RSL Cup blog taking a long much needed break

I've been a fan of Real Salt Lake since it joined MLS and took to the field in 2005, and I've been a fan of MLS since it began in 1996.

However, over the past couple of years, and especially the last several months, I've began to see the ugly underbelly of this sport. Most likely it has always been there and I was just too naïve to see it, but I cannot not see it anymore.

I'm taking a much needed break from the sport of soccer. I may or may not be back. I may or may not update this blog, I don't know. It would be a shame since I've had it up and running for almost 10 years, but the fun I once had just isn't there any more.

Hopefully you fare better.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Portland stadium getting ready

First home game for Portland will be April 14th. The game will be on ESPN2, giddy up.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Vancouver's Empire Stadium, too bad its just temporary


(July 30th against Los Angeles)

Vancouver opening day build up

Bow chicka wow wow

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Whitecaps ready to kick-start new era

(by Daniel Girard 3-19-11)

Terry Dunfield wasn’t born when the Vancouver Whitecaps won the 1979 Soccer Bowl and 100,000 people filled downtown streets for a victory parade.

He was just a toddler when the North American Soccer League folded after the 1984 season, taking the Whitecaps, the Toronto Blizzard and seven U.S. teams with it.

But the 29-year-old Vancouver native is well aware of the importance of soccer in this city’s sports history. He remembers, as a 10-year-old, climbing a tree outside Swangard Stadium in suburban Burnaby to watch a sold-out playoff game of the Vancouver 86ers, the minor league professional powerhouse that eventually became the Whitecaps II.

“Saturday’s going to be a special day,” says the midfielder of the Whitecaps first game in Major League Soccer, a Canadian derby against visiting Toronto FC.

“It’s easy to say it’s just another soccer game, but it’s not,” says Dunfield, who spent more than a decade playing in England before joining the Whitecaps in the United States Soccer Federation Division 2 last season. “It’s going to be a whole occasion.”

The 2011 Whitecaps share more than just a nickname with their forefathers.

Saturday’s match will be played at Empire Field, a new, smaller and temporary facility built on the same east end Pacific National Exhibition site that once housed Empire Stadium. In the late 1970s and early ’80s, sellout crowds of 32,000 were commonplace.

The Whitecaps, who are to move into the newly-renovated B.C. Place Stadium downtown later in the season, also feature two of the biggest stars from the past — Bob Lenarduzzi is team president and Carl Valentine is a club ambassador and does work for the team’s website.

But the links to glory end there. This is an expansion franchise. Some of the players have experience in MLS, others in Europe, and the majority of them are making the step up from second division. As a result, prognosticators see a low finish in the year ahead.

“Obviously, it’s a big step for us to take,” says Teitur Thordarson, a former Icelandic international who has been head coach since 2008. “Hopefully we will be ready from Day One.”

The fans certainly will be. The first 5,000 into the stadium Saturday will be given drums and everyone will get a white poncho in an attempt to make a “Whitecaps Whiteout” in the stands. The club has also opened 1,500 more seats to bring the capacity to about 23,000.

“I don’t think any of us know how big it’s going to be but I believe it’s going to be huge,” says Valentine, who as a 21-year-old rookie helped lead the Whitecaps to the Soccer Bowl title. “I believe this team is going to be embraced and it’s going to match what we had in 1979 and the early ’80s.”

The club’s owners, who shelled out $35 million to join fellow expansion side Portland Timbers in MLS for 2011, are equally enthusiastic. Majority stakeholder Greg Kerfoot, a former software executive, is said to be a soccer fanatic as are minority partners Steve Nash of the NBA’s Phoenix Suns, former Yahoo executive Jeff Mallett, also part owner of baseball’s San Francisco Giants, and Steve Luczo, a technology company executive whose holdings include a stake in the NBA’s Boston Celtics.

“We want to blow the socks off people in our home opener,” says Lenarduzzi, who grew up near the stadium and has been an integral part of the city’s professional soccer scene for nearly 40 years. “Your first impression is a very, very important one.”

Lenarduzzi says TFC’s slow start as a franchise — four losing seasons, no playoffs — gives the Whitecaps “extended goodwill” with fans if they don’t win out of the gate. But archrival Seattle’s smash success — league-leading attendance, post-season both years — has set a new standard for expansion clubs and raises the pressure to win early, he says.

