Predicting the first game of a brand new season by extrapolating from the prior year’s campaign and incorporating the limited (and dubious) experience of the preseason is always a fool’s errand. But why should we let that stop us?
Real Salt Lake in Brief
Real Salt Lake enters Saturday’s game with three injuries of note. Of the team’s five primary strikers, Robbie Findley will be unavailable for over a month, having suffered a ruptured patellar tendon during MLS Cup, while Devon Sandoval is dealing with a bone bruise which will likely sideline him for two weeks. Perhaps more concerning for the RSL will be the likely absence of center back Chris Schuler, who will probably be held out of competition to permit his foot to further recover before returning to the field.
The injuries at forward should be manageable in the short term, as Alvaro Saborio and Joao Plata should find themselves in the starting XI with Olmes Garcia coming on later in the game. As the season wears on, though, they will likely need Sandoval back for depth, particularly for games missed by Saborio due to international duty.
As for Schuler, he is simply more difficult to replace. His combination of size and presence make him difficult (though not impossible) to beat along the back line, and he showed his value in RSL’s MLS Playoffs run. Carlos Salcedo could start in place of Schuler, a position he found himself in frequently last year due to injuries to Schuler and Kwame Watson-Siriboe. Alternatively, Watson-Siriboe, recovering from an ACL tear last season, could also start in tomorrow’s match. For the time being, I’m going with Salcedo for the start, largely because he got the nod from Jeff Cassar in RSL’s final preseason game against Chivas, a match featuring regular starters from both sides.
Galaxy in Brief
For the Galaxy, the one-two punch of Landon Donovan and Robbie Keane returns and should once again carry the team, as the two combined for 26 goals and 20 assists last season. However, where opposing defenses last season were able to focus their defensive energy on Donovan and Keane without much concern that a third player might step up on offense, the Galaxy this year have brought in Samuel and Rob Friend, two players who could provide a viable third offensive option.
Of course, L.A. is set up well at the goalkeeper position with Jaime Penedo, who replaced the lovable (read: loathed by Galaxy fans) flop, Carlo Cudicini. While Omar Gonzales continues to anchor Galaxy’s backline, the team did experience some defensive turnover in the offseason, declining its option on starter Sean Franklin.
Projected Starting Lineups
RSL (4-4-2, diamond midfield): Rimando; Beltran, Salcedo, Borchers, Wingert; Beckerman, Grabavoy, Gil, Morales; Saborio, Plata
Galaxy (4-4-2) (from MLSsoccer.com): Penedo; DeLaGarza, Gonzalez, Leonardo, Dunivant; Juninho, Ishizaki, Sarvas, Donovan; Keane, Friend
· Real Salt Lake has won its last four season openers, all on the road. One of those wins came at L.A. Galaxy (2012, 3-1). Can RSL extend its season-opener streak to five?
· The two teams met five times last season. Galaxy won three of those matches, including a 4-2 drubbing at the StubHub Center in a game that was far more one-sided than the score suggests (and the score already suggests a lot). RSL won the other two (including a 2-0 playoff victory that put it through to the Western Conference Final). How will RSL fair on the road against a formidable—but familiar—foe?
· Javier Morales likes to play the Galaxy. He likes it a lot. Morales has always played well against Los Angeles, and in five games last year, he tallied four assists and one free kick goal from about 40 yards that was questionably disallowed in the waning moments of regulation in the second leg of the teams’ playoff series. Will Morales find his way onto the score sheet again against the Galaxy?
· With the departure of defender Sean Franklin in the offseason, the Galaxy will likely find itself starting at least one defender that did not start regularly last season (probably Leonardo). Will the Galaxy backline be sufficiently in sync for the season opener?
· Defensive marking on set pieces tended to be the bane of RSL’s existence last season. A number of points lost can be directly attributed to goals allowed off set pieces, the most painful being Aurelien Collin’s equalizing header in MLS Cup. Can RSL improve its set piece defense?
· Javier Morales will score or assist on a goal.
· Landon Donovan will not find his name on the score sheet, but he will make a critical play to set up a Los Angeles goal.
· Kyle Beckerman will earn the Claret-and-Cobalt’s first yellow card of the season.
· Nick Rimando will be called on to deny Robbie Keane twice, and he will succeed.
Outcome: Real Salt Lake 1 – 1 L.A. Galaxy
(image courtesy of usatoday.com)