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Match Preview: Real Salt Lake vs. Whitecaps

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On the back of a successful away trip to Columbus where the Vancouver Whitecaps handed the Crew their first loss of the season, the ‘Caps head to Rio Tinto Stadium to take on a Real Salt Lake side that has faltered out of the starting blocks in 2018.

MLS: Vancouver Whitecaps FC at Real Salt Lake Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

I checked, and to be sure, I checked two sources - but there’s no snow in the forecast this time around. Last April of course, when the ‘Caps last visited Salt Lake City, famously or infamously the second half was played in near white-out conditions which most definitely contributed to the second and third goals on a lopsided score line.

This time out, it’s a different picture. Not only is there a balmy 14C forecast, but the ‘Caps have three wins in the bag already and are sitting second in the Western Conference after 5 games. The same however, can’t be said in Salt Lake City where the Cobalt and Blue have only picked up one win so far in 2018.

So what can we expect from Carl Robinson’s team heading into the weekend?

For starters on the injury front, Sean Franklin misses out with a quad strain, while Yordy Reyna (foot) and Erik Hurtado (undisclosed) both find themselves questionable for Saturday’s match. There are also murmurs (as in The Province cited an injury I can’t find any info about) that Jordon Mutch is out of the lineup this week as well, and Brek Shea was notably absent from Wednesday’s training session.

On the plus side, Aly Ghazal has been back in full training and could make his season debut tomorrow. If he does, I would certainly look for Felipe to be deployed further forward to offer some proper incision to the attack.

As for the rest of the line-up? I’d like to say Robbo’s going to go with the 4-1-4-1 or the 4-2-3-1 which we’re accustomed to and has had success so far this year. Honestly though, he’s shown that he’s more than ready to mix-it-up with his team selections so far in 2018. This time last season, he attempted to deploy a 3-5-2 and as always when the ‘Caps try three at the back, something (namely a big ‘ol heap of snow) scuppered the attempt to break the mold and change the formation.

While I think he’ll stick with what’s been winning games, the Welshman has shown that he’s got a trick or two to try out.

On the other side of the coin (where have I written this before?) Real Salt Lake are without a slew of defenders, with Tony Beltran, Taylor Peay and Jordan Allen missing out with respective knee injuries and questions surrounding the health of Shawn Barry and Luke Mulholland. Though it should be noted that Aaron Herrera appears set to step back in at right back for an RSL side that was playing Brooks Lennon out of position there for the last two matches.

Now I definitely don’t expect it to be an easy one, but I do have a fair bit of optimism about the Whitecaps picking up a result because the road has been kind to them this year for the most part. On top of that, you have an RSL side that was beaten last week in Toronto 3-1 at the hands of TFC, and hasn’t exactly looked up to the occasion from what I’ve seen of them so far this season.

If you do some reading on Real Salt Lake sites, or you take my word for it, the feeling from the Rio Tinto faithful is that the team’s been overrun in midfield. While the numbers from last week don’t exactly back that up as possession was split between TFC and RSL 53%-47%, if you look closely, one of their key cogs in Damir Kreilach, struggled to move the ball misplacing 15 passes last week. The week before against New York Red Bulls, he completed only 21 of the 42 passes he attempted. Combine that with an ageing Kyle Beckerman, and there certainly looks like a weakness at the base of their midfield.

Even though it’s still early, if you take what we’ve seen from the Vancouver Whitecaps in their opening 5 matches, you have to say that there’s a real possibility the ‘Caps will do more than just sit back and defend. The midfield has managed to win plenty of tackles, and then keep and move the ball effectively in possession. The likes of Felipe, Juarez, Ghazal and co., could really exert themselves on the match, control the centre of the park and the rest of the game from there. That’s wishful thinking but - hey! It could happen!

For me, I would expect to see Aly Ghazal step into the team for the first time this season, and play many a square ball to the wings. I would also expect to see another week of de Jong - Aja - Waston - Nerwinski at the back. For me, it’s a reliable group and I really like what I’ve seen from Aja so far. He looks to be a good ballplayer in the heart of defense, and he’s come up with some big interceptions and clearances which earns him the spot ahead of Aaron Maund, even if it’s something of a homecoming for the former RSL defender.

Lastly, and certainly not least, there’s the attacking duo who have been in a real purple patch to start the season of Kei Kamara and Alphonso Davies. While calling them a duo is probably unfair to the likes of Bernie Ibini and Cristian Techera, and the others that occupy the right wing for Vancouver, they’ve (Davies and Kamara) struck up a real partnership and understanding with one another which has already yielded goals and highlights week on week. Let’s hope for more of the same on Saturday.

What are your thoughts on the midfield situation? Do you think Ghazal deserves to step back in or is he too similar to other players in our midfield? Do you think Aaron Maund will get into the lineup against his former club or has Jose Aja earned the right to start?