The Columbus Crew and Real Salt Lake meet for the only time this season in a midweek match that is important for both teams.
The Crew come in on the back of a heartbreaking 3-2 loss to Toronto FC, where they controlled much of the game and led with nine minutes remaining in the contest. After giving up another road game result, the Crew will look to get things back on track at home before taking to the road once again Saturday before the World Cup break begins.
Real are also looking to bounce back for the first time this season. They suffered their first loss of the year - 4-0 to the Seattle Sounders - last Saturday and would like nothing more than to put that behind them with two wins before the break.
Here was my conversation with Randal.
Questions for RSL Soapbox
Massive Report: First loss of the season on Saturday to the Seattle Sounders. What has been the key for Salt Lake's consistency so far this year?
RSL Soapbox: The key to consistency has been that new coach Jeff Cassar inherited a talented group with a lot of experience. On top of that, he by and large has maintained the style of play that RSL has been playing with since 2008. Now if I were to point to a single player that has allowed RSL to have such a nice start, I would have to say Joao Plata, as he is having a breakout season.
MR: 23 goals scored for Real, six from Joao Plata and Alvaro Saborio and four from Javier Morales. What has made the offense so potent and allowed the goals to be spread around?
RSLSB: Plata's fantastic start has taken some attention off of Sabo and others which gives them a bit more space to work with. But RSL has spread the goals around for years now. Once again, it is a result of the system that RSL has. Scoring goals is a matter of being in the right spots so this allows Real to spread the wealth.
MR: After falling in penalty kicks to Sporting Kansas City in last year's MLS Cup Final, what were the preseason expectations for this team and have they changed at all throughout the course of the season?
RSLSB: In my observation, this year RSL has quietly gone about their business and has talked less about the absolute necessity to win trophies, maybe to take some pressure off or [temper] expectations. That said, I think that time is running out for some of the more veteran players so they have said they are as hungry or more hungry than ever to win some hardware. RSL should be better on paper this year than last now that their younger players have valuable playoff experience under their belts, but time will tell.
Questions for Massive Report
RSL Soapbox: Who has been the MVP for the Columbus Crew so far this season?
Massive Report: Hands down Federico Higuain. In talking to some of the players last week, ahead of Higauin's one game suspension, they not only called him the MVP of the team, but potentially the MVP of the league. Head coach Gregg Berhalter was asked about him not getting the recognition of a Thierry Henry or a Robbie Keane recently and he said he has talked to people in "soccer circles" and they are amazed at what Higuain does. Hector Jimenez, who played with the L.A Galaxy the last three seasons told me he rates him up with former teammates Landon Donovan and Keane.
Basically he makes this team go. He is not someone they are able to replace in the lineup and last Saturday the team looked disjointed without his influence. As I've said before, Crew fans are probably a bit spoiled to have gone from Guillermo Barros Schelotto to Higuain. If his play continues this year - already with six goals and five assists - he too could end up receiving some of the post season accolades that Schelotto did with the Black and Gold.
RSLSB: Being that the Crew are one of the original MLS cluns, how have you seen the fanbase and the club itself evolve since 1996?
MR: I would say the biggest thing has been the move away from a strictly family atmosphere that existed at Ohio Stadium and Columbus Crew Stadium in the early days to a more supporter based culture. This has occurred as the league has evolved in that direction, but was also fueled by a strange addition to Crew Stadium, the north end stage.
In 2007, there were three divided supporters groups that had little cooperation. It was a good start towards building a hostile atmosphere in Crew Stadium, but because they were separated, things weren't working smoothly. The addition of the stage pushed the groups to one section, the Nordecke, and was one of the less talked about contributions to a magical 2008 season.
Regardless of where they sit in the stadium, Crew fans have begun to contribute in chants and such and the culture has changed from cheering only occurring when something exciting happens to a ongoing 90 minutes.
RSLSB: What has had more of an impact on the Crew - former coach Robert Warzycha leaving or defender Michael Parkhurst coming in?
MR: That's a difficult one to answer. Warzycha's firing ultimately led to the appointment of Berhalter as head coach and the specific style of play he brought with him. Chad Marshall wasn't a good fit and was traded to the Seattle Sounders and Parkhurst was subsequently acquired. If Warzycha is still here, Parkhurst is likely not wearing the Black and Gold.
I would say that Warzycha's departure probably had a bigger impact on the franchise to this point because the September 4 match against the Houston Dynamo last season was the first without Warzycha's involvement - as a player, assistant coach, or head coach - since 1996. He was a key member for the Crew for so long, whereas Parkhurst, who has made quite the impact already, has only just began his time in Columbus.