“We don’t want to waste that goodwill,” Lenarduzzi says. “We have to demonstrate, whether we’re an expansion team or not, that we’re going to give 100 per cent every game and, ideally, we’re going to get better with each game, each month, each season.”

Friday, March 18, 2011

Cool RSL banner pic

Photo taken sometime during 2010 season.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Real Salt Lake shuts out Saprissa, takes 2-0 lead to Costa Rica

(by James Edwards 3-16-11)

In the build-up to Tuesday's match with Saprissa, Real Salt Lake never shied away from declaring it the most important match since MLS Cup.

Just like it did in Seattle two years ago, RSL took care of business Tuesday night.

It wasn't easy against a very physical Saprissa side, and it doesn't guarantee the club anything with the second leg still upcoming, but RSL is in great shape after its 2-0 victory in the first leg of its CONCACAF Champions League semifinal series.

"If you'd have given us 2-0 at the start of the game, we would've been extremely pleased with it. I think everyone feels happy with it at the end of the game," said Salt Lake midfielder Will Johnson.

The home-and-home, total-goals series shifts to Costa Rica on April 5.

Like RSL, Saprissa enjoys a fantastic home-field advantage. Tuesday night, however, Saprissa got its first exposure to the Rio Tinto Stadium magic.

Spurred on by 16,888 RSL faithful, Alvaro Saborio scored early in the first half and Fabian Espindola doubled the advantage with an early second half goal as RSL extended its home unbeaten streak to 35 straight in all competitions.

"It's our home field, you have to be aggressive, you have to have the right mindset," said Johnson.

For RSL, the goal was always to jump out to a quick lead.

"I was really, really, really pleased with the first 15 minutes with the way we handled ourselves," said RSL coach Jason Kreis. "They did exactly what we asked of the guys to jump all over them. We really gave them no space to breathe."

RSL capitalized on the possession with a ninth-minute goal. Andy Williams started the sequence by knocking the ball into space for Espindola at the left edge of the penalty area. Espindola then passed it across the top of the box for Saborio who buried it with a clinical finish for the 1-0 lead, and his eighth goal of the competition.

The goal came three minutes after a Nat Borchers goal was disallowed after what appeared to be a phantom push in the box.

Real Salt Lake continued to attack hoping for a second goal, but Kreis thought his players started to deviate from the game plan. After the 15th minute Kreis said his team got stretched way too often, which enabled Saprissa to settle into the flow of the game after a shaky start.

The second half was relatively even, but RSL got the insurance goal it needed in the 56th minute on Espindola's breakaway finish.

The Argentine should be credited with a self-assist, too. He knocked down Saprissa defender Robert Wong while going in for a 50-50 challenge, and Williams was right there to corral the deflection and quickly played an over-the-top ball into Wong's vacated space. Espindola ran into the space and had plenty of time to assess the situation, and he calmly side-stepped a defender and buried a right-footed shot for the 2-0 lead.

Nick Rimando helped protect the two-goal cushion with a spectacular diving save in the 63rd minute and then a quick recovery to smother the rebound, finishing the game with six saves.

RSL picked its spots to try and snag a third goal, but Johnson said the team didn't want to get too greedy for fear of giving away a soft goal.

Saprissa outshot Salt Lake in the second half 8-6, but it's leaving Utah without scoring the all-important road goal. In the Champions League, the first tie-breaker is away goals. That puts RSL in great shape heading into the second leg, especially if it scores a goal.

"It was huge. Our objective was to win the game, don't give any goals up and that's exactly what we did," said Rimando.

Saprissa's objective all game was to disrupt RSL's possession-oriented attack by playing very physical. It committed 20 fouls, and ex-RSL player Douglas Sequeira accounted for six of them and one of Saprissa's five yellow cards.

Real Salt Lake's players never let the tactic get under their skins.

"What I am very pleased with our is our reactions tonight. Some of the fouls that happened out there away from the ball could've easily seen reactions from our players that could've picked up yellow cards for retaliations," said Kreis.

Real Salt Lake committed just nine fouls and nobody was shown a yellow card.

On a night when just about everything went right for RSL, it wasn't all good news as Jamison Olave was forced to exit the game at the half with a strained right hamstring.

