By Ridge Mahoney
When the team is the star, milestones don’t mean much. Results do. RSL left Buck Shaw Stadium with both Sunday night, after a 2-0 victory that featured the 300th career appearance by captain Kyle Beckerman and the 100th shutout posted by Nick Rimando. The return of Robbie Findley and some young faces -- in midfield and the back line and coming off the bench – enhanced the sense of a new era, though a few mainstays made the key plays.
It was the first league match played by RSL since it traded Fabian Espindola, Jamison Olave and Will Johnson during the offseason, and also the first opener since former majority owner Dave Checketts sold his interest in the club to partner Dell Loy Hansen.
Alvaro Saborio’s two sharp finishes rewarded a stalwart showing by Beckerman, who set up the clinching goal with a ball that sliced open the San Jose back line and labored throughout the game to screen the central defensive pairing of Chris Schuler and Kwame Watson-Siriboe.
They are competing for the spot previously occupied by Olave -- now a Red Bull -- alongside veteran Nat Borchers, whose injury provided the young pair extensive time in preseason to train together.
“The back four did great today,” said Rimando, who played his 166th game for RSL since joining it in 2007. “It will still take some time to iron out some of the details in the back that Borchers’ experience brings, and Olave when he was with us, but I think they’re great individual defenders.”
The back line wasn’t ironclad -- Chris Wondolowski shook free to take five shots but put only one of them on frame and frontline partner Mike Fucito dragged a shot wide when well-placed -- yet somehow RSL shut out last year’s top scoring team with 72 goals. Rimando needed to make just two saves, one of them a fingertip parry onto the crossbar of a deflected Wondolowski shot.
“I didn’t see it at all,” said Rimando of his reflex stop in the 15th minute. “There’s like three dudes in front of me, and just reacted to it and was lucky enough to get like a fingertip to it and push it against the post and yeah, preserve the shutout.”
Rimando is most mindful of keeping clean sheets yet sees the value of Findley as well. He isn’t a direct replacement for Espindola, whose scoring streaks and suspect temperament yielded 37 goals and 25 cautions in six RSL seasons. Findley scored 31 goals for RSL from 2007 to 2010 before heading overseas and stalling out at Nottingham Forest.
RSL send a chunk of the allocation money it had acquired in trades to Portland for his rights, which the Timbers had claimed in the Expansion Draft.
“We didn’t have that speedy guy up top to relieve pressure, and he comes back and we don’t miss a beat with him,” said Rimando. “He knows the system, and being able to hit the ball without even looking up front and know he’s going to chase it down and give us that offensive threat up top, it feels good.”
Findley is expected to inject an element the stylish, possession-oriented RSL teams often lacked in his absence: speed and some knack of how to stretch the opponent front to back. The offseason also brought tricky winger Joao Plata, 21, from TFC in a trade, and the signing of 20-year-old Colombian burner Olmes Garcia, who didn’t play Sunday but got in 45 minutes of a reserve game Monday.
Findley’s also a link to the championship team of 2009, when he led the team with 12 goals while playing with Espindola, Olave, Johnson, Clint Mathis, Andy Williams, Yura Movsisyan, Robbie Russell and other names from the past. Findley scored RSL’s equalizer against the Galaxy in MLS Cup, which it won on penalty kicks following a 1-1 tie.
“We just love having him back, he just really opens the field,” said Beckerman of Findley. “If we get on a bigger field he’s going to be even more important for us to really stretch them so we can pass a little bit more. He did great tonight and unfortunately he didn’t get a goal, but a lot of what Robbie does are things when he doesn’t score.”
Head coach Jason Kreis gave Findley a passing grade for his 65 minutes of work, after which he gave way to Plata, with a few recommendations.
“I still think when we’ve got Robbie on the field he needs to be looking to get in behind a little more,” said the coach. “I thought in the first half he was on the front side of the back four of San Jose too often. I want him to really look to be toeing that line and get in behind every chance he can.”
RSL will undergo another makeover in a month or so, when Borchers, Chris Wingert and playmaker Javier Morales return from injury.
Against the Quakes, Kenny Mansally took Wingert’s spot at left back and struggled through a first half of poor decisions and scuffed clearances before finding his feet, and midfielder Luis Gil played the entire match five days after helping the U.S. U-20s qualify for the world championships at the Concacaf qualifying tournament in Mexico.
Veteran midfielder Ned Grabavoy had to be scratched from the lineup when his wife went into premature labor, and Kreis revamped the midfield with ex-Quake Khari Stephenson and Sebastian Velasquez taking the outside slots. They represent another mix that Kreis is tinkering with: Velasquez, 22, is 10 years younger than Stephenson, and relies on skill and guile rather than brawn.
“I honestly feel fortunate. I don’t feel like we are as smart as some people think,” said Kreis of Stephenson, who passed through the Re-Entry Draft unclaimed after San Jose declined to pick up his option. “I think sometimes we just get lucky. With Khari, one, he was available, and the price that he was available for, I think we got a little bit lucky there. He’s going to be continued to be challenged. It’s not easy to play in our midfield and he’s a little bit of an older player so he’s going to continue to be challenged for fitness.”
Along with pace and power, Kreis also has the pieces to incorporate more width rather than relying on outside backs to supplement a narrow diamond formation. Gil isn’t reluctant to float wide, Plata is a typically unorthodox winger, and Velasquez can get up the touchline or veer inside.
The names and nuances will inevitably change. The message, and the objective, remain the same.
“I don’t know how you walk away from that with anything other than pleasure,” said Kreis. “I’m really, really proud of our guys’ effort tonight. That was really my main focus, was to see if we could out-compete a team that knows known to be one of the best competitors in the league.”
“Our guys did everything that was necessary to do that. They had to weather some storms because San Jose was very, very dangerous for a 10-to-15 minute period in the first half, and they’re always going to be dangerous when they have guys like Wondolowski on the end of crosses in the box. I’m really, really pleased with how we’ve started this year.”