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Know the Opponent: New York Red Bulls vs. Real Salt Lake

Careful New York! Real Salt Lake likes losing at home about as much as Alvaro Saborio liked Mehdi Ballouchy after the above encounter.
Careful New York! Real Salt Lake likes losing at home about as much as Alvaro Saborio liked Mehdi Ballouchy after the above encounter.

Since joining Major League Soccer seven seasons ago, Real Salt Lake already has quite a bit of history with the New York Red Bulls. RSL's first ever MLS match was played against New York, and former Metros Clint Mathis and Eddie Pope spent their final years in Salt Lake. In October of 2008, the Red Bulls were RSL's first opponent at their new home stadium, and New York returned just a month later to hand Salt Lake another first: their first home defeat at Rio Tinto, which also happened to be that year's Western Conference Final.

Despite having just the league's tenth highest attendance numbers (a commendable 17,600 in 2011), their home stadium Rio Tinto is considered an absolute fortress, with passionate and vocal supporters and high altitude contributing to an astonishing 38-5-19 home record over the past four seasons. Needless to say, the Red Bulls will need a special performance along with a bit of luck to hand RSL their averaged one annual home loss.

RSL typically lines up in a 4-4-2 diamond formation, with strong central players complimented well by speedsters on the wings. Over the last two regular seasons, Real Salt Lake has conceded just 56 goals in 54 games, made even more impressive by their competing in the 2010-2011 CONCACAF Champions League, which required some coverage for tired players during MLS league matches.

Needless to say, Real Salt Lake has one of the best pools of defenders in Major League Soccer. Nat Borchers and Jamison Olave do it all at center back, and backup Chris Schuler would be a likely starter for another MLS team. A young but promising Tony Beltran is getting the nod at right back in 2012 with the full confidence of manager Jason Kreis, who traded veteran Robbie Russell in the offseason to make way for the former UCLA Bruin and U.S. U-20 National Team player.

Goalkeeper Nick Rimando, age 32 and in top form, is predicted to be the man between the posts for Real Salt Lake for at least the next few years, and he is also likely to stay in the mix with the senior national team. His accolades include being an MLS All-Star, the 2009 MLS Cup Final Man of the Match, and he has recorded the second most shutouts all-time in MLS.

The midfield and forwards are led by Kyle Beckerman, Alvaro Saborio, Javier Morales, and Fabian Espindola. RSL boasts a lot of depth in this part of the field between more experienced options such as Ned Grabavoy and Will Johnson, and exciting younger prospects Luis Gil, Paulo Jr., and Sebastian Velasquez, all three of whom started in RSL's 2012 season opening 3-1 victory over the L.A. Galaxy.

Real Salt Lake takes pride in being the "anti" L.A. Galaxy or New York Red Bulls in that they don't rely on big name designated player signings to build their team. Instead, Jason Kreis has put together an impressive core group of players, many of whom are entering their fifth season in RSL's starting eleven.

Trying to avoid a dreaded rebuilding year, an emphasis on developing younger players such as Luis Gil, Paulo Jr., and new addition Sebastian Velasquez has Real Salt Lake poised to be in the top half of Major League Soccer for years to come. However, Chris Schuler may be too good of a center back to be coming off the bench in Major League Soccer, even if he is backing up two of the league's best in Jamison Olave and Nat Borchers. At age 24, Schuler will likely begin to command more minutes or find a new home.