On May 29, or as I like to call it, the Night MLS Died, seven MLS teams lost to seven lower division teams and threw everyone's US Open Cup predictions right out the window. In most cases the MLS teams found bizarre ways to concede and/or fail to score goals, sealing their own respective demises in the tournament. The Timbers would be one of those.
Real Salt Lake, on the other hand, looked thoroughly dominated in front of some 17,000 home fans by the NSC Minnesota Stars, the defending NASL Champions. Jason Kreis was livid and promised his players two weeks of hard labor in training sessions during the international break.
They emerged from the break with a commanding 3-0 win over Chivas USA but went on to lose their next three matches. On Wednesday night they extended their winless streak to four matches with a scoreless draw against the similarly stumbling Seattle Sounders. This in spite of the availability of nearly all of Kreis' preferred first squad.
With each successive loss RSL fans hope their team will answer what should have been a wake-up call, only to find out the next match that it didn't go through.
So, where is RSL?
RSL's four-match dry patch has almost entirely revolved around the defense.
The combination of Nat Borchers and Jamison Olave, with guys like Chris Wingert and Tony Beltran on the wings (and Nick Rimando in goal), has been one of MLS' most dominant defensive teams over the past three years. In 2010 RSL finished with a ridiculous 20 goals allowed in the 30-match season, following up with a 2011 performance that was second in the Western Conference only to the LA Galaxy.
That dominance continued into 2012, right up until the 29th minute of Salt Lake's match against the LA Galaxy. Up 2-0 against the visitors, the Salt Lake defense starting making one blunder after another, serving up two goals and an assist to Landon Donovan. After losing Olave to a calf injury, they fared little better against San Jose, as Nat Borchers twice misplayed aerial crosses directed at Alan Gordon. They went on to leak two more against Columbus the following week.
As much as Timbers fans hate hearing about this kind of failure resulting from a lack of concentration, few alternative explanations make any sense. It certainly wasn't any great showing of speed or strength by the opposition that led to the goals; they simply weren't paying attention. Over at RSL Soapbox, denz attributes the lack of concentration to an attitude problem stemming from the team's now long-term success in the league.
Injuries forced Kreis to give Kwame Watson-Siriboe and Kenny Mansally their MLS debuts on Wednesday night, and they responded by giving RSL a clean sheet against Seattle, not that that was any great accomplishment. Whether they are truly back on track will be seen more clearly on Saturday.
The last time RSL went goalless in two straight games was last October, when they lost 3-0 to the Vancouver Whitecaps before drawing 0-0 with the Colorado Rapids. (Their next opponent, coincidentally, was Portland, against whom they drew 1-1 thanks to Futty Danso's 91st minute equalizer.)
As it happens, Kyle Beckerman was serving a suspension during the scoring drought of last October, just as he was for the team's scoreless showing against Columbus more recently. Although RSL's biggest threat comes from the counter-attack, their success also derives from their ability to maintain possession and pressure in the attacking third, for which Beckerman is the fulcrum.
Jason Kreis has a ton of depth at his disposal at just about every position on the pitch. But Beckerman is irreplaceable. His positioning and tactical awareness provide stability and allow his teammates in front of him and on the wings to make runs and create chances. Without him the team must spend more effort maintaining possession.
As mentioned above, though, much of the Salt Lake attack flows from the counter-attack, on long balls down the wing to Fabian Espindola or through the middle of the pitch to Alvaro Saborio. That counter attack was repeatedly squelched Wednesday night by a lucky Seattle backline that benefited from a couple of erroneous offside calls. Still, a good offside trap can slow this team down, as they currently lead the Western Conference with 51 offside calls (one more than Portland).
With Espindola serving a card accumulation suspension on Saturday, though, Kreis is likely to start Brazilian Paulo Jr up front, maintaining the 4-4-2 formation he has stuck with regardless of the personnel available. That change should reduce RSL's counter-attack threat and route more of their offense through Beckerman.