Real Salt Lake faces Houston Dynamo tonight, and in doing so, they face a team that has a lot to sort out about themselves — while trying to find some answers about themselves, too.
Of Houston's last five matches, they've earned one point — their form reads a bit miserably, especially for a team that, six matches ago, put five past FC Dallas.
And obviously enough, we don't need to harp on RSL's 5-2 loss to LA Galaxy last weekend, given we've talked about it basically non-stop this week. Needless to say, that one loss feels a bit more significant than one loss in seven matches (seriously, one — I wouldn't have expected that) probably should.
Regardless, Real Salt Lake will attempt to retain a flawless home record while bouncing back from one of the more miserable matches in recent memory (and after 2015, there have been quite a few to think about.)
If this feels a bit repetitive, that's because we've had to include this section nearly every week. In the last four or five weeks, there's been at least one important player that's been absent. This week, it's the magician Joao Plata, who's being held back for this one despite being close — but it might be more than that, too.
Burrito Martinez has been fully involved in training, but Jeff Cassar has told reporters that he's "probable." Hopefully, he just means that Martinez is "probable" in terms of scoring a crucial goal, and not that he thinks he might not play at all.
Finally, Stephen "Sunny" Sunday is back in contention, and frankly, after last week's debacle, his return can't come soon enough. He's proven himself a vital cog in RSL's new-look 4-2-3-1, and without him, we simply seemed a bit rudderless. It's a bit amazing how that happened so quickly, isn't it?
Many happy returns
Here's hoping that Javier Morales gets a start against Houston Dynamo, because we've seen time and time again that his influence is irreplaceable on this team. He's as dynamic as he's ever been, if in different ways. While his absence in the first half against LA Galaxy isn't what did RSL in, I'd still maintain that those conceded goals came down to poor midfield play, both defensively and offensively.
Morales's ability to retain possession of the ball, both through intuitive movement in both attacking and defensive phases, and through skillful maneuvering in possession, protects the defensive midfielders from being exposed quite as frequently. It's too easy sometimes to look at Morales and see an attacking player — but he's proven himself to be much more than that over the past four years. It's been a real testament to his longevity as a player that he can do that week-in, week-out.
As above, Sunny's return could also herald a return to dominance for RSL. It wasn't that John Stertzer was horrible last week, but the way he was positioned alongside Kyle Beckerman essentially flattened RSL's midfield. When you mix in Luke Mulholland's positioning — playing essentially as a second striker in defense by attempting to press the Galaxy line at its deepest — RSL's midfield was as flat as one of those awful, boring crackers that are good only as a vehicle for cheese.
The way Sunny plays, instead, offers more depth to the midfield — he'll come more centrally and higher up the pitch if it means cutting out a pass. That might seem a less disciplined approach than, say, Stertzer, who mirrored Beckerman effectively — but really, it underscores the tactical importance of a player who actively and willfully reads the game in a different way.
Does that mean everything was down to coaching? Hardly. While employing some rigidity in the defensive midfield pairing might make sense in certain circumstances, it didn't in this case. Maybe that's down to a distinct attacking involvement in some defensive phases, but maybe it's not. Regardless, it's hard to say Sunny won't be a vital part of this lineup.
The wild card: Olmes Garcia
When we look at the team, we see one striker that's been here since the halcyon days of Jason Kreis: Olmes Garcia. (And Devon Sandoval, but he's not the topic of discussion here.) Garcia signed with the team in Feb. 2013, and he rather immediately looked like he could be an impactful player. He scored a couple fantastic goals (remember!? He had five in 2013, with eight starts), and his production simply hasn't been the same since. He's still very young, being only 23, but at some point, we have to wonder what his role at Real Salt Lake is going to be in 2016.
He's firmly behind Burrito Martinez and Joao Plata. That's not too surprising. But he's also starting to drop behind Jordan Allen, who, for all his talent, isn't a striker. He might even now be behind someone like Luke Mulholland, which seems a weird thing to say — after all, Mulholland's not even a forward. And he's certainly behind Devon Sandoval, who's played central striker behind Yura Movsisyan and been a capable possession-oriented player when we've tried to grind out games.
But in 2016, Garcia's sitting with 24 minutes from three matches. That's an average of eight minutes per appearance. That's with Joao Plata missing matches, Burrito Martinez being substituted, and substitutions sometimes needed to run out games.
While we're still only seven matches into the season, and while he's reportedly had some ankle concerns, it's a far cry from the player who made 33 appearances in 2015, 15 of which were starts.
If Joao Plata, as expected, doesn't play on Saturday, will Olmes Garcia be part of the discussion to replace him? Will the job simply go straight to Jordan Allen instead? That shouldn't read as an implication that Allen doesn't deserve minutes — he absolutely does — but it does force us to think about Garcia in a different light.