In their last three games, Real Salt Lake is 0-3 with a goal differential of minus seven. Two of the teams that defeated them, D.C. United and the Chicago Fire, are currently out of playoff spots. The third team, the Los Angeles Galaxy, sits in first place in the MLS Supporters' Shield race and will be the favorites going into the MLS Cup playoffs. It's very easy (and very understandable) to jump to the conclusion that RSL are not a championship-caliber team.
The rebuttal to this argument is predictable: The Colorado Rapids weren't a championship-caliber team either. This is old news at this point, but it can't be overstated. Though their defense looked much improved and both Jeff Larentowicz and Omar Cummings were borderline MVP candidates, the team as a whole was not nearly as good as any of FC Dallas (the team they beat in the final) Real Salt Lake, the LA Galaxy and the Seattle Sounders. Major League Soccer's ridiculous playoff system made it possible for an average Colorado team to get the easy draw, then get lucky against a Dallas team who had already played the two best teams in MLS in the quarterfinals and semifinals.
That absurd, antiquated system has been done away with...only to be replaced by a system that is even dumber. A total of 10 teams will make the MLS Cup playoffs this season. It would be ridiculous to say that any team in the draw has worse than a five percent chance or greater than a 20 percent chance of winning the trophy. It's going to be madness, just like it always is.
But, there has to be a favorite, or at least a grouping of elite teams that have a much better shot than "the field". Last year, that group was LA, Dallas, Seattle and Salt Lake. They failed to vanquish the other four, mainly because they all had to play each other on one half of the draw. Because it was good for balance and parity, or something. This season, that field is going to be smaller, despite the playoff field expanding. RSL is one of those elite teams.
One is a given. The LA Galaxy won the Supporters' Shield in 2010 and they're about to do it again in 2011. With a draw or a win on Tuesday night, they will clinch the shield. Another win in their last four games will give them the record for most wins in an MLS season; this season is longer than previous seasons, and they tied the old record through 30 games. They've assembled a great team of Designated Players, low-priced foreigners, young Americans and veteran MLS role players. No one is going to come up with a reasonable argument that the Galaxy aren't among the favorites to lift MLS Cup.
It would be hard to argue against the Seattle Sounders as well. They've looked shaky when their key players have been injured, but they're perhaps a better team than LA when the entire squad is healthy. Osvaldo Alonso, Mauro Rosales and Fredy Montero are all arguably among the top ten performers in the league. Jhon Kennedy Hurtado finally looks like he's back to his old self, and the team has a number of excellent role players.
Real Salt Lake also belongs in this category, despite their recent skid. Their performances in 2010 with the same core group of players, their run to the CONCACAF Champions League final, their start to the season and their five-game winning streak that ended just a couple of weeks ago cannot be discounted. They are, at worst, the third best team in MLS. The gap between the top two and them is small, if it exists at all.
All of RSL's last three losses are easily explained and are not likely repeatable. Their first loss in the run, to D.C. United, was the result of one of the greatest halves of soccer ever played by one player in MLS. Dwayne De Rosario was absolutely brilliant beyond description (though I tried before the DC-Philly game). Additionally, Raushawn McKenzie started in the center of defense in place of Jamison Olave, and he was poor.
Against the Chicago Fire, Marco Pappa scored a brilliant goal 10 minutes in, which was followed by Kyle Beckerman's sending off for a headbutt of Daniel Pallidini. At that point, the game was over and there was very little Jason Kreis could do. Pappa would go on to score two more times.
Then, this weekend against Los Angeles, the team had to deal with another aberration. Both of LA's goals in their 2-1 win were the fault of the RSL central defenders. Jamison Olave and Nat Borchers are arguably the best central defense pairing in MLS, and their mistakes were completely out of character. However, their mistakes - as well as RSL's drop-off from last season - are also pretty easily explained.
Last season, RSL allowed just 20 goals in 30 matches. A healthy team, Nick Rimando and Kyle Beckerman were major contributors to that stellar defensive record, but the central defense pairing of Borchers and Olave were absolutely dominant. Borchers played in all 30 MLS matches last season, while Olave played in 27.
Through 31 matches in 2011, RSL has allowed 32 goals. Borchers has played in 27 of those matches, while Olave has played in just 21. First choice fullback Chris Wingert has also been slightly less available than he was last season, playing in 20 of 31 matches as opposed to last year's 24 out of 30.
The injury to Javier Morales can't be overstated either, and while he doesn't contribute much on on the defensive end, it's not hard to draw conclusions about RSL's lackluster defense in his absence. Without Morales - an MVP-caliber attacking midfielder - in the team, RSL is less able to retain possession and has to take more risks going forward to produce the same goal output. It wouldn't be particularly shocking if either of these things resulted in more goals allowed.
Morales is back, though, as is Olave. Beckerman should return from suspension soon, though word hasn't come down from the league office about whether or not his suspension will be suspended. Rimando, Borchers, Wingert, Will Johnson and Alvaro Saborio are all healthy. RSL are finally getting their team back together, and for the first time this season, they have their first choice starting XI healthy with only one competition to focus on. This is happening at exactly the right time.
Should Beckerman return to the lineup while everyone else avoids injury, RSL will have 2-3 games to play with their first team before the playoffs begin. Morales can re-sync with his teammates, while Olave can get himself back into top form and back to a great understanding with Borchers.
It's been a rough year for RSL, but it's all coming together at the right time. If Beckerman isn't hit with a major suspension and no one else picks up an injury, there's no reason that RSL should be underdogs to the Galaxy or the Sounders headed into the playoffs. They're just as much favorites as Major League Soccer's current top two.
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