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Match Preview: Whitecaps at Salt Lake

Winless in their last three matches, the Vancouver Whitecaps should be hungry for points this weekend when they travel to Rio Tinto stadium to take on western conference counterparts Real Salt Lake. Will they come away sated, starving, or simply with a bad case of indigestion?

Nick Rimando: Arguably Major League Soccer's best keeper, and the man backing up RSL's brick wall.
Nick Rimando: Arguably Major League Soccer's best keeper, and the man backing up RSL's brick wall.
Jaime Valdez-USA TODAY Sports

While the optimist will point out that the Vancouver Whitecaps have lost only one of their three road matches to date this season, the glass-half-empty camp will surely underscore the fact that Vancouver has a grand total of one goal in those away fixtures.

If the Caps are to be successful this weekend - and take their first-ever away victory over Salt Lake - they'll  need to substantially improve on their 0.33 goals per away match. On this point, the news isn't good. The Caps have played at Rio Tinto four times - managing only a single goal, and predictably, no victories.

In the past, Vancouver has struggled mightily against RSL - with a 2W-2D-6L record against the claret-and-cobalt. And the most dreadful of that woeful history has been played our in Salt Lake. Taking a closer look at Salt Lake's form this season, there is a bit of a sliver lining: RSL wins on a consistent basis - once every three weeks - with their most recent victory just four days ago versus the Portland Timbers.

Much of Vancouver's difficulty against RSL has revolved around Salt Lake's dominance in midfield, in particular with their tight diamond and possession-focused game resulting in the Caps being left chasing from the opening kickoff - not a good thing when you're playing at more than 1,300m above sea-level.

It'll be interesting to find out how Carl Robinson plans to take on Salt Lake. Does he match RSL's trademark diamond - hoping to plug the midfield and not let them play midfield pinball? Or does he revert back to a more defensive-minded 4-2-3-1 on the road, and hope to hit back on the counter? Much may hinge on how Pedro Morales is making out with his back issues. If he's still being hampered, and Robinson opts to rest him, we could even see a flatish 4-4-2 that has Mathias Laba (back from suspension) and Gershon Koffie / Nigel Reo-Coker in the spine, while taking advantage of greater width and featuring a two-striker formation.

The two teams last played at the end of September at BC Place. The Caps fell 1-0 in that match, one of only three that Vancouver lost at home last year. RSL held a slight possession advantage (53%), and made a total of 406 passes. A closer look at the midfielders reveals the strength of RSL: 183 of 219 passes completed, 8 tackles won, 8 interceptions, and 21 recoveries. By comparison, Vancouver's midfielders went 87/103 passing, with 3 tackles, 2 interceptions, and 11 recoveries.

Salt Lake haven't made terribly many personnel moves since then, with continuity being the watchword. Of course, long-time coach Jason Kreis departed after last season to assume the reins at New York City FC, but the club took only a week to announce that his right-hand man of seven years, Jeff Cassar, as Kreis' replacement.

If there has been a worry for RSL in 2014, it's been injuries. RSL keeper Nick Rimando missed a pair of matches in early April, midfielder Luis Gil is just coming off a two-week absence due to a hamstring issue, and striker Joao Plata recently missed three weeks for the same reason.

Alvaro Saborio is clearly RSL's big scoring threat. He's led his team in goals scored since 2010, and already has three to his name this season. Saborio played in only one match against the Caps last season, and was held off the scoresheet.

Fellow striker Joao Plata is listed in the media guide as 5' 2", but that must have been when he was kitted out with ultra-long cleats. Still, what the diminutive Ecuadorian lacks in size, he more than makes up for in quickness, agility, and accurate shooting.

Javier Morales is RSL's mirror image of our own Pedro Morales. The Argentine's a key cog in their midfield machine, as Salt Lake went 14-8-6 with him in the lineup last season, and only 2-2-2 without him.

To say that Salt Lake's back line is very experienced would be a massive understatement. Combined, the back four of Tony Beltran, Nat Borchers, Chris Schuler and Chris Wingert entered 2014 with a total of 23 years' experience - just with Salt Lake, let alone any time with previous MLS clubs.

Backing them up, there's Nick Rimando, now in his 14th year in MLS, and who many point to as the top keeper in the league. At just 5' 9", he's not your prototypical keeper, but his vast experience and cat-like reflexes serve him well.

Looking ahead, the weather forecast indicates that cool and wet weather is predicted for Saturday evening's match in Sandy, Utah - with a chance of a storm developing. Hmm... that should make the Caps feel right at home.