[MLS SEMIFINAL PREVIEW]The 2008 MLS playoffs have conjured up two wonderfully warm and fuzzy stories, but one of them must end in the Western Conference final. Real Salt Lake, fueled by a streak of clutch goals and a stadium unveiling just a few weeks ago, hosts New York, the league's perennially dysfunctional embarrassment that knocked off two-time defending champion Houston to throw the MLS Cup chase wide open. Rio Tinto Stadium in suburban Sandy, Utah, is the setting for a match Saturday (9:30 p.m., Fox Soccer Channel, Fox Sports in Espanol, HDNet) in which nuances abound.
"We've faced a lot of trials and tribulations, and we've had peaks and valleys, but there's one thing that hasn't changed inside our locker room, and that's the belief in ourselves," says RSL coach Jason Kreis.
"We're a team that during long stretches of the season we defended very well, and during other parts of the season we attacked very well, and now at this stretch of the season we're doing both extremely well."
COACHING COMPARISON. Kreis, in his second season as head coach following a spectacular playing career, also learned a few lessons along the way from his rival for this match, Juan Carlos Osorio. The pair first chatted at a reserve game early in the season and they've talked on the phone a few times since then.
"I think he's a fantastic coach," says Kreis of Osorio. "There's so much there for me to learn. You look at Chicago and New York and what he's done with those teams, is nothing short of phenomenal."
As a rookie head coach last year, Kreis incurred a few fines for violating league rules regarding tampering and other procedures. In year two, he transformed RSL from a 6-15-9 doormat into a contender that upset Chivas USA in the conference semifinals by winning at home, 1-0, in the final seconds and tying, 2-2, on the road.
Osorio is also in his second MLS season; after the first one, he bolted from Chicago to double his salary, more or less, in New York. The Red Bulls also edged into the playoffs on the final weekend of the regular season, then pounded Houston on the road, 3-0, to win that series on aggregate, 4-1.
"It certainly hasn't been easy," says striker Juan Pablo Angel, who is the leading scorer among teams still alive with 14 goals in the regular season and two more in the playoffs. "It's been a very up-and-down season. We've seen a lot of changes within the organization, within the squad."
After taking over, Osorio traded fiery midfielder Dema Kovalenko, who complained bitterly at the time, and scored last week for RSL against Chivas USA. Former U.S. international midfielder Claudio Reyna retired and MLS sold teenage striker Jozy Altidore to Spanish club Villarreal.
Shortly before the playoffs began, MLS suspended defender Jeff Parke and goalie Jon Conway for failing a drug test.. The coach, notorious for his personnel and formation changes from game to game, signed a quartet of international players during the summer, yet has dropped all but one of them - defender Gilberto Jimenez - from the starting lineup for the two playoff games.
MIDFIELD MATCHUPS. Going with a more rugged approach in midfield, using youngsters Luke Sassano and Sinisa Ubiparapovic, won't guarantee success against RSL. Playmaker Javier Morales, who led MLS during the regular season with 15 assists and scored one goal and assisted on the other last weekend against Chivas USA, doesn't go it alone.
"We don't have one playmaker," says goalie Nick Rimando, who joined Salt Lake last year after stints with Miami and D.C. United. "We have a lot of different playmakers on our team that we can get the ball to and that we believe in. We have Javier and Will Johnson and now we have Clint Mathis, and of course Yura [Movsisyan] up top."
Movsisyan scored a stunning, last-minute goal at Colorado to nail down a playoff spot, and struck again in the waning seconds to beat Chivas USA. Johnson joined the team in August and scored just two goals, but one of them was a spectacular flick and volley against New York that is among the Goal of the Year finalists.
"The way they arrange the middle of the field, they have very creative players," said Osorio of RSL. "They have the ability to counterattack quickly, so we have to be prepared. We have pointed out how they start their attack and we have to be very proactive in how we defend so we can be sure to contain them."
STRATEGY SESSIONS.Of course, unless the Red Bulls fall behind, as the road team they will probably get counterattacking opportunities, and if they finish those chances as ruthlessly as they did last week in routing Houston, 3-0, RSL's fairytale may be the one that ends despite the majestic setting.
The searing speed of Dane Richards, who scored the first goal against Houston and created the other two, contrasts with and complements the poise and vision of Dave van den Bergh. Kreis must decide whether to play stalwart outside back Chris Wingert on the left to run down Richards, or on the right to blunt van den Bergh. Tough choice.
RSL captain Kyle Beckerman can close down spaces, win tackles, and launch attacks with sharp outlet passes. If his team holds sway in midfield, the flanks will be secured and Angel will be deprived of service.
"He's one of our leaders," says Rimando of Beckerman, acquired last year from Colorado in exchange for Mehdi Ballouchy. "He's one reason we're where we are today because of his intensity and drive to make this club succeed. When he came over last year, you could tell right away that we needed him."
PAYBACK? In the second of their two meetings this year on Oct. 9, New York spoiled the opening of Rio Tinto by garnering a 1-1 tie.
"We've always had good games with New York," says Rimando, noting the Red Bulls won, 2-1, in the Meadowlands. "I think we owe them a little payback for ruining our celebration for the opening of Rio Tinto.
"We're comfortable going into this game. We know it's a chance to make history for this club and not only for the club but for the city as well."