RSL hopes to crown stadium opening with a win
Normally, the opening of a $110 million stadium would be worthy of top billing in any Major League Soccer match, but Thursday night's inaugural match at Real Salt Lake's Rio Tinto Stadium means far more than just a grand opening.
This week's edition of "MLS Primetime Thursday" (10 p.m. ET, ESPN2) features two teams in desperate need of points as the season winds down its final three weekends. The New York Red Bulls will travel to Utah reeling after four losses in five matches. They will face an RSL squad needing a victory to stay within range of the first playoff berth in club history.
Will Real Salt Lake's impressive home form carry over to the new stadium, or will the Red Bulls' road woes continue? With a sellout crowd expected, and playoff implications placing even more pressure on both teams, we should see a match worthy of a stadium opener.
Five story lines to follow
1. RSL debuts new home
After five years of playing on the ugly artificial turf at Rice-Eccles Stadium, Real Salt Lake is set to open its new home, Rio Tinto Stadium. The historic evening should give the home team a boost against a Red Bulls team that has posted a paltry 1-7-5 record on the road.
How well have home teams played in stadium openers? They are 3-1-1 in five previous stadium openings. Toronto FC, an expansion team, is the only team of the past five that lost its stadium opener.
But unlike other teams' stadium openings, RSL will be faced with the pressure of major playoff implications in its first match at Rio Tinto Stadium.
"It could be difficult," RSL head coach Jason Kreis told the Salt Lake Tribune. "It's just something we have to continue to talk to the players about. It's still a game played on a green surface -- grass, in this case -- with white lines, and the ball's still round and the same size. So we've got to control our emotions and keep them in check."
2. Red Bulls look to halt slide
New York at Real Salt Lake
10 p.m. ET (ESPN2, ESPN360.com)
When the Red Bulls defeated Real Salt Lake on Sept. 13 at Giants Stadium, they looked like a playoff lock that might push for third place in the East. But three bad losses later, New York is on the verge of sliding right out of the playoff picture.
Who's to blame? Take your pick. Shaky defending and goalkeeping coupled with erratic offense have the Red Bulls looking terrible. With just three matches remaining, Red Bulls head coach Juan Carlos Osorio believes his team has put itself in a position where it needs to win all of its remaining matches.
"That's basically what it comes down to," Osorio said. "We have three matches left, and we have no more room for error."
3. Will the Real Salt Lake defense show up?
Remember when RSL boasted one of the stingiest defenses in MLS? That same unit that once put together a stretch of 10 games from May to July without allowing more than one goal in a match has not been seen in a while.
How shaky has the back line been of late? RSL has allowed two or more goals in four of its past five matches (and six of its past nine).
If Real Salt Lake is to shut down the Red Bulls, Colombian central defender Jamison Olave will need to contain Juan Pablo Angel, who got the better of Olave the previous time these teams met.
4. Who will fill the voids for the Red Bulls?
Because Red Bulls starters Dane Richards, Jorge Rojas and Gabriel Cichero are serving international duty, Red Bulls head coach Juan Carlos Osorio will need to do some serious roster shuffling to fill the void. But their absences might not be as tough to account for as some might think.
Rojas hasn't been playing too well in recent weeks, and Cichero has had a hand in five of the past eight goals the Red Bulls have given up, so Osorio might actually be better off without them. Dave van den Bergh has recovered from sports hernia surgery, and Andrew Boyens is back from suspension.
Richards is the one player whose absence will really be felt, but the Red Bulls have some options. Speedy Cameroonian Matt Mbuta and USL all-star Macoumba Kandji are both capable of filling Richards' right wing role. You should see one and could see both in the starting lineup.
5. Tightening up the playoff race
The Red Bulls and Real Salt Lake enter the match with the same record and the same pressure to win in order to create breathing room in the ever-tightening playoff race.
The Red Bulls currently hold the No. 4 seed in the East, and with matches against Columbus and Chicago to wrap up the season, their best chance to earn three points is probably Thursday's game.
RSL actually has slightly less urgency to win because the club now sits in third place in the West and its remaining matches after Thursday are against FC Dallas and Colorado, the two teams chasing it for playoff positioning. Although a win would certainly help Real Salt Lake put a strong grip on a playoff spot, a loss wouldn't hurt RSL as much as it would hurt the Red Bulls.
Five players to watch
1. Javier Morales, MF, Real Salt Lake
There is little debating that Morales has been RSL's most valuable player this season. His play in recent weeks has only solidified that standing. He has compiled three goals and an assist in the team's past two games.
The Red Bulls did a relatively good job containing him when these teams met at Giants Stadium last month. Fellow Argentinean Juan Pietravallo is likely to get the assignment of slowing down the RSL playmaker.
2. Jon Conway, GK, New York
With the exception of Gabriel Cichero, no Red Bulls player has endured a worse three weeks than Conway, who has quickly gone from steady presence in the back to shaky starter. His back line hasn't done him any favors in recent weeks, but Conway's confidence looks shaken. He will need to regroup in a hurry, especially in a match like Thursday's.
You can expect coach Juan Carlos Osorio to start Jeff Parke and Andrew Boyens in central defense. That tandem won't have an easy time against a speedy RSL attack that probably should have scored three or four goals in its 2-1 loss to the Red Bulls last month. Regardless of who starts in defense, Conway needs to break out of his recent funk in a hurry.
3. Yura Movsisyan, F, Real Salt Lake
RSL has gone most of the season looking for a reliable goal scorer up top, and Movsisyan appears to have stepped up to take on that role. His four goals in the team's past five matches are a team best, and his confidence has improved since the previous time RSL faced the Red Bulls.
Perhaps it was the multitude of chances Movsisyan squandered against the Red Bulls in their previous meeting that sparked him to this current run. His speed and shiftiness will be a handful for a Red Bulls defense not known for its lateral quickness.
4. Juan Pablo Angel, F, New York
The Red Bulls have been struggling to provide Angel with service in recent weeks, but the likely return of Dave van den Bergh to the starting lineup, coupled with the possibility that Macoumba Kandji will start, means Angel could be in for a big night Thursday.
Fellow Colombian Jamison Olave is probably still thinking about the move Angel put on him to score the equalizing goal the previous time these teams met. Olave will need to do much better to halt RSL's recent defensive struggles and slow down the dangerous Angel.
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5. Macoumba Kandji, New York
Whether he goes with Kandji, Matt Mbuta or both, Osorio will have to inject some new blood into the starting attack now that Dane Richards is away with Jamaica. The safe bet is Kandji, who can play up top and on the right. Kandji could start alongside Angel, with recently productive Mike Magee playing on the right wing.
Kandji's size (He's 6-foot-4) and speed should be a handful for Nat Borchers and Olave, and the Senegalese striker will have his first chance to impress in front of a national audience. Is he ready to be the impact player the Red Bulls were hoping they were adding when they signed him last month from the USL? His first start could come Thursday.
Ives Galarcep covers MLS for ESPNsoccernet. He also writes a blog, Soccer By Ives. He can be reached at Ivespn79@aol.com.