Portland Timbers v Real Salt Lake - Western Conference Championship - Leg 1

Real Salt Lake’s 2013: The not-so-rebuilding year that could end in an MLS title

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“What are you doing this offseason” is the question you hear most this time of year around Major League Soccer, but it has less and less significance. With seasons starting sooner and ending later, there’s barely enough time to fit in drafts, re-entry drafts, ang preseasons before we’re kicking off again in March. The games may stop on this Saturday, but come Monday morning, teams will start overhauling their rosters. With player movement often grabbing headlines as big as the matches themselves, there is no offseason for an MLS diehard.

Take last year. Coming out of Los Angeles, you’d think there would have been a period of reflection on the year that was, particularly since neither David Beckham nor Landon Donovan seemed ready to give us quick answers to their career quandaries. Instead, Garth Lagerwey was putting us to work. As planes were lifting off from LAX, the Real Salt Lake general manager was shipping Jaimson Olave and Fabian Espindola to New York. Around the same time, news broke that Will Johnson was going to Portland. While the rest of the league was resetting, an Real Salt Lake team that have been to five straight post seasons was rebuilding.

At least, we called it rebuilding, though now that Jason Kreis’s team is back in their first title game since 2009, we might want to reconsider the label, one which became a bit of a cliché throughout the regular season. Espindola, Johnson, and especially Olave were valuable pieces for RSL, but when you look at the core Lagerwey maintained, the offseason looks like more of a small shuffle than major remodeling. The core of the team was still in place.

That core starts at the back with U.S. international Nick Rimando and continues through a back line that returned three quality veterans: fullbacks Tony Beltran and Chris Wingert and former Best XI central defender Nat Borchers. In the middle, Real Salt Lake still had their linchpins: Kyle Beckerman at the base of their diamond; Javier Morales at the tip. And although he wasn’t there when the team raised the cup in 2009, Costa Rican international Álvaro Saborío has been an integral part of the team’s continued success. He was coming back, too.

Add in Ned Grabavoy, key in a season where RSL were occasionally without Kyle Beckerman, and the team had eight starters returning from a squad that finished second in the West. Among the replacements they had in house, Jason Kreis could call on Luis Gil in midfield and Chris Schuler at the back. The only real question was whether they’d have somebody to fill Espindola’s shoes. By the time March came around, they’d have more than enough options: Robbie Findley; João Plata; Devon Sandoval; and Olmes Garcia.

source: Getty Images
Jámison Olave, seen here playing with RSL, was the best defender on a team which reached a CONCACAF Champions League final. This offseason he was sent to New York, with RSL trusting Chris Schuler, Kwame Waston-Siriboe, and Carlos Salcedo to take up the spot next to Nat Borchers (Photo: Getty Images.)

How did this come to be thought of as rebuild? It was probably that Olave trade that got the ball rolling. That it came so quickly, involved such a good player, packaged him with another starter, and didn’t land Real Salt Lake a significant player in return hinted Lagerwey was being forced to hit the reset button. To a limited extent, that was true, but whereas many saw those early December trades as auguring a complete rebuild, the next dominos never fell, even if the narrative had already been set in motion.

If we’re forcing ourselves to call 2013 a rebuild, then it started all the way back in 2010 when they drafted Chris Schuler. It continued when they traded for a 17-year-old Luis Gil a month later then took a three-year break. That’s when (this offseason) the team drafted Sandoval, traded for Findley and Plata, and signed Garcia. In between, players like Sebastian Velazquez (draft) and Lovel Palmer (re-entry) were added, but they aren’t a big part of the rebuild narrative. If we’re looking at how RSL were able to like Olave, Johnson, and Espindola go without regressing, the answers lie in a series of moves that don’t look much different than the drafting of Sebastian Velazquez or the reclamation of Lovel Palmer.

Except for those high profile departures, 2013 has been business as usual for an organization that continues to uncover talent. Sometimes that involves getting the most out of recycled talents like Rimando, Grabavoy, and Wingert. Other times it’s late draft steals like Schuler and Velasquez. There’s the occasional Garcia-esque signing from abroad, and when they need to, they can go out and get a Morales or Saborío. This isn’t rebuilding. This is roster management done within the thin margin allowed a small market team competing against the likes of Los Angeles and Seattle.

It’s natural to think of the emptied lockers of Olave, Johnson, and Espindola and assume big changes were in store, but the fire sale never came. If Real Salt Lake’s brains continue running their organization the way they have, that fire sale will never has come. When the day comes that Rimando, Beckerman, and Morales have to go, the transitions may prove just as smooth, provided the same philosophies are underpinning them.

If changes stay limited and can be planned for in advance, there’s no reason why RSL can’t continue to succeed. Last year, they finished second in the West and made the conference semifinals. This year, they finished second and are playing for an MLS title.

