Real Salt Lake bagged three big points last week in its visit to Carson, California, an ideal start to a promising season. On Saturday, RSL will face its second test of the early season, returning to California for a showdown against the San Jose Earthquakes.
After a blazing 2012 season that saw San Jose take home the Supporters’ Shield that saw the Goonies steal point after point with late-game heroics, 2013 was largely a failure. The club returned almost the same roster from its 2012 team, but late game-saving goals were hard to come by, and San Jose missed the MLS Cup Playoffs.
In spite of a trying 2013, San Jose was (and is) still a dangerous team: the Quakes failed to gain a result at Buck Shaw Stadium in only one game last year. But there’s good news for the RSL faithful: that lone San Jose home loss came at the hands (or feet?) of Real Salt Lake in the 2013 season opener for both teams.
Last year, Real Salt Lake went 2-1 against San Jose, winning at Buck Shaw 2-0, then winning at home 3-0, before losing 2-1 at Rio Tinto in September. Across the three games, Alvaro Saborio and Javier Morales each scored twice for RSL, while Steven Lenhart notched a brace in the San Jose win. Possession was almost even in the match at Buck Shaw, while Real Salt Lake dominated possession in the two matches in Sandy.
San Jose Earthquakes in Brief
San Jose enters Saturday’s match with RSL coming off a 1-1 CONCACAF Champions League draw with Mexican side Toluca on Tuesday. The Earthquakes were a little unfortunate not to get the win, as a possible handball in the box against Toluca was left uncalled in the 34th minute and a mad 79th minute scrum in front of the Toluca goal came away with no payoff. But San Jose did successfully equalize on the final play of the game, deep into stoppage, as Alan Gordon’s headed goal sends San Jose back to Toluca next week on equal terms.
San Jose’s Tuesday Champions League match also means the team enters Saturday’s game on a short week. San Jose has already expressed their commitment to competing in Champions League, and it demonstrated that commitment by starting most—if not all—of its probable starters for its MLS season debut. Although the short turnaround time could result in tired legs, I imagine the effect will be relatively small this early in the season.
The team returns many of its top players from last season, including Gordon and USMNT Gold Cup standout Chris Wondolowski. And no conversation of San Jose’s roster would be complete without at least a mention of the widely hated (except, perhaps, among the Goonie faithful) Steven Lenhart. The three form a solid goal scoring group, albeit one which encountered some adversity last season.
In addition, the Quakes added Atiba Harris from Colorado while also signing a defensive midfielder, the Frenchman Jean-Baptiste Pierrazi. Pierazzi is not much of a goal scorer, but the hope is that he can provide improved distribution in the midfield, thereby sparking the attack for San Jose’s potent striker corps.
Real Salt Lake in Brief
RSL is coming off a hard-fought 2-0…*cough*…excuse me, 1-0 win over the L.A. Galaxy, in which new addition Luke Mulholland had a good goal incorrectly waved off for offsides. Center back Chris Schuler sat out that game as he continued to recover from offseason surgery. In his place, Aaron Maund showed well. Midfielder Sebastian Velasquez was also unavailable due to a hamstring injury.
For this Saturday, Real Salt Lake has suggested that Schuler could make an appearance, although I imagine he would come on as a second-half substitute to be eased back into action. The word out of RSL’s practices is that Maund truly earned the right to start in Schuler’s place against the Galaxy, and I imagine we will see him starting again on Saturday. Also, Cassar could choose to change up his striker pairing, as I discuss in my “Storylines” below.
RSL (4-4-2, diamond midfield): Rimando; Wingert, Borchers, Maund, Beltran; Beckerman, Grabavoy, Gil, Morales; Saborio, Plata
Earthquakes (3-5-2) (based on match vs. Toluca): Busch; Bernardez, Barklage, Hernandez; Pierazzi, Cato, Stewart, Cronin, Salinas; Wondolowski, Lenhart
· The San Jose Earthquakes are on a 20-game home unbeaten streak across all competitions dating back over a year to March 10, 2013, with a record of 14-0-6 during that span. Their last loss came on March 3, 2013 in the MLS season opener to Real Salt Lake. Will San Jose continue its undefeated streak in what may be its last year playing at Santa Clara University’s Buck Shaw Stadium, or will RSL spoil San Jose’s MLS opener once again?
· In 2012, Chris Wondolowski scored 27 league goals en route to Golden Boot and MVP honors, leading the Earthquakes to the Supporters’ Shield. In 2013, Wondo scored 11 goals, leading San Jose to a comfy couch from which to watch the MLS Cup Playoffs. The two years’ teams were almost the same, so which one will show up this season?
· One key question facing Jeff Cassar ahead of this Saturday is whether to start the forward tandem of Alvaro Saborio and Joao Plata, as he did against the Galaxy, or whether he might insert Olmes Garcia into his striker pairing to mix things up. According to his analysis of last season’s data, Charles Bernard at the blog From the Upper Deck found that Saborio and Plata formed the most effective striker pairing last year in terms of the number of RSL goals scored (“team goals”) while the two were on the field (about 2.65 team goals per 90 minutes). However, the next four pairings in those rankings all include Garcia, whose energy and speed (usually as a substitute) wreaked havoc on backlines in 2013. Interestingly, of the four striker pairings involving Garcia, the Saborio-Garcia pairing was least effective (about 1.61 team goals per 90 minutes) while the Plata-Garcia pairing was the most effective (about 2.27 team goals per 90 minutes). These numbers speak not solely to the chemistry of striker pairings (which, to some extent, they probably do) but also to the compatibility of playing styles. It’s up to Cassar to decide what will be best for the Claret-and-Cobalt on Saturday. What will he do?
· Wondo nets a goal. Chris Wondolowski is hard to stop. There’s a reason he won the Golden Boot two years ago, a season where he scored in about 3 of every 4 matches. I think he will be the first to beat Rimando this season.
· Javier Morales will win the day. Last week, I said Javi would score a goal or nab an assist. He created some good chances, but did not find his name on the score sheet. I think tomorrow will be different, and it will give RSL the win.
· Brian Dunseth will say “Et tu, Brute?” while calling the game. Tomorrow is March 15, “the Ides of March.” I’m almost positive Dunny will pull out the Julius Caesar quote. In fact, I’m confident he will do it in the first 15 minutes of the match, if not in the pregame. If the Drinking with Dunny Twitter account uses this phrase for tomorrow’s game, the odds of Dunseth saying it are approximately 100.1% (+/- 0.1%).
· Steven Lenhart will remind us all why we hate Steven Lenhart. The guy is controversial. I can see why San Jose fans might love him. And I would not be surprised if they can see why others (read: me) think he cheat when the opportunity presents itself. While Lenhart probably has at least some history with just about every team, Lenhart is definitely under the skin of RSL fans. Look no further than RSL’s 2012 3-1 loss at Buck Shaw where Lenhart was “taken down” by Jamison Olave, causing Olave to be shown a straight red on what was actually a fair challenge (Soccer By Ives has the summary here). I have no reason to think tomorrow won’t give RSL fans new reasons to dislike Lenhart.
Outcome: Real Salt Lake 2 – 1 San Jose Earthquakes
(image courtesy of Ted S. Warren/AP)