The New England Revolution will make an arduous Independence Day trip to Utah to take on Real Salt Lake at Rio Tinto Stadium on Monday. The Revs are winless in their last seven matches, going all the way back to a 1-0 home victory against Vancouver on May 14th. RSL, on the other hand, are starting to come out of a rough patch after beginning the season on fire but losing momentum due to injuries and Gold Cup absences.
The greatest threat for the Claret and Cobalt was always Javier Morales, but after he fell victim to the 2011 wave of leg-breaking injuries, RSL has had to find other ways to make teams fear them. Offensively they have stuttered, although slumping Costa Rican international Alvaro Saborio looks to have come out of his funk after scoring twice last week against Toronto. Defensively, however, they are as tough and resilient as ever. The centerback pairing of Nat Borchers and Jamison Olave remains one of the best in the league, and they play in front of Nick Rimando, who might actually be the best 'keeper in the league. Couple that with a team of two-way fullbacks and the physical midfield presence of captain Kyle Beckerman, and this team can be nearly impossible to score upon, especially at home.
It certainly doesn't help that the Revs have lost their last two meetings with RSL at Rio Tinto by a combined score of 11-0.
The latest injury report looks a little different, now, with Marko Perovic no longer a member of the team and therefore not listed as "out." Only Kheli Dube owns that distinction, still recovering from whiplash. Ousmane Dabo and Didier Domi are both questionable as of Friday, and Stephen McCarthy was upgraded to probable as he continues to work through his shoulder issues.
Part two of our season-series Q&A for Real Salt Lake is again with Denzel Eslinger, who lurks over at RSL Soapbox. You can read my own answers about Real Salt Lake over there.
TBM: Losing Javier Morales is obviously a horrendous blow, but it seems like after a few initial hiccups, the Royals have their feet back under them and are preparing to tear through the league just like before. What's been the secret to RSL's ability to stay afloat during Morales' absence and the Gold Cup?
TBM: Jason Kreis seems pretty high on the play of Luis Gil. Can you explain how the one-time Arsenal target has improved this season and what does he bring to the table for Salt Lake?
DE: I think the depth that RSL talked about last year as one of their keys to success has proven to be good enough to keep their heads above water during some difficult times. Everyone knows you don't replace a Javier Morales, there just isn't a way to fill in for him at that level of one of the top creative players in the league, so RSL did their best to find guys who fill the gap in one way or another. Sometimes it was trying to get young Collen Warner some time to develop the relationship with the other midfielders, and then some times it was Andy Williams who stepped in to provide that creative flair. It was tough during the Gold Cup, when two of our top 4 options up top were away with their national teams, and then 2 of our other options were out with injury, it put a lot of pressure on Fabian Espindola to carry the load and when Jason Kreis and staff put Jean Alexander up top it left many scratching their heads. Yet he was able to get a big goal and provide some key assists for the team, then Espindola got hurt and RSL was left looking to guys with either no or very little MLS experience in Luis Gil and Artur Aghasyan, while neither provided any goals both played well. It was fairly impressive to know the injuries and call ups we were dealing with and still went 3-1-3, enough to keep us alive and in the thick of things.
DE: You know Jason usually believes that it takes 3 years before young players should have pressure put on them to perform, and I think when 16 year old Gil said that when he came to MLS there was only a handful of teams he wanted to play for (RSL at the top of that list) he knew what Jason's philosophy was, yet he still came here. Luis has been a player who has simply improved every practice session, it was amazing to have watched him last year where he seemed a step out of sync with the rest of the guys and more than a little over-matched to this spring when he came in and was simply at pace with the rest of the guys and fighting for respect (and getting it). I think the no pressure approach was one of the keys, he was allowed to develop without having the weight of a team put on him, and he knew what was expected of the guys who were fighting for minutes with the first team and he responded by stepping up to that level. He is a young, quick (quicker than a lot of people think), creative midfielder who also has a bit of a "nose for goal". I think his maturity on the ball has been impressive in matches, he isn't looking to do the impossible, but rather making plays that usually take guys years to pick up, and each match he plays in the confidence grows. His willingness to step in to play forward showed that here is a guy who has bought into the "team first" mentality and was willing to do what he could to help the club out, that will earn him more points with our staff. I expect as the summer goes on that he will continue to get first team minutes, and that should really help his development.
TBM: Give us an under-the-radar player Revs' fans should watch out for in this match.
DE: Tony Beltran, not sure you can call one of our starting defenders a under the radar, but he has really been stepping up his play on both sides of the ball in recent weeks. He blew me away last year when I watched him twice come from behind to catch Landon Donovan and get the ball away from him at Rio Tinto, and since then his play has continued to develop. He got his first ever professional goal in our Open Cup match on Tuesday night, and when a player gets their first they often go looking for more. So I would keep my eyes on him as he looks for #2.
TBM: Who do you think RSL fears most on the pitch for New England?
DE: I think when you face New England you always have to worry about Shalrie Joseph, he simply is one of the best players in the league and while he may have started as a defensive minded midfielder it has been clear the last couple years that he is also a very dangerous offensive player. He plays with a passion and physical ability that few can match in the league, I would say he is the player that always concerns me the most when RSL has to face New England.
TBM: Finally, let's have your projected starting XI and a scoreline prediction.
DE: I don't think the match will be a blowout like the last couple years at Rio Tinto, I think it will be a 2-0 or 3-1 result for RSL. I think the starting XI will be Rimando, Russell, Olave, Borchers, Beltran, Grabavoy, Beckerman, Johnson, Williams, Saborio, Alexandre.