After a tough home draw, your Colorado Rapids actually managed to gain ground on their direct competitors in the standings, with FC Dallas and the LA Galaxy both losing. The team the Rapids have to thank for gaining ground on Dallas is Real Salt Lake, their Rocky Mountain Cup rival. The Cup is on the line and would be won by the Rapids with a victory this Friday, as both teams exchanged 1-0 results in the two previous encounters this year.
This away game will not be an easy one for the Rapids, who face the now third-placed team in the western conference who also happen to be undefeated at home this season (7-0-5).
Incredibly, the Rapids have never won at Rio Tinto Stadium since it’s inception in 2008, going winless in 11 straight attempts.
Several streaks will have to be broken for this to be a good day for Rapids fans. As we do before every Rapids clash, here’s a breakdown of the game’s key matchups and storylines to look for going in.
Howard vs Rimando
Two of the US national team’s finest goalies over the years, Nick Rimando and Tim Howard are going to square off once again in MLS. The Rapids now have a keeper to match the rivals from Utah.
These teams are always so close when they play, partially because of familiarity. Now with the added parity in goal, this game could easily come down to a spectacular save made by one of these two leaders between the posts.
Stopping Plata and the veteran attack
Winger Joao Plata doesn’t get mentioned often when talking about MLS’ top players, but anytime you see an RSL highlight he always seems to be involved. His dribbling and general ability on the ball can be devastating when you add his speed, ability to cross and shoot. He’s a real star. Eric Miller will likely have to mark him and will have the keep his head on straight.
Salt Lake’s other two forwards, Yura Movsisyan and Juan Manuel Martinez, are both mainstays in the attack. With Plata, they're the three leaders of the team in goals. It’s just another week of having to handle a stacked attack for Colorado's 'D'.
Winning the battle in midfield
There isn’t just attacking prowess on this team but also substance in midfield. Stopping Javier Morales, a phenomenal playmaker, for the home team is crucial, as is monitoring his movement going forward.
Winning the battle of possession with veteran and former Rapid Kyle Beckerman is also a key, or the Rapids won’t see the ball much this game. Beckerman might not be the player that he once was, but you still have to respect his shot from outside the box. He’s smart and knows when to push forward and when to sit back. Much like Sam Cronin for the Rapids, Beckerman leaves it all out on the field and it’ll be a real battle worth watching.
Taking advantage of an inexperienced right back
On paper, RSL’s defense is not a very strong group. Statistically, they’ve conceded 36 goals, good for 12th in the league, which is not terrible but far from great in a 20-team league.
This week they’ll be without veteran right back Tony Beltran, the only truly reliable member of the defense. After Sebastien Le Toux’s so-so outing last week, it’s uncertain who coach Pablo Mastroeni will start on the left wing, but it likely won’t be Le Toux again. Marlon Hairston always switches back and forth on both wings and could really thrive when moved to the left. Hairston has made his presence felt even without the stats to show for it; he’s due for a big day.
Marc Burch likes to get forward and play in the offensive third coming down the left wing also. He could also be key in exploiting a weakened right side of the defense.
Getting Doyle in space vertically
Salt Lake center back Justen Glad is a very promising talent and at 19 he can run, has some ability on the ball, and is versatile. He’s also inexperienced and can be caught out of position. Max Urruti gave him some real issues last week for Dallas; Kevin Doyle can do the same.
Doyle has been trying to make runs vertically and break through some offside traps, however, his teammates haven’t been great in feeding him those balls. Regardless, Doyle has been playing well and creating danger of lately even without finding goals. RSL’s central defense can be exploited and Doyle’s keen sense of posting could be essential in taking advantage of this matchup.
Taking advantage of Gashi and Powers
The Rapids have been playing with Dillon Powers lower in central midfield and Shkelzen Gashi centrally in the number 10 role. The results have been mixed as far as goals scored go, but both players seem to be thriving in these new roles. While both have shown great potential in these roles and had good performances they can do more.
Powers could come forward more often and try a few more long passes to the wings or to Doyle to try to get through the offside trap. Gashi needs to continue to getting his shot off from outside the area but it would also be nice to see him freelance a bit more and play interchangeably with the wingers.
A friendly reminder, this week the Rapids are playing on Friday on UniMás as MLS' nationally televised Friday game. Kickoff starts at 6 PM MT.