It seems highly unlikely he'll be available this Saturday when RSL opens the MLS regular season at San Jose.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

DC Fortress and Houston Hell

DC United vs Charleston Battery - US Open Cup 2008

Texian Army Reaper

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

2011 shaping up to be bananas

Pre-season, Timbers supporters at Seattle

Sunday, March 6, 2011

MLS Northwest rivals host Cascadia Summit

( 3-5-11)

There are still two months before the Cascadia rivalry gets its Major League Soccer debut on a national stage May 14 when Seattle hosts Portland.

It's already the most heated regional rivalry in the MLS.

The smoke bombs set off by Portland's "Timbers Army" during an exhibition win over the Seattle Sounders on Friday night proved that.

"Nothing compares to this," Seattle coach Sigi Schmid said.

Supporters groups and coaches from Portland, Vancouver and Seattle gathered on Saturday as part of a three-day Cascadia Summit to discuss the first season of the Pacific Northwest trio playing a the highest level of soccer in North America.

The joint event Saturday was part of a larger weekend gathering that included round-robin exhibition games between the three teams. It began Friday night with Portland's 2-0 win over Seattle, continued Saturday with Portland and Vancouver playing and concludes Sunday with the Whitecaps and Sounders.

But for the supporters groups, it was an opportunity to address some of the concerns and issues that may flare up during the first season of the three cities facing each other.

It's the first time Vancouver, Portland and Seattle have had teams playing against each other at the top level of a professional sport since the Trail Blazers, Grizzlies and SuperSonics of the NBA in 2001 before the Grizzlies relocated to Memphis.

"I think the opportunity between the three Northwest franchises is very unique and special. It's special because there's a tremendous rivalry here and then the interest and the intensity that that generates by the fans coming out is huge," Schmid said. "But I think we also have the responsibility, all of us teams in the Northwest, to make sure the rivalry is on the field and is what it is. We don't ever want to overstep those areas and turn the rivalry into something that it should not be or something that we'd be embarrassed to have show up."

Safety and security is among the chief concerns for fans of the three teams traveling to the opposing cities. The management of Portland, Seattle and Vancouver agreed to set aside 500 seats for visiting fans for the games this season. Among the stipulations is those fans will be seated in one, secured area of the stadium in an attempt to keep any fan incidents from popping up.

"I want anyone who comes to PGE Park to be treated as a guest in a respectful way," said Jeremy Wright from Portland's Timbers Army.

Keith Hodo, co-president of the Emerald City Supporters, said the goal is to have the same atmosphere the three cities have become known for having at home matches, but hopefully without any major incidents.

"All we can do is prepare. That's all you can do because if you fail to prepare that's when things can possibly go wrong," Hodo said.

"Inevitably something might happen, but hopefully it's something small," he added.

The small number of available, secure tickets for the road games has some fans concerned, but was the number the three franchises were able to agree on. Seattle has the largest stadium; Portland the smallest. But Timbers owner Merritt Paulson said if the demand from the traveling fans is there, the teams may revisit the setup for future seasons.

"At some point there has to be a cap so it's got to be realistic," Paulson said. "But at least show us this first year that there is that excess demand. Nothing is written in stone."

Seattle and Portland will get the national stage for the first time on May 14 with the return match in Portland on July 10. Vancouver travels to Seattle June 11 with the Sounders going north on Sept. 24. The Whitecaps play at Portland on Aug. 20 and the Timbers become Vancouver's first opponent at remodeled B.C. Place stadium on Oct. 2.

"Ultimately, I want people to look at our fixtures and instead of saying 'I want to go to Europe,' they say, 'I want to go to Seattle, go to Portland, go to Vancouver because I know those game are going to have the best atmosphere," Wright said. "I think we're going to raise the bar here and we don't need to compare ourselves to overseas because we have ourselves to compare each other too."

Saturday, March 5, 2011

RSL becoming MLS' model franchise

(by Steve Davis 3-4-11)

Real Salt Lake just became Major League Soccer's first qualifier for the CONCACAF Champions League semifinals -- and that shouldn't surprise anyone who is paying attention.

The figures in charge at Real Salt Lake have constructed MLS' most stable platform in pursuit of organizational success. General manager Garth Lagerwey and coach Jason Kreis are game-planning for long-term success. This isn't MLS' version of the NFL's New England Patriots just yet, but it's the closest thing MLS has to it.

