Real Salt Lake is really hurting. The perennial MLS Western Conference powerhouse limps into PPL Park on Saturday (4 p.m., 6abc) with no fewer than three regular contributors out of action and two others only just making their way back from the injured list.
RSL, last year’s runner-up for the MLS Cup, can thank soccer’s system of player-sharing for this week’s troubles. Starting goaltender Nick Rimando and midfielder Tony Beltran were both summoned by the U.S. Men’s National Team for a friendly against Mexico last week. Both came back damaged goods and neither will play at PPL Park on Saturday. Interestingly, the Philadelphia Union avoided similar troubles when their single call-up, midfielder Maurice Edu, only made it into the Mexico match as a late sub and stayed healthy.
Will this twist of USMNT fate aide the Union this weekend? Maybe. The pieces missing from Salt Lake’s line-up are significant. Rimando had started four of five RSL matches this season and had two shut-outs, putting him just two shy of the MLS record (110 by the retired Kevin Hartman). Beltran was also a regular, although his contribution on the stat sheet so far this year has amounted to 6 fouls and an offsides call in four games. But another MIA for RSL will be midfielder Luis Gill, who had played in all 5 games with a goal and an assist. The injuries are an assortment of strains and pulls. Meanwhile, two other players, defender Chris Wingert and midfielder Sebastian Velasquez, are available but just making their way back from the disabled list and may not be ready for the full 90 minutes.
NOTHING COMES EASY
Of course, the way this season has gone for the Union, the rest of Real Salt Lake’s roster is liable to hit the pitch playing the best soccer of their lives on Saturday. And injured or not, you always have to worry about a squad that has been so good for so long over in the tougher left side of the MLS. The Utah club is doing it again this season with an undefeated record (2-0-3). Its 9 points would be good enough for a first-place tie in the East, but still gets them second in the Western Conference, four points behind the simmering Dallas FC.
The Union, on the other hand, have been uneven and thoroughly frustrating this season, often outplaying an opponent only to settle for a low-scoring draw. The club finally scored two goals in a game last week, a first for this season. Ironically, it happened during what was otherwise Philadelphia’s worst effort. The Chicago Fire was in clear control of the ball most of the day and would’ve won were it not for a pair of last-second, miracle saves by goal tender Zac MacMath off a penalty kick sequence.
TEMPORARY TROUBLE OR PERMANENT PROBLEM?
It’s hard to know whether the Union simply couldn’t do as much without injured midfielder Christian Maidana, who at times this season has been the Union’s most dynamic offensive player. Maurice Edu was also playing his third game in eight days and had done a lot of traveling related to his USMNT call-up. He forced his first chance over the net off a brilliant feed by Conor Casey, before banging home the Union’s first goal. But was he in his best shape? And after the trade of Jack McInerney, the club may have had some growing pains adjusting to Casey up front as the main target for essentially the first time this season. What’s more, the Union was playing without the traded McInerney and his replacement, Andrew Wenger, wasn’t yet available thanks to a prior red card suspension.
One hopes the Union’s troubles were related to these issues, suggesting a temporary problem rather than something endemic. The Union clearly needs to prove to themselves the former by taking advantage of Real Salt Lake’s depleted roster this weekend. The Utah club appeared to be affected by its lack of depth last week when it played to a scoreless draw in Kansas City. Previously, RSL had blasted eight goals in four games including 3 against revamped Toronto just before the USMNT call-ups/injuries. Another Philadelphia misfire will likely get some supporters grumbling and will make additional moves like the McInerney swap more tempting. It would be better for everybody if the current roster figured it out and started on the path to better consistency. Salt Lake City appears a ripe conduit.
Cast into the middle of the Union’s evolving offensive scheme is another new part in need of some quick assimilation. Andrew Wenger, the other guy in the McInerney flip, will likely get a chance to show his stuff in front of the home crowd. The Union brass feels Wenger was unable to reach his potential playing in the shadow of Montreal’s one-man-show, Marco Di Vaio (although, to be fair, forward Justin Mapp was probably also higher on the depth chart). They also feel Wenger’s superior size (6’ to Jack’s 5’ 10”) will play better in the Union’s forward-pushing offense.
McINERNEY TIME, TOO
Saturday also marks the debut of Jack McInerney in Montreal as the Impact plays host to Chicago. Jack told the Quebec press that the trade surprised him and that he was a little “tired” after his first training session. But he says the new group seems like a good bunch and he’s excited to get started. There will probably some scoreboard watching going on in Philadelphia as Union supporters check-in on Jack’s contributions. The Montreal match also starts at 4 p.m..
OUT OF TIME
Keon Daniel has been one of the forgotten men on the Union this season. In fact, he was essentially forgotten as soon as the Union completed their triple-set of midfield signings during the off-season. For some supporters, Daniel epitomized everything that was wrong with the old midfield: uncertainty around the ball, a lack of quality passes and little pressure forward. Daniels could clearly see the writing on the wall, especially after the Union also picked-up midfield depth in this year’s MLS Super Draft. This week, the club announced that Daniel has agreed to cut ties. There’s no word on his next landing spot, although his native Trinidad and Tobago will almost certainly call on him for tournament help as they have in the past.
The Union have plenty of chances to either soar or sink in the next eight days. The club has a rare Wednesday road match against New York before coming home the following Saturday (April 19) for a match against Houston. A win against RSL this week would be a nice springboard to success. New York is struggling at 0-1-4 and could serve-up another three points. Points are important over the next two, however, because Houston is looking fit for another play-off run. The Dynamo is currently in fourth place with a game at hand on Philadelphia.
6ABC AND DOLLAR DOGS: PERFECT TOGETHER
Either way, you win. Head to PPL Park on Saturday and you get to enjoy dollar dogs along with the perfect weather. But if you get shut-out of tickets, you can stay at home and catch the game in sensational HD on 6abc.