MLS Snapshot: San Jose Earthquakes 1-2 Sporting KC (video)

Sporting Kansas City forward Dom Dwyer, center, is congratulated by teammates, including midfielder Roger Espinoza (27), following his goal during the first half of an MLS soccer match against the Houston Dynamo in Kansas City, Kan., Saturday, Aug. 1, 2015. (AP Photo/Orlin Wagner)
AP Photo/Orlin Wagner
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The game in 100 words (or less): Too many teams qualify for the MLS Cup Playoffs. There, I said it. Because MLS rules are written as such, two of Sporting Kansas City, Portland Timbers and Seattle Sounders will likely make it this year, and that’s two too many. On Saturday, the former most narrowly outplayed an even worse San Jose Earhthquakes side, to the tune of 2-1, to go fifth in the Western Conference and move eight points clear of the 7th-place Sounders. The worst part about the current playoff structure: one of the above mentioned sides will almost certainly get hot in the postseason, after doing very little over the course of 34 games to establish themselves as one of the league’s elite. You know, just like the Timbers did last year. Anyway, Dom Dwyer, Simon Dawkins and Kevin Ellis scored the goals on the night. Neither side is any good, nor should they be in the playoffs. That’s MLS.

[ MORE: Playoff Picture — 4 teams can clinch playoff berth this weekend ]

Three moments that mattered

7′ — Dwyer heads home for the early opener — The ball from Paulo Nagamura was inch-perfect, and the header by Dwyer was unstoppable.

42′ — Coelho whiffs, Dawkins makes it 1-1 — That’s just unlucky, if you’re Nuno Coelho.

81′ — Ellis bundles the corner kick home for 2-1 — A fitting winner to this game.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverageStandings | Stats | Schedule ]

Man of the match: Tim Melia

Goalscorers: Dwyer (7′), Dawkins (42′), Ellis (81′)

MLS Snapshot: Vancouver Whitecaps 3-3 Colorado Rapids (video)

COMMERCE CITY, CO - JULY 23: Tim Howard #1 of the Colorado Rapids stands in the goal against the FC Dallas at Dick's Sporting Goods Park on July 23, 2016 in Commerce City, Colorado. (Photo by Dustin Bradford/Getty Images)
Photo by Dustin Bradford/Getty Images
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The game in 100 words (or less): And … exhale. Realistically speaking, the Colorado Rapids probably watched their hopes of catching and passing FC Dallas in the race for the Supporters’ Shield when they blew not one, not two, but three leads away to the Vancouver Whitecaps on Saturday, settling for a 3-3 draw in the end. Dominique Badji put the visitors 1-0 up after eight minutes, which was also the halftime score. The final 39 minutes would feature five goals, and a red card. Kendall Waston brought the hosts level in the 51st minute, then was sent off in the 56th minute, and Shkelzen Gashi made it 2-1 from the penalty spot a minute later. Pedro Morales scored for 2-2 in the 70th, but Gashi hit an inch-perfect free kick for 3-2 just five minutes later. Erik Hurtado scored in the 93rd minute for 3-3. The Rapids are safe in the Western Conference’s playoff places (currently second), while a draw is nowhere near enough to save Vancouver’s season. At least it was exciting, though.

[ MORE: Playoff Picture — 4 teams can clinch playoff berth this weekend ]

Three Four Five Six moments that mattered

8′ — Badji rolls it into an empty net for 1-0 — Marlon Hairston took one for the team when he clattered into David Ousted, but was a quick enough thinker to lay the ball off for Badji, who made no mistake with his wide open chance.

51′ — Waston rises above the crowd for 1-1 — Kendall Waston … still really big, and dangerous on set pieces.

57′ — Waston sees red, Gashi converts the PK — Kendall Waston … red card. That’s Kendall Waston bingo, right? Gashi converted the ensuing penalty kick, and the Rapids were 2-1 ahead.

70′ — Morales finishes a quick move down the left — Erik Hurtado flashed the skill, Giles Barnes provided the cut-back, and Morales kept his wits about him on the finish. A man down, but back on level terms, for now.

75′ — Gashi hits a free kick pure as can be — Gashi couldn’t have picked the ball up, carried it to goal, and placed it over the line anymore perfectly than he hit this one.

90+3′ — Hurtado bring Vancouver level one last time — To come back from a goal down, and a man down, twice … that’s pretty impressive. It’s far more demoralizing, though, for the Rapids.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverageStandings | Stats | Schedule ]

Man of the match: Shkelzen Gashi

Goalscorers: Badji (8′), Waston (51′), Gashi (57′ – PK, 75′), Morales (70′), Hurtado (90+3′)

MLS Snapshot: DCU 4-1 Orlando City | Red Bulls 1-0 Impact (video)

WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 20: Nick DeLeon #14 and Lamar Neagle #13 celebrate a second half goal by Fabian Espindola #10 of D.C. United (R) against the Colorado Rapids at RFK Stadium on March 20, 2016 in Washington, DC.  (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images
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The game in 100 words (or less): On Friday, I billed D.C. United vs. Orlando City SC as something a “win to remain in the playoff race” matchup. On Saturday, DCU were the only side to show up to RFK Stadium hoping to further their case for a place in the postseason. Patrick Mullins bagged a brace for Ben Olsen’s side, bringing his tally to seven goals since being acquired via trade in late July, while Lloyd Sam found paydirt for the second time since also being acquired via trade, in early July. Juliao Baptista pulled a goal back for the Lions, 3-0 down by that point. Julian Buescher restored the three-goal lead in the 90th minute, and that was that. Now level on games played with the New England Revolution, DCU currently sit a point ahead of the Revs for the sixth and final playoff place in the Eastern Conference (New England are away to Columbus Crew SC on Sunday).