It's not that Real Salt Lake is crushing the league; that kind of dominance is next to impossible in the salary-capped, parity driven league arrangement. But RSL was the league champion two years ago and had the second-best point total last year. If we rank MLS clubs in some combination of where they have been and where they are going, RSL slots right into the top. Which MLS peer could challenge them?

Bruce Arena has built a good team in Los Angeles, but the roster is constructed to win now. Who knows after that?

Colorado owns the MLS Cup, but given that six teams had better records last year, and considering that 2010 represented the Rapids' first brush with big success, there is still some proving to do in Denver over a larger window. Runner-up FC Dallas has a roster stuffed with young talent, but young talent comes with its own set of questions. Red Bull New York seems on the rise, but that's all you can say for now.

The there's Real Salt Lake. The heart of the plan has been identifying key personnel and aggressively binding them to long-term deals, which isn't easy. Part and parcel is convincing key members to take a little less individually to form a stronger whole. It sounds magnanimous in concept, but professional sports and individual contracts are rarely about "taking less."

Still, RSL has done it. Midfielder Will Johnson and center back Nat Borchers had contracts that would have carried them through this season, but recently reworked deals bind them to RSL through 2014. Do-all striker Alvaro Saborio's recently negotiated agreement keeps him at Rio Tinto through 2014 as well. Goalkeeper Nick Rimando just added another year to his deal; he'll be around through 2013.

Kyle Beckerman's contract was renegotiated early, as well. A new agreement signed last year keeps the edgy midfielder around through 2013. Playmaker Javier Morales and imposing center back Jamison Olave are contracted through 2012.

So there you have the heart of the side, all buttoned up neatly through 2012, at least.

Since he left his job as a Washington, D.C.-based attorney in 2007, it's been Lagerwey's job to secure the personnel. The club's easygoing, accessible GM never likes to make things more complicated than they are. He studied similar organizations from other sports, mimicking the ways of smaller markets sides like the San Antonio Spurs of basketball or the Detroit Red Wings of hockey.

"You see patterns," Lagerwey said. "What all those teams do, in my opinion, is they identify a core. Now, that core may be much smaller than what fans think it is. ... Once you identify that core, you do what it takes to keep that core together, so you keep continuity."

He says that continuity is especially critical in MLS. That's because a relatively small $2.6 million salary cap makes it difficult (or nearly impossible) to cherry pick expensive talent the way big-market behemoths can in other sports. "So the team is the star, as we always say around here," Lagerwey said. "That means the group has to be better than the sum of its part."

Not that the parts are too shabby. Olave, Borchers and Morales were 2010 MLS Best 11 selections. Rimando and Beckerman dwell on the fringes of the U.S. national team pool, which is a nice enough neighborhood. Johnson is a Canadian international. Saborio was a well-deserved MLS Newcomer of the Year for 2010. Bundle them up and add some nice complementary parts -- like crafty veteran Andy Williams, whose massive performance steered RSL's aggregate goals win over Columbus in the Champions League quarterfinals -- and the side is clearly on the right path.

Even beyond personnel, RSL is a standard-bearer in organizational stability. Kreis, 38, may be the league's second youngest coach after D.C. United's Ben Olsen. But Kreis has been at his current post longer than 15 of the other 17 MLS head coaches.

You can't call Real Salt Lake the San Antonio Spurs of Major League Soccer -- not yet, anyway. The Spurs keep needing to expand their trophy case, with four NBA titles since 1998. RSL has nothing like that.

Still, Real Salt Lake is 35-21-21 in all competitive matches since 2008 (including MLS regular season and playoff contests, and matches in the U.S. Open Cup and Champions League.) The dividends of structural integrity pay most handsomely at home; RSL hasn't lost in suburban Sandy, Utah, in 34 matches dating to May of 2009. That's easily an MLS all-time best.

Throw in the fact that RSL plays an attractive style, with the ball on the ground and a useful understanding of spacing and, if we're being honest and impartial, it's hard not to be a little impressed.

There are inherent dangers with the RSL way, of course. Players bound to long-term contracts can become complacent. That's on Lagerwey to make the correct character assessments, to identify players who won't set the cruise control and nap until their next "contract year." Only time will tell if he's gotten it right.

