One team is battling for the top spot in the Eastern Conference, the other team is fighting for one of the top 3 spots in the Western Conference and maybe more. If you listen to RSL head coach Jason Kreis, he still is focused on RSL winning the Supporters' Shield:
"We've given ourselves a chance at the Supporters Shield and if we have a chance, you know me, we're going for it."
If you look at the schedule this weekend, this might be the biggest match out there as far as the playoffs go, then there is everything else. To say that soccer players have long memories is an understatement and while the faces and names (even the name of the team) have changed, RSL remember their first regular season loss at Rio Tinto, they remember the goal celebration, they also haven't forgot the scrimmage from this spring, or the 2-0 loss suffered at LIVESTRONG Sporting Park last month. Nope, none of it has slipped from their memory.
Both teams have 3 wins in their last 5 matches, however Sporting has just 1 win in their last 3 matches, and this will be just their second road match since early July and away from home they are 3-6-5. Real Salt Lake has managed to get 3 straight wins and will look to match their 4 game winning streak that started they had at the start of the season. RSL hasn't been as dominant at home this year but their 9-2-3 is the second best home record in the league.
After the jump, the Key Match Up, the Wildcards, and my prediction:
Key Match Up:
Defense vs. Offense -
No team has scored more goals than have Sporting KC this year, their 43 is tied with the Sounders for the top spot in MLS and they will bring that high powered offense to Rio Tinto on Saturday. They will be facing a RSL side that has allowed just 22 goals this year, no team has allowed fewer as RSL and LA are tied with the 22 allowed. So if you look no further you would think that this is going to be all about RSL defending against the attack of Sporting KC, and while that will be a major part of the match there is much more to it.
Real Salt Lake have allowed just 11 goals to be scored in their 14 home matches so far this year, that is 0.78 goals given up per match at home, that compare to the 27 goals RSL have scored at home and gives them a huge +16 goal differential at home. Sporting have scored well on the road with 19 goals scored in their 14 road matches, that is 1.36 per match, but they have allowed 22 goals in their road matches for a -3 goal differential on the road. A lot of people are impressed with the 13 times that Sporting have scored multiple goals in a match, but the reality is that they have also allowed multiple goals 9 times.
More impressive to me is that RSL have kept 12 clean sheets in 26 matches and overall they have allowed just 0.85 goals per match this year, Sporting have just 7 clean sheets this year and they are allowing an average of 1.29 goals per match. It is that huge (almost 0.50) goals allowed per match that represents a much larger gap on defense between the two teams than the 0.08 goals scored per match gap between them. This is also a match that could very well see the outcome determined in the final minutes of the match, while RSL fans have been frustrated by the 7 goals allowed in the final 15 minutes of matches, it could be the 11 allowed by Sporting KC that is the bigger issue. Both teams have done well late in matches on offense as Sporting has scored 6 late goals, but RSL again hold an advantage having scored 9 goals in the final 15 minutes of matches.
Graham Zusi -
In his 3rd year with Kansas City has then been a bigger breakout player this year in MLS? Having just 9 starts in his first two years, he now has 20 and has played in 26 of SKC's 28 matches. If his team leading 6 assists weren't impressive enough he has 5 goals to go along with them, but it is the 4 game winning assists and 1 game winning goal that have me wondering if any player has had more of a break out season than Zusi? He is a player that scares me as he simply has one of those shots that can be unleashed from anywhere on the pitch.
Chris Schuler -
I doubt many people would have expected Chris Schuler to have over 1,200 minutes this year, but with injuries and suspensions he has found himself on the pitch in over half of RSL's matches this year and in the starting XI 12 times, and likely will get the start again on Saturday. Chris is a tall, strong, young player who is still adjusting to MLS but who has simply become a player that has forced fans and opponents to notice him. His work on defense has been very solid, but perhaps the most surprising thing is the 2 goals, both game winners that he has scored this year. At 6'4" he provides a great target in the area on set pieces and will allow him to help mark the tall players that SKC will likely have on the pitch.
Great, just wonderful perhaps the most controversial official in the last 4 years of MLS will be the man in charge of one of the biggest matches of the season for these two teams. Mr. Salazar calls an average of 26.9 fouls per match, issues an average of 3.5 yellows per match. 42 red cards in his 138 matches (30%) and 54 PK's have been issued (39%). This means simply that there is about a 1 in 3 chance that we will see a game changing decision made by the official, something that RSL is clearly familiar with this season. Once again the only hope can be that the match is called fairly and that Ricardo will not as he often does make himself the story of the match.
Listen RSL have gotten 3 wins while not playing anywhere near to the level that they are capable of, it is a simple matter of some of the bounces going their way in matches. At home RSL are a very tough team to beat, they control the ball with short passes and force opponents to chase them until they are out of gas. I don't think Sporting will run out of gas, they are young and very athletic, they will look to attack at every chance and this is where RSL's team defense will need to be at the top of it's game. If we can force them into turnovers in the midfield when they are pushing numbers forwards, Sabo and Fabi should be able to get behind their defenders and cause all kinds of trouble for Jimmy Nielsen.
The biggest key is going to be limiting the offensive chances that Sporting will get, they have 7 players with multiple goals on their roster and there are likely to be at least 5 of them on the pitch on Saturday. In their last 3 matches the only team to take more shots than SKC was FC Dallas, a match which Sporting lost. I will set the following expectations, RSL needs 55% or better of the possession, need to complete 78% or better of their passes, need to limit Sporting KC to 10 or fewer shots, and RSL needs to take at least 12 shots of their own.
If they can do this, then they can walk away with a 3-1 win in what should be a very exciting match.
My First XI: Nick Rimando, Robbie Russell, Jamison Olave, Nat Borchers, Chris Schuler, Andy Williams, Kyle Beckerman, Luis Gil, Will Johnson, Fabian Espindola, and Alvaro Saborio
Bench: Tim Melia, Blake Wagner, Ned Grabavoy, Collen Warner, Arturo Alvarez, Paulo Jr., and Cody Arnouz
OFF MY SOAPBOX