andy adds 10 assists to his two goals. Kyle Beckerman, Nat Borchers, Arturo Alvarez, and Jamison Olave are the other players who have scored against New York, each has one goal. You could see 5 of those players on the pitch Saturday night, but Jamison Olave will miss another match with the injury he suffered in the MLS All Star match, played at Red Bull Arena and coached by NYRB coach Hans Backe.
After the jump the Key Match Up, my Wildcards, and my prediction for the match:
Key Match Up:
The Team of Start vs. The Team is the Star -
Well when you win MLS Cup in 2009, follow it up in 2010 with the second best record in the league, while becoming the first MLS team to win a group in the Champions League, then start your 2011 season by winning your first 4 league matches and advance to the Champions League final, you set the bar very very high. Likewise when you rebuild a team with superstars from around the globe, including 3 designated players, the highest payroll in the history of Major League Soccer, and more National TV appearances than any other team, it is expected that you will deliver.
By those standards and very high expectations, you would have to consider one team a disappointment and the other on the verge of becoming one. At 6-5-12 the New York Red Bulls find themselves holding on to 3rd place in the Eastern Conference by their fingernails (they hold a goal differential lead of SKC, but SKC has a match in hand) with 30 points. Their last 5 league matches have seen them go 1-2-2, and they have just two wins in the last 3 months, away from Red Bull Arena they are 1-3-8. NYRB does have the top offense in the league with 37 goals scored, but their 30 goals allowed is 14 more than RSL's top rated defense has given up.
There is no doubt that Thierry Henry has delivered, his 11 goals and 4 assists in 18 matches is an impressive total, Luke Rodgers was one of the biggest surprises of the year with 6 goals and 3 assists before getting hurt. Anyone who watched the Red Bulls since the arrival of Joel Lindpere knows that he is probably the glue that keeps the team together, and has played in every match for them this year and has 2065 minutes (yes he has missed just 5 minutes) and has 5 goals and 5 assists. Players like Jan Gunnar Solli, Dan Richards, Juan Agudelo, Teemu Tainio, and now with the trade of Dwayne DeRosario to DC United for Dax McCarty there are plenty of quality players on the squad, but far too often this team has been about the individual efforts of players. This is clearly a team made up of stars but can they become a group of stars who can play together as a team that can live up to their individual efforts?
From the first day that Jason Kreis took over as the head coach of Real Salt Lake the motto has been "The Team is the Star", it is on the wall of the locker room, it is one of the first things the staff explains to incoming players. You can see it in the work rates of players like Ned Grabavoy, Nat Borchers, and Will Johnson, you see it in the emotions of Fabian Espindola, Jamison Olave, and Alvaro Saborio, you see it in the passion of Nick Rimando, Kyle Beckerman, and Andy Williams, you see it in the quite confidence of Tony Beltran, Chris Wingert, and Javier Morales, you see it desire of young players like Luis Gil, Paulo Jr, Chris Schuler, and others. When you talk to RSL players who have played for other teams they all tell you something is different here, you see it when you watch the team practice. While these guys enjoy being teammates, and often spend a lot of time together off the pitch, everything in practice is about competition, even when the staff isn't keeping score the players are. When you watch them on the pitch they evoke a warrior-like ethos that finds its roots in "The team is the star", but in recent weeks they seem to have lost that focus a bit and against a team full of talent like New York Red Bulls it will take a very focused team to find a way back to their winning ways.
Mehdi Ballouchy -
Oh Medhi, you know it will be interesting to see Medhi who will likely play in his 8th match against RSL since being traded to Colorado for Kyle Beckerman. In those 8 matches he has just 1 assist, this year with the Red Bulls he has played in 22 matches and has two goals and one assist in 1243 minutes of action. I list him as a wildcard because some players step up their game when facing a former team and for a guy who is still trying to prove that he is worthy of a starting spot, Medhi might just be a guy who surprises his former team.
Fabian Espindola -
In recent weeks I have been driven crazy by Fabi, as his emotions have really become an issue again and because some of his decision making has been questionable at best. Now let me say that I still think Fabi has been one of the hardest working guys on the team all year, and his work on both sides of the ball has often been inspiring. I think he has taken too much on his shoulders in recent weeks as he is trying to lift the team and carry them to victories, but sometimes that has lead to bad decision making but he has shown time and time again that he can be a huge difference maker for RSL. I am hoping since Wednesday that he has had a chance to calm down a bit, I believe that when he had control of his emotions that he is a much better players. If he stays in control on Saturday night, I look for him to make a huge difference for RSL.
Elias Bazakos -
Well another one of the new MLS officials, this will be the 17th match for Elias, he has called an average of 26.6 fouls per match and he issues an average of 2.9 yellows per match. He has shown 4 red cards, just under 1 per every 4 matches, and only once has he pointed to the PK spot. This is going to be an interesting match for the officials, as so many matches with RSL have had controversial moment, you have to believe that like the match against the Crew where the official seemed to avoid making many calls for fear of getting one wrong we may see an officiating crew that errors on the side of caution.
One additional note on the officiating, we saw two dives issued yellow cards on Red Bulls players in their last two matches, that along with the Saborio dive that was call the other way but then punished with a suspension leads me to believe that this match is likely going to end up with at least one very controversial call.
8 Red Bulls have scored goals this year (6 are still with the team), for Real Salt Lake 12 players have scored goals (8 with multiple goals). The Red Bulls have scored two or more goals in 11 of their 23 matches, and only been shut out 4 times, but they have allowed multiple goals in 8 of their 23 matches and have just 7 clean sheets. Real Salt Lake have allowed multiple goals only 5 times this year and have 10 clean sheets in their 20 matches played, while they have been shut out 6 times but have scored multiple goals 7 times. Historically when these teams meet it is likely to end up in a tie, overall RSL is 2-3-7 against New York, at home RSL is 2-0-4 with the Red Bulls in regular season matches.
For Real Salt Lake to get a win they will need to do something that is very difficult, they will need to control the match against New York. Even in their 4-1 loss at Colorado a couple weeks ago, the Red Bulls controlled 60% of the possession, they completed 87% of their passes (which numbered 599), in their 2-2 draw at home with FC Dallas the Red Bulls controlled 55% of the possession, completed 82% of their 427 passes. While the Red Bulls won't overwhelm you with the quantity of their shots, they are averaging just 11 in each of their last 3 matches.
RSL in the last two matches (both 2-0 losses) have controlled possession 58% against SKC and 63% against Columbus, RSL has taken more shots in both matches, but they failed to get shots on goal (2 of 16 against Columbus and 3 of 19 against Sporting), but they have given up a much higher percentage of good shots 5 of 16 SKC shots were on goal, and 5 of 11 for Columbus. So for RSL to get a win, or even a draw they need to do a couple things:
1) limit quality shots on goal, no more than 3-4 shots on goal if they want to keep NYRB off the board
2) have to win the 50-50 balls, last two matches RSL has sucked at winning balls in the midfield
3) play aggressive but stay onside, NYRB will push forward with huge numbers, RSL must get behind and convert their chances
Given their recent form it is hard for me to pick RSL to win, I believe they can but when I look at the history and form of these teams, I expect a 1-1 or 2-2 draw.
OFF MY SOAPBOX