Well, it is interesting that this match is being played now instead of when it was originally on the schedule, you have to believe that the Union staff and players are very happy that we asked them to reschedule it. For RSL if they look back they were 4-0-0 and would be on the high of getting ready for the Champions League final if the match were played on April 23rd, there had been no injury to Javier Morales, RSL had given up just a single goal in their first 4 matches, while scoring 8. The Union were 3-1-1 on April 23rd and at the top of the Eastern Conference, they had allowed just two goals and scored 4 including a goal in a 1-1 draw with the Sounders on April 16th.
Now the Union will be looking to capitalize on a RSL team that has both injury issues: OUT: FW Chris Agorsor (R hand fracture); MF Nelson González (R footfracture); MF Javier Morales (L ankle fracture dislocation); DF Chris Wingert (L wrist fracture); DOUBTFUL: GK KyleReynish (R ankle sprain); QUESTIONABLE: MF Ned Grabavoy (L adductor strain); PROBABLE: MF Jean Alexandre (Rknee internal pain); MF Kyle Beckerman (head laceration); FW Fabian Espíndola (L knee contusion); DF Jamison Olave(L knee MCL strain); GK Nick Rimando (back contusion); DF Robbie Russell (L back spasms); FW Álvaro Saborío (R knee effusion)
Then you have the international call ups that will have RSL without the following: RSL: Will Johnson (Canada, at Puerto Rico); Arturo Alvarez (El Salvador, at CaymanIslands); Alvaro Saborio (Costa Rica, at Ecuador); Jean Alexandre (Haiti, at Curaçao)
On top of that Nat Borchers will be out on red card suspension and there is no conclusion other than the fact that the Union have to really be happy they agreed to change the date of the originally scheduled match.
After the jump, my key matchup, wildcards, and what I think RSL will need to do in order to win.
Key Match Up
Lack of Consistency vs. Lack of Momentum
For RSL the expectations were huge this year, Champions League, US Open Cup, Supporters' Shield, and MLS Cup all were in reach in February, but as the year progressed some of those have dropped from the realm of possibility in part due to a lack of consistency. Some of it is team based, some of it seems physical with injuries, some of it seems mental as the team struggled to put together full 90 minute performances. There was an individual element as well, some players started the season out of form and have recovered and others you just aren't sure what you are going to get from week to week.
After winning 4 straight MLS matches to start the season, RSL will be looking to get back to back wins on Saturday for just the second time since those first matches. At home the team has lost as many matches at home as they have since Rio Tinto opened it's doors, now with 10 matches left in their season it has become about making the playoffs. Perhaps the goals at the start of the season were too lofty, maybe the expectations of fans, staff, and players were too high this year? I am not sure what has caused the inconsistency this year but there have been fewer pure examples of it than the first match RSL played against the Union back on June 11th.
RSL had a cold start, and the Union were simply able to dominate them in a way that I hadn't seen in years. It was pure luck and good fortune that only one goal was given up, it was perhaps the worst 45 minutes of soccer I have seen from RSL since 2007. Then they second half came and it was a complete 180 degree change as RSL dominated play and found itself unlucky not go get a second goal and get a full three points on the road. It is clear that RSL showed their toughness last weekend and holding on to a 1-0 lead for over 60 minutes on the road while a man down showed that this team is capable of anything, but can they put that toughness back in play on Saturday and start showing the consistency that a top team should have?
The Union started their season with a big road win 1-0 at Houston, they went on to play well the first 3 months of the season, ending May with a 6-2 win at Toronto to post a 6-3-2 record and hold the top spot in the East, but since then there are only two "W's" and while they only lost 3 matches since then they have seen themselves drop to the 4th spot in the East and if the Red Bulls could win a game they would find themselves even lower. For a second year team, it is tough you are really still in the creation mode of your team, which often means lots of changes, and for Philly there were some in the offseason and others that have taken place during the year. Could those changes be what has changed their momentum from the first months of the season, or is it the demands of MLS and the harsh reality that this is a very tough league.
For me I think one player highlights the current funk of the Union, last year after he was selected in the expansion draft Sebastien Le Toux looked like a MVP of the league, the 27 year old from France had 14 goals and 11 assists in just over 2,500 minutes of playing time. This year he has already racked up almost 2,200 minutes of playing time and while he has gotten some quality assists (8 of them) he has only scored 3 goals, and none of them from the run of play, each coming from the PK spot. Has the talent level dropped off? Nope he still has all the talent he had last year, but in MLS you have to constantly evolve your game, your style or you will find that others will simply find ways to make you less effective. I think for the Union, teams saw what they were doing early in the year and have adjusted to that more physical, grind out results style.
For me I hope that Mr. Nowak will find the confidence to go back to playing that free flowing attacking style that he used last year, it was fun to watch and for me it allowed the players to even in a loss feel as if they established momentum on to something better each week.
I think we will see an interesting clash between two teams who both really want a full 3 points in the worse way on Saturday night, but I think one of them will be greatly dissapointed.
Veljko Paunovic -
A name that few RSL fans will know but one that Union fans are starting to love, this summer the 34 yr old striker joined the Union and in just 626 minutes he has scored 3 goals and added an assist. Paunovic has played all around Europe with stints in Germany, Spain, Russia, and most recently in Serbia. He brings a level of experience that has helped the Union only be shut out twice since he joined the team.
Luis Gil -
Like Paunovic, Gil is a name that few opponents will know but RSL fans have quickly taken to the 17 yr old who plays each moment with growing confidence and who while still learning the finer nuances of the RSL game has been able to provide energy and pace to assist the team when they need it most. His 859 playing minutes have resulted in 2 goals and lots of dangerous chances.
Hilario Grajeda -
Oh we continue to see the impact of officials on the matches, last week one could be left wondering if a yellow card may have been more appropriate than red, but that lack of consistency from week to week in officiating is something players and fans are having to learn to live and deal with. Hilario has been in charge of 51 MLS matches, he calls an average of 24.9 fouls per match issues a rather high 3.7 yellows per match and has shown red 11 times. 8 times he has pointed to the PK spot.
I have documented the list of players that RSL will be without, for the Union that list is much shorter: Brian Carroll (doutful), Keon Daniel (international call up), Carlos Valdes (yellow card accumulation). Each of those players made an impact on the last time these teams faced off, Keon got the goal while Carroll and Valdes both went 90 minutes. I could be a very interesting day as the Union's Freddy Adu returns to Utah, in the past he was a RSL killer with 3 goals and 1 assist from his days with DC United, but he has seen limited minutes since returning to MLS.
For RSL the keys are the same keys as each week, do what they do best. Control the match by controlling possession via a high completion rate of short passes, dominate the midfield and eliminate your opponent from getting many offensive chances, then take shots, lots of them and quality ones. This will likely be the return to the starting lineup for Paulo Jr. a player who simply has quickly sparked the imagination of RSL fans, with his high energy and efficient finishing. Can he show that he should be a part of the starting XI each week?
The Union have given up two goals in 3 of their last 5 matches, RSL will be looking to make that that 4 of 6 as the team has lost just once this year when scoring two or more goals. Both teams score most of their goals in the second half of their matches, 19 of RSL's 33 and 18 of 30 for the Union.
This one will be an exciting 2-1 win for RSL who hold on to get the huge win over a top Eastern team at home.
OFF MY SOAPBOX