[ MORE: Playoff Picture — 4 teams can clinch playoff berth this weekend ]

Three moments that mattered

34′ — Mullins taps home to make it 1-0 — Mullins’ instincts inside the penalty area are exceptional. He’s one of those guys who always knows where to be, and exactly when to be there.

51′ — Sam heads past Bendik to double the lead — With the entire Orlando defense seemingly asleep, Sam was left all alone seven yards out.

53′ — Mullins goes far post for 3-0 — The window through which he had to slot this ball was quite small, but no problem for Mullins.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverageStandings | Stats | Schedule ]

Man of the match: Patrick Mullins

Goalscorers: Mullins (34′, 53′), Sam (51′), Baptista (72′), Buescher (90′)


The game in 100 words (or less): The Eastern Conference is no more discernible today than it was on opening day of the 2016 season. After nearly seven months of games, the New York Red Bulls, Toronto FC and New York City FC all sit on 48 points (TFC with a game in hand) after the Red Bulls’ 1-0 victory over the Montreal Impact at Red Bull Arena on Saturday. Daniel Royer scored the game’s only goal, right on the hour mark, when it was beginning to look like a breakthrough would never come, for either side. That’s 13 games without a loss for Jesse Marsch’s side (just six wins), who along with the other two sides on 48 points, has secured a place in the 2016 MLS Cup Playoffs berth.

[ MORE: Playoff Picture — 4 teams can clinch playoff berth this weekend ]

Three moments that mattered

9′ — Piatti blazes wide after a long run — Ignacio Piatti did brilliantly until the finish. He also had Drogba making the underneath run to the far post.

41′ — Bush denies Royer from inside the six — Royer got on the end of this Chris Duvall cross, and had he put it either side of Evan Bush, he’d have made it 1-0 to the home team.

60 ‘ — Royer heads it past Bush to break the deadlock — Duvall once again served up the tantalizing ball from the right flank, and Royer did the rest to bag his first MLS goal.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverageStandings | Stats | Schedule ]

Man of the match: Daniel Royer

Goalscorers: Royer (60′)

MLS Snapshot: Toronto FC 1-1 Philadelphia Union (video)

Toronto FC's Jozy Altidore, center, shields the ball from Philadelphia Union's Richie Marquez, left, as Ken Tribbett looks on during first half MLS soccer action in Toronto on Saturday, Sept. 24, 2016. (Chris Young/The Canadian Press via AP)
Chris Young/The Canadian Press via AP
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The game in 100 words (or less): Another week goes by, and the world remains clueless with regard to the top three places in MLS’s Eastern Conference. Toronto FC entered the weekend with a two-point lead on the New York Red Bulls and New York City FC; then, NYCFC won big on Friday to go a point ahead. With RBNY still to face the Montreal Impact on Saturday, all three sides could finish the weekend on 48 points, a three-way tie atop the East, following TFC’s 1-1 draw with the Philadelphia Union at BMO Field. The home side went down a goal in the first half, via Alejandro Bedoya’s firt MLS goal — a chipped beauty (WATCH HERE) — before Justin Morrow played the role of unlikely hero, snatching TFC’s equalizer in the 70th minute. Saturday’s game marked TFC’s third without Sebastian Giovinco (quad/adductor injuries). TFC have won five of a possible nine points without the reigning — soon-to-be-back-to-back? — MLS MVP.

[ MORE: Playoff Picture — 4 teams can clinch playoff berth this weekend ]

Three Four moments that mattered

25′ — Bedoya chips Irwin for 1-0 — It was just about the most difficult route to goal, but Bedoya wasn’t fazed one bit. Poor Clint Irwin, he was hardly even off his line. (WATCH HERE)

43′ — Irwin makes the point-blank save on Herbers — Reaction saves from point-blank range don’t get much better than this one by Irwin. Keeping his side in it.

70′ — Morrow slots home to bring TFC level — Jonathan Osorio did brilliantly to keep his composure with ample opportunity to take a difficult shot toward goal. Instead, he played Morrow through, and the full back finished the chance like a world-class striker.

90+3′ — Altidore hacked down in the box, no PK given — Ismail Elfath had long ago swallowed his whistle, apparently, because Jozy Altidore was hacked down inside the penalty area by C.J. Sapong, and TFC were absolutely bewildered by the no-call.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverageStandings | Stats | Schedule ]

Man of the match: Alejandro Bedoya

Goalscorers: Bedoya (25′), Morrow (70′)