UPDATE: Bobby Wood is not available for tonight's game, per assistant GM Tony Beltran on ESPN 700 with Spence Checketts, but the question about his use going forward is still one to watch, as it may define RSL's season.
The first ever Utah derby kicks off from Rio Tinto Stadium tonight at eight pm mountain time as Real Salt Lake hosts the Vancouver Whitecaps. Vancouver has made Salt Lake their home for the 2021 season due to ongoing COVID restrictions affecting the U.S.-Canada border. While RSL fans have embraced their Canadian guests (and even successfully lobbied their way into future Vancouver "home" matches) the pleasantries may be on hold for the evening as the match represents an important battle for western conference playoff positioning.
RSL has had its share of change during the international window, with a host of new signings arriving in Salt Lake. For a complete breakdown on the team's new additions, check out this article from fellow RSL correspondent Cal Westfall.
The biggest arrival is Bobby Wood, the former USMNT striker who spent last season in the 2 Bundesliga. Wood is the big-name striker from the offseason, and he is finally here after the conclusion of his contract and the birth of his child. The biggest questions around RSL heading into this next phase of play is how he will factor into the team, which is why it's my one big question ahead of tonight's match.
Wood was brought in to be the striker RSL has long been looking for. His sole job is to put the ball in the back of the net. Rubio Rubin was brought in at the same time, and he was expected to be a contributor off the bench who could provide depth in a condensed schedule. The problem (and it is a good problem to have) is that Rubin has been everything Wood is supposed to be. Starting up top while the team waited for Wood's arrival, Rubin has netted four goals and two assists in six matches, including a goal of the year candidate against San Jose.
Rubin has arguably been RSL's best player, which is why coach Freddy Juarez now has a difficult decision on his hands. Rubin absolutely deserves to keep his starting spot, and it would be ludicrous to take it away from him, but Wood should be an elite striker as well. Both players have the potential for double-digit goal seasons, but RSL currently only plays a one striker system. Juarez will either have to bench one of them or change up his formation. Another option that has been floated by RSL fans is putting Rubin at a different position, but I do not seeing him playing well at any other position, nor do I see Juarez benching a winger or central midfielder to make that happen.
If Juarez decides to bench one of his strikers, they will clearly be the first person back in as a substitute, which walks us into another storyline. RSL is last in the league in substitute minutes used, and on average their first sub (injuries excluded) comes on in the 75th minute. (These statistics are from Charles Barnard from Twitter. For this and other great RSL stats, check Charles out on Twitter @ccb1212). If Wood or Rubin are indeed on the bench, it will be interesting to see if they are left on the bench for as long as other subs.
I keep going back and forth on if we will see the answer to this question tonight. It is likely that Wood is on the bench, as he will need time to acclimate to a new team, formation, tactics, and climate. With that being said, if there was ever a time for Juarez to implement a formation or other change to get the most out of Wood and Rubin, there is no better opportunity than a three week international break, which RSL just completed.
See you at the RioT tonight!
(Photo Courtesy of Real Salt Lake)