And when players remain entrenched at one address over time, there's always a danger that management "falls in love" with them, meaning they don't recognize the creeping flaws of age. Lagerwey acknowledged that guarding against emotional decisions is challenging, but he is depending on the organizational checks and balances arranged by owner Dave Checketts. Further, Lagerwey hopes his training as an attorney helps him analyze the player market objectively.

Of course, some of it is on the players, too. They have a role in preventing things from going stale. Beckerman said that's not a problem given the disappointment of last year's first-round playoff upset by Dallas.

That will keep the edge around the training ground for 2011. Past that? Beckerman thinks the model works for the long term, too.

"It's something we all wanted," he said. "Everyone out here wants to be with an organization that keeps bringing back the core, so we can really go after things. This year there's so much out there for us to win."

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Real Salt Lake advances in CONCACAF Champions League

(by James Edwards 3-1-11)

Real Salt Lake can start making travel arrangements to Central America.

It won't know whether it's heading to Costa Rica or Honduras until tonight, but RSL officially advanced to the CONCACAF Champions League semifinals on Tuesday night with an emphatic 4-1 victory over Columbus at Rio Tinto Stadium.

RSL didn't look anything like the team that notched zero shots on goal in the first leg of the quarterfinal series last week. Instead, spurred on by a passionate crowd of 15,405, it played like a team in midseason form.

"People were knocking our attack a little bit, but obviously we showed we're still a pretty good attacking team," said RSL midfielder Will Johnson.

There was definitely some pressure on RSL heading into the second leg after a scoreless draw in Columbus last week, and much of that pressure was self-inflicted.

Throughout the group stages last year and then this past offseason, RSL's management did a lot of talking about how important the Champions League was to the franchise.

"To be completely honest, I was a little concerned coming into the match because we've been talking a lot about it and what we've managed to do is put ourselves under a tremendous amount of pressure. We really raised the level of expectations for ourselves," said RSL coach Jason Kreis.

Without a suspended Nat Borchers in the lineup there was even more reason to be concerned, but Kreis' anxiety was put to rest fairly early. RSL came out with a positive mentality from the opening minute, and the result was a dominating performance in spite of a 15-minute lull to start the second half.

Javier Morales and Andy Williams were magicians in the midfield, combining for three goals and three assists.

"With two players like that on the same pitch on the same team having that kind of night, you're most of the time going to walk out with a positive result. Those guys were truly special," said Kreis.

Real Salt Lake will now face either Saprissa (Costa Rica) or Olimpia (Honduras) in the CCL semifinals. The second leg of that quarterfinal series is tonight, and Saprissa owns a 1-0 lead. Regardless of the opponent, RSL will host leg one of the semifinals on March 15. The second leg will be on the road between April 5-7.

"It's another step in the right direction, positive step for this club. It was a fantastic night. We'll enjoy the night and look forward to the semifinals," said Johnson, who had a wicked shot bang off the right post in the 13th minute.

RSL eventually opened the scoring on a wonderful bit of skill from three different players in the 23rd minute. Williams cleverly flicked a ball to Morales, who then played a precision through ball to Alvaro Saborio. The Costa Rican striker did what he does best, buried the ball for the 1-0 lead — his seventh goal of the competition dating back to last year.

Thirteen minutes later Williams and Morales linked up again, with Williams supplying a perfect pass into the box to an unmarked Morales, who calmly slotted it home to double RSL's advantage.

Despite such a dominant first half, things got a bit scary early in the second half when Columbus pulled a goal back on a curling right-footed shot by Andres Mendoza in the 49th minute.

The Crew continued to put RSL under pressure knowing that a second goal would not only tie the game at 2-2, but put them in the driver's seat for advancement because of the away goals rule.

"We had a bit of a letdown at the beginning of the second half, but then put the foot back on the gas and finished off the game," said Johnson.

Chris Schuler, a surprise starter in place of Borchers, nearly tacked on a much-needed insurance goal with a powerful header off the crossbar in the 68th minute.

RSL continued applying the pressure though and Morales finally put a rocking Rio Tinto Stadium at ease in the 79th minute as he slotted a shot from the top of the box through traffic and past a diving keeper for the 3-1 lead.

Fittingly on a night when he and Morales were at their best, Williams hammered home a scintillating 30-yard free kick that Columbus keeper Ray Burse Jr. had no hope of saving.