CARSON -- The landscape certainly has changed since Robin Fraser faced his former comrades at Real Salt Lake nearly four months ago, but Chivas USA's coach isn't buying into the prevailing wisdom.
The 2009 MLS Cup champion was playing a brilliant brand of soccer before falling at home to Monterrey in the CONCACAF Champions League final, then losing something much bigger a week and a half later against the Goats.
Javier Morales, the talisman for RSL's attack, suffered a fractured and grotesquely dislocated left ankle when tackled from behind by Chivas forward Marcos Mondaini. Major League Soccer's premier playmaker hasn't been on the field since -- and won't be, we're told, for another month or so.
Real Salt Lake (10-7-6), virtually unbeatable before Morales' injury, hasn't been the same since, going 6-7-6 in all competitions and drifting to fifth in the Western Conference.
“All the hype about what's wrong with Real Salt Lake is just ridiculous,” Fraser, who was RSL coach Jason Kreis' top assistant before taking charge of the Goats (7-9-10) last January, said on the eve of Saturday night's match at Home Depot Center. “The media loves to create a story. They're the same team they were eight months ago when they were the darling of the league. Minus Javier, but they're so deep, they're still a very good team.”
When healthy, perhaps. The loss to Monterrey damaged confidence, Morales' injury played havoc on Kreis' tactical scheme, and a stream of injuries to follow has destroyed the Lions' depth and lessened their quality. They've lost four of their past five games after winning just once in eight games after Morales went down. They're winless (0-5-3) in their last eight road games.
And Kreis, among MLS's most intense coaches, is doing what he can to keep spirits up.
“The guys who are feeling helpless about it should leave ... because we’re not helpless at all,” he told The Salt Lake Tribune earlier this week. “We have the ability, we know what to do. We have the right mentality -- we have the right mentality in this group. We have everything we need to bring ourselves out of this hole, and if we continue to believe and fight we will.”
And if the slide continues, change will come.
“There have been a lot of players that have gotten a whole ton of opportunities, and a lot of them quite frankly aren’t getting the job done,” Kreis told the media. “Unless we get this turned around here and start heading in a positive direction for the playoffs, there’s going to be a lot of difficult decisions to make this offseason.”
NO RESIDUE: Nobody's expecting there to be issues between RSL's players and Mondaini, an Argentine forward who was suspended four games for the reckless challenge on Morales.
Fraser was asked if he was worried there might be some retribution.
“They're a classy group, and they're focused on the task at hand,” he said. “And they know that Mondaini was not a dirty player who was trying to hurt Javier. ... At the end of the day, they have much bigger fish to fry than worrying about kicking somebody.”
RSL captain Kyle Beckerman told The Salt Lake Tribune that there were no hard feelings. “I don’t even know who the kid who hurt Javier is,” he said. “I can’t worry about that, we’re just trying to get a result.”
Fraser's chief memory of the May 7 meeting was how his team held on despite losing two men (defender Andrew Boyens was ejected after two yellow cards) by the 40th minute and nearly claimed a point. Will Johnson's 87th-minute goal gave RSL a 1-0 victory.
“Really a great display of character by what was then a young team just being formed,” Fraser said. “I think it's given us strength in certain situations throughout the year, where we know that we can compete in any situation: down a man, down two men. I think for us it was a net positive in spite of the fact that we lost.”
WORTH NOTING: Juan Pablo Angel is expected to make his home debut for Chivas USA after missing Wednesday night's match in Portland -- primarily to keep him off the Timbers' artificial turf. ... The Goats claimed only five of 15 points on a monthlong string of five away games and are coming off a 1-0 loss in Portland that left them 12th overall, with only the top 10 making the playoffs. “You always want to get more points ...,” Fraser said, “and we just feel like we didn’t get enough points, and, obviously, the standings will show that.”. ...
Chivas has been shut out four times in its last seven games, alternating the zeroes with multigoal games to beat Houston and New England and tie Colorado. ... Justin Braun and Nick LaBrocca share the Goats' goals lead with seven apiece. ... Defenders Heath Pearce (U.S.), Ante Jazic (Canada) and Michael Umaña (Costa Rica) were called in for international duty next week. Chivas is off, aside from a Sept. 3 MLS Reserve League game at HDC against Vancouver, until Sept. 10. ...
RSL is winless (0-5-3) in its last eight road games. ... Garden Grove's Luis Gil, just 17, has scored twice in his last three games for RSL. ... Reigning MLS Defender of the Year Jamison Olave is expected to, finally, return from a knee injury suffered at the MLS All-Star Game a month ago. ... Beckerman won't join the U.S. national team until after next Saturday's game against Philadelphia. He'll be available for the Sept. 6 match at Belgium but miss next Friday's game at HDC against Costa Rica. ... LaBrocca and Zarek Valentin will be suspended with their next yellow cards.
MISSING: Central midfielder Paulo Nagamura (broken foot) and right back Michael Lahoud (sprained ankle), both injured Wednesday, are out. ... Valentin has been upgraded to doubtful with a quad strain sustained last weekend at Colorado.
REAL SALT LAKE
A top MLS forward who never won a regular job with the U.S. national team, Kreis was MLS's first 100-goal man, retiring to take charge of RSL in 2007 with a then-record 108 strikes, now the No. 5 mark. He's an intense and demanding coach who has built RSL into MLS Cup champ (in 2009) and this year took the club to the CONCACAF Champions League final.
Three key players
Forward Fabian Espindola has been the rare in-form attacker for the Lions, with a team-best seven goals, his MLS career high
Beckerman is the club's emotional leader and its rock at holding midfielder
Montclair's Nick Rimando is among the league's elite goalkeepers, a superb shot-stopper who ably organizes one of MLS's best backlines
Real Salt Lake was the best team in MLS, without question, when the season kicked off, but the Utahns still haven't put behind them the demoralizing loss to Monterrey and Morales' injury. Desperation might set in with another loss or two -- Philadelphia, streaking Seattle and Sporting Kansas City, and talented New York are next on the schedule -- but improved form as they get healthier could turn them into title contenders again.
Rimando played at Montclair High School and UCLA. Right back Tony Beltran is a neighbor -- he's from Claremont (Claremont HS) and also played at UCLA. ... Teen playmaker Gil emerged from Santiago High School in Garden Grove. ... No. 2 goalkeeper Kyle Reynish, from Valencia, played at Hart High School and UC Santa Barbara. ... Midfielder Ned Grabavoy was with the Galaxy in 2004-05.
RSL has been reeling from injury. In addition to Morales, starting left back Chris Wingert (broken wrist) and reserve midfielder Nelson Gonzalez (broken foot) and forward Chris Agorsor (broken hand) are out. ... Grabavoy (adductor strain) and Reynish (sprained ankle) are doubtful. ... Olave, Rimando (bruised back), Espindola (bruised knee) and midfielder Arturo Alvarez (bruised knee) are questionable. ... Forward Alvaro Saborio (knee effusion) and midfielder Jean Alexandre (knee pain) are probable.
At Home Depot Center (Carson), 7 p.m.
TV: Fox Soccer Channel (replay: midnight; Fox Deportes, 11 p.m.)
Radio: W Radio (XEWW/690, Spanish)
Referee: Kevin Stott