RSL's Battle RoyaleSalt Lake and Seattle set to clash for Western dominance
by Wes Brown | Tuesday, September 10, 2013
Congestion at the top of the Western Conference may have gotten tighter this past weekend, but it’s bound to get even worse in the final rounds.
Pressure by other clubs vying for the Supporters’ Shield was heaped onto the backs of Real Salt Lake. Seattle finished perfect in both of their games this week, slipping past Chivas on Wednesday, and eeking out yet another close one against Chicago, 2-1.
Likewise, Montreal secured a 4-2 win against short-handed New England Sunday night, moving them back up the East ladder to 1st. Lastly, an emphatic 4-0 drubbing of Toronto by Portland condensed 4 teams to within 3 points of one another in the West.
With only a single favorable result for RSL during their bye week (Colorado getting a 1-0 road win against LA), the Claret and Cobalt will have an extremely clear task ahead of their match this Friday at CenturyLink Field. Two points currently separate RSL from the 2nd place Sounders. Additionally, Seattle maintains 2 games in hand. While a draw would suffice for the short run, full points will go much further in securing their claim to the shield.
History in Seattle reassuring
It’s no secret how the organic rivalry between RSL and the Sounders has been fostered over the last 5 seasons. History between the 2 did not start off in Salt Lake’s favor. Seattle claimed the opening match 2-0 on home turf in March of 2009. And what RSL fan could forget the 2-1 loss at Rio Tinto Stadium in May of 2011 that ended the longest home undefeated streak in league history? And all remember the epic Western Conference playoff matches the past 2 seasons.
Despite a few minor setbacks, RSL have gotten surprisingly positive results overall with a rather solid regular season record of 5-2-4 since the Sounders have entered the league. Moreover, RSL’s record at CenturyLink is an admirable 2-1-2, the only loss being that opener in 2009.
RSL General Manager Garth Lagerwey called the upcoming game “absolutely crucial” during an interview on ESPN 700 last week. Manager Jason Kreis echoed his colleagues sentiments on the same program, adding that the Sounders have not been playing their best soccer, but that recent results mask the fact that they’re a very dangerous team.
The inclusion of Clint Dempsey for Seattle has been bittersweet thus far. The USMNT star has yet to inflict his full force on the league, but that takes nothing away from his skill. His partnership with national teammate, Eddie Johnson, could wreak havoc on any backline in the league. All that’s needed is for the 2 to finally click in the larger system.
Regardless, Kreis is right – Seattle has not been playing top-drawer as of late. Their win over Chicago on Saturday was a feeble display that not only saw Ozzie Alonso have his PK saved, but also lackluster performances by both Mauro Rosales and Obafemi Martins. An unseemly own goal by Gonzalo Segares in the dying minutes was the only thing rescuing Seattle the full 3 points.
The story was similar in the previous 2 matches. Both results being 1-0 wins over poor opponents (Chivas and Columbus). Their slate doesn’t get easier from here out. Two fixtures against the Galaxy and 1 each against resurgent New York and competitive Colorado will also be difficult to reap points.
With 2 days off to start the previous week, Kreis put the squad back to work almost immediately, not wanting too much downtime hindering their performance. The break might be the best balance of rest and activity for RSL. The team currently has 3 players seeing minutes on national team duty. Unfortunately, it was announced Monday that Alvaro Saborio will be returning to Utah after suffering a supposed calf injury.
Lagerwey addressed defender Chris Schuler’s injury situation, saying the player was nearing a comeback despite rolling his ankle in last week’s reserve game. With increasing depth at the center back spot, who slots alongside the presumably invariable Nat Borchers is a growing question.
Kreis brushed off the dilemma, however, and welcomed the flux in his back line. Saying it “felt comfortable” to have such a glut of personnel, Kreis welcomed the interchangeability in defense and wants the entire line to be on a “week by week” basis.
Additionally, key reserve players have stepped up in recent games to reassert themselves as viable starters, and 7 first-team/bench players saw action in Sunday’s reserve league match at Portland. Amongst them: Devon Sandoval and Olmes Garcia, possible replacements for Saborio. Sebastian Velasquez has also been playing phenomenally as a sub the past few weeks, and it’s no stretch to assume he’s in the 18, possibly even the First XI.
As the club gets the rest of its internationals back from World Cup Qualifiers, the final 6 matches will begin to seem well within reach for a fully-staffed roster, provided RSL play the game they’ve made their namesake -- The RSL Way.
Handling Seattle will come first, however. Do we see Kreis opt for the conventional diamond midfield against a team they’ve beaten twice already with exactly that formation? Or does he opt for an alteration to throw a wrench in the gears of Seattle head coach Sigi Schmid’s plans? The broad range of options Kreis has to choose from for his lineup could be a double-edged sword, provoking a choice between known chemistry and fashionable performance.
NEXT UP: September 13 – Real Salt Lake vs. Seattle Sounders, CenturyLink Field, Seattle, Wash. 10 p.m. EST, NBC SportsNet.