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These are the sorts of games which separate the contenders from the pretenders. Not for Real Salt Lake, of course; we already know which one they are. With thirteen wins in twenty-four matches, an annoyingly varied attack led by the great Álvaro Saborío but with way too many pieces to just close down one man; how many teams has Fabian Espindola torn a new one over the years?
Unlike last time we beat the Royal Family of Utah, we can't exploit a half-drained roster. Will Johnson is listed as only probable, but given that he was healthy enough to answer the call of his country for the coming internationals I'd be surprised if he didn't get a few minutes. They're also short two goalkeepers, which sounds very promising until we realize neither of them are Nick Rimando (and usual backup Kyle Reynish will probably make the bench anyway). Meanwhile, Joe Cannon is of course suspended for pulling a Lars Hirschfeld in their last meeting.
As of this writing it's a beautiful sunny day in Vancouver, but we might want to leave the roof open at BC Place, turn on the sprinklers, and try to fake another postponement.
So Vancouver's screwed? Of course not! Sure, we lost 2-1 in the road leg my-god-was-that-really-two-weeks-ago, but despite going down to ten men thanks to Cannon's foibles Vancouver outplayed and outchanced Salt Lake in one of the toughest buildings in Major League Soccer (Vancouver had less possession, but Vancouver has less possession against everybody). And while it was so long ago I'm pretty sure Carl Valentine played both games, we are coming off Vancouver's two best home games in that are-you-kidding-me 2-2 draw with the LA Galaxy and victory over the league-leading San Jose Earthquakes.
I'm not trying to say Vancouver is doomed. I'm trying to say that Salt Lake is excellent. While the Whitecaps have been skirting around the edge of being league challengers for the past month, only San Jose really looked like a game that contenders win. There have been dignified draws and losses but you don't win playoff games that way. So it'll be interesting to see whether we get a Whitecaps team that looks good in failure, or whether they are rounding into a side that actually beats good teams.
The loss of Joe Cannon may be interesting. Brad Knighton's last Major League Soccer start was on October 16, 2010, where he allowed a goal to the New York Red Bulls in a 2-1 Philadelphia Union victory. That start was Knighton's fourth consecutive without a clean sheet, including a ghastly 4-1 loss in Colorado. He had a crappy year in Philadelphia but, then, he was also the least of the 2010 Union's defensive problems. We can't draw any conclusions from those two-year-old games except to say that, well, this will be his first MLS start in two years.
I have few concerns about Knighton. I've said in the past that I'd have preferred Jay Nolly or even another ex-second division goalkeeper with superior credentials like Evan Bush or Bill Gaudette, but that certainly doesn't mean Knighton is bad. Certainly, his performances in his MLS cameos and Reserves matches this season have shown early promise.
Other than that, apart from the usual, the Whitecaps are close to full strength (Omar Salgado counts as the usual; so does Bryan Sylvestre but oddly enough he's back and expected to be on the bench tonight.) New guy Andy O'Brien should both be available although I'd be astonished to see either him; Tiago Ulisses isn't in town yet, and with Kenny Miller's continuing march back to game shame he might well get his first Major League Soccer start. Atiba Harris is healthy, John Thorrington is healthy; it's close to a clean bill of health for the veterans.
What does this add up to? Who knows? The lack of finish from any forward that isn't Darren Mattocks has to cause early concern, particularly after Miller has missed a couple good opportunities. That's Miller's reputation from back in England, and is partially why I was so reluctant to see the team axing Eric Hassli and Sebastien Le Toux like some deranged movie villain. On the other hand, the number of chances being generated are going up and that has to be down to Dane Richards; he's certainly outplaying Le Toux early on as a right winger and is making me wonder what could have been if the Whitecaps used a proper heels-on-the-touchline player on the left side as well.
Besides, it's early days yet in Miller's Whitecaps career and he's certainly getting into the right positions, which ought to lead to goals if there's any justice in the world. And we still have Camilo Sanvezzo; although he hasn't scored in almost three months he's certainly attacking.
Salt Lake's defense isn't likely to give up anything easy. As we saw two weeks ago they can play tenacious soccer and hold the ball up for days in midfield when they have a mind to. Their defense is only a shade stingier than the Whitecaps but, unlike Vancouver, Salt Lake can defend in so many different ways that offenses have to adjust. The Whitecaps, whose offense is after all still getting to know each other, failed to do this at Rio Tinto though it was a near-run thing.
Solution: move the ball through midfield. This is where Richards and Barry Robson have to earn their money; putting enough pressure on the Real Salt Lake midfielders to reduce their possession advantage and ensure the Whitecaps in advantageous positions on the attack. If they get a defender isolated or test Nick Rimando directly, the odds are in their favour. And, of course, avoid giving up any ghastly penalties or grabbing the ball outside the box this time.