When Real Salt Lake takes the pitch at Livestrong Sporting Park on Saturday, it will be the 15th time these two sides have faced off in MLS action, and the competition is as close as it can get with Sporting holding a slight 6-5-3 lead all time, Sporting also holds a 20 to 19 edge in goals scored. The teams split their matches last season with each winning at home.
Perhaps the most interesting stat these teams have in common is late goals this year, Sporting have scored 3 goals in the final 15 minutes of the first half and 2 in the final 15 of matches. That is over half of their 8 goals scored this year, Real Salt Lake is very similar with 2 goals in the final 15 minutes of the first half and 4 in the final 15 minutes of matches, for 6 of their 11 goals scored this year. For fans that means simply don't start your trip to the bathroom or for snacks early at halftime, and whatever you do don't stop watching until the final whistle blows.
Beyond that the staggering defense being played by Sporting KC is something you can't look past, just one goal allowed in their first 5 matches, that is a blistering stat. They have gotten that by simply applying overwhelming offensive pressure on their opponents, they get and keep the ball well and if they lose it they apply quick pressure to try and get it back. For Real Salt Lake the challenge will be can they get past that initial pressure and do something that most teams haven't test the back line of SKC?
After the jump my Key Match Up, Wildcards, my RSL Starting XI, and more
Key Match Up:
SKC's Front Three vs. RSL's Back Four -
I know that a lot of people are focused on the midfield battle in this one, and it will be epic, but for me the key to the match will be how they dynamics of the 3 guys up top for SKC, C.J. Sapong, Bobby Convey, and Kei Kamara will match up against the RSL back 4, Tony Beltran, Jamison Olave, Nat Borchers, and I believe Chris Schuler. Yes I think RSL head coach Jason Kreis might leverage the time Chris Schuler spent out wide last year and insert him into the lineup to get a more favorable size match up in the match. Sporing can put up to 5 players over 6' into the area on set pieces, and that creates a favorable size advantage for them, Kamara is 6'3", Sapong is 6'2", Aurlien Collin is 6'2", Julio Cesar is 6'1" and Chance Meyers is 6' 0", if Teal Bunbury is in the lineup he is 6'2". So could the 6' 4" Schuler who has played so well this year already be a real difference maker in this match for the RSL defense, clearly we lose something by not having Chris Wingert in the match, but what we gain might be more important for RSL.
I think the speed of Olave can counter Sapong's speed, Nat with his superior knowledge and positioning can help keep Kamara in check, Tony can keep an eye on Convey, and that would let Chris Schuler help out where ever he is needed or marking Graham Zusi when he gets too far forward. I do believe that if RSL can get the ball off the feet of the SKC front 3 and quickly get it moving forward that RSL can and will find a way to expose the SKC back line to more pressure than they have seen so far this year. It should be a very interesting match up for sure.
Bobby Convey - I thought that the move to Sporting might have been exactly what Bobby Convey needed, beyond his concerns with housing prices in San Jose, it was clear things last year weren't going the way either party expected. When Bobby returned to MLS with San Jose in 2009, I think the sky was the limit and the first year the numbers weren't overly impressive just 1 goal and 2 assists, 2010 showed what he was capable of with 1 goal but 10 assists, last year just 1 goal and 2 assists in a year with some injury issues. Now can he be the creative force to help provide guys like Teal Bunbury, C.J. Sapong, and Kei Kamara with quality chances to score lots of goals this year. So far a fairly slow start with just 1 assist in 406 minutes, but the team is undefeated so if Bobby finds his form it could be very dangerous of the opposition.
Fabian Espindola - With his goal last weekend against the Rapids was his 29th regular season goal with RSL, which ties him at the top of the all-time RSL list with Robbie Findley. While most fans around MLS now know about Fabi, I still have to believe that he may be one of the most underrated strikers in the league. Last year he had his most productive year with 10 goals and 3 assists but he is on pace to beat those numbers with his 3 goals and 1 assist to start the season this year. I think what makes Fabi such a wildcard for me each week is the amazing workrate that he puts out every time he is on the pitch. One thing that I think has been behind the constant improvement of Fabi is gaining emotional control, we have seen opponents try to get inside his head in the past but so far this year he simply has been focused on the task at hand, that could be the difference between getting a result or not on Saturday.
Kevin Stott - One of the top officials in MLS and usually one of the more consistent officials around, so I can hope that this match which will get chippy (these teams have had some issues for the last year) will be called with a level headed manner and fairly for both team. If you look at Kevin's numbers he has been in charge 216 matches, he calls an average of 25.8 fouls per match, issues an average 3.4 yellows per match. 58 times he has pointed to the PK spot, and issued a total of 44 red cards. I expect that we might actually see a well called match in this one but again this is MLS and you simply never know.
My RSL Starting XI:
Nick Rimando, Tony Beltran, Jamison Olave, Nat Borchers, Chris Schuler, Will Johnson, Kyle Beckerman, Luis Gil, Sebastian Velasquez, Fabian Espindola and Alvaro Saborio
So much has been written about this match, and many people are simply awaiting what should be an exciting match and clash of two different styles, the slower and more deliberate possession then attack style. Sporting KC is a much more style that features what I call "controlled chaos" on offense, when they get the ball they attack quickly and with numbers, more often than not they force you to foul them or give up throw ins deep in your own end. I think it will be fun to watch how these two different approaches will do battle and which will be proven superior.
It will be hard for RSL to do the things they normally do, their passing lanes will be clogged by the non-stop pressure that SKC uses. Possession will be tough as they try to find spaces in a crowded midfield, so here are what I think will be the keys to a win for RSL, first is they must play very solid defense. Sporting KC leads MLS with 95 shots taken (RSL is 3rd with 80), and they lead with shots on goal 34, and the lead the league with corner kicks with 30 in 5 matches. RSL must limit them a dozen or less shots and try to keep them to 5 or less on goal, while RSL must keep up their normal pace of shots 13 plus shots per match and need at least half of them to be on goal.
This match very likely will come down to what team makes a late mistake, I can see it being 1-1 in the 80th minute and both teams going end to end with attempts to secure the winning goal, as I stated these teams have 6 combined goals after the 76th minute of their matches, and neither side has given up a goal after the 76th minute. This one ends up a 1-1 draw, and leaves all of us wanting more (to which MLS says nope, suck it up we have a unbalanced schedule).
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