[MLS] Real Salt Lake's quest to repeat as MLS champion takes it into the home of the last team to achieve that feat when it plays at Houston Thursday (9 p.m. ET, ESPN2).
Home Depot Center rivals Los Angeles and Chivas USA conclude the ESPN2 doubleheader with a 11 p.m. ET kickoff. All four teams have title aspirations this year, yet between them, RSL and the Dynamo have captured three of the last five championships with teams very different in systems and personnel, yet similar in philosophy.
“If you lose a couple of players, it’s not the end of the world,” says Dynamo midfielder Richard Mulrooney of the team-first mantra preached by RSL coach Jason Kreis and Houston counterpart Dominic Kinnear.
“You don’t want to lose your starting XI, but when your system is that strong, like Real Salt Lake’s is, like Houston’s is, like the good teams in this league, you can compete day-in and day-out. That’s our philosophy and I think Salt Lake’s taken that same role and it paid off for them last year.”
From its 2009 team RSL has lost striker Yura Movsisyan and attacker Clint Mathis; among the candidates to fill the gap is Costa Rican Alvaro Saborio, who made his MLS debut last week as a substitute in a 3-0 thrashing of San Jose. Houston’s losses are more severe: midfielders Stuart Holden and Ricardo Clark left for European teams, and former captain and left back Wade Barrett retired last week to become an assistant coach.
Geoff Cameron, a finalist for Defender of the Year after coming to MLS in 2008 as a midfielder, has moved into central midfield, where he’ll share duties with Mulrooney to blunt Javier Morales and Kyle Beckerman. Both teams play a 4-4-2 formation, but with very different midfield shapes, which presents some unique problems for the Dynamo.
“I really like the way [Real Salt Lake's] Will Johnson plays, and I like the way their whole midfield plays, with the outside guys pinching in, they keep everything nice and tight and tidy,” says Kinnear. “The outside backs get forward, they’re dangerous on set pieces because of the service and the big guys attacking the ball. All-around, they’re a very talented team.”
Playmaker Javier Morales scored two of the three goals against San Jose with blistering shots. He scored just one goal (with five assists) in the regular season last year, but Kinnear believes those numbers lie. “People pointed to Morales’ stats last season and sometimes that’s an unfair comparison to how he actually played,” says Kinnear, who coached the Dynamo to back-to-back titles in 2006 and 2007. “I think he’s a good player. He hits a great pass and put the ball into the right areas, and I think you saw by the two goals he scored last week that he does have the ability to score.”
The midfield battles, and particularly the duels between Beckerman and Cameron, and Mulrooney and Morales, will be among several fascinating subplots. “They basically have four center midfielders playing in the midfield,” says Mulrooney. “The outside guys pinch in and they create a diamond in there, so while Geoff and I will have our hands full in there with Morales and Beckerman, if Brad [Davis] and [Brian] Mullan don’t pinch in, we will lose that possession game.
“If he can match Beckerman’s intensity and so-called get the better of him and outplay him, it speaks highly for Geoff and he knows that will not only go a long way for him with us but for his future too. It’s only one game but it’s an early matchup for him and a good test and I think he’s ready for it.”
The teams didn’t meet in last year’s playoffs; as the fifth-place finisher in the West, RSL topped Eastern foes Columbus and Chicago reach MLS Cup, in which it outlasted Los Angeles. The Galaxy had eliminated Houston, 2-0, in the Western Conference final.
Houston didn’t lose to RSL last year, winning 3-2 at home and playing 0-0 and 1-1 ties in Rio Tinto Stadium. The Dynamo finished eight points ahead of RSL in the standings, a gap that turned out to have little predictive relevance for the postseason.
“We’ll have a good crowd behind us, not that that’s going to make Real roll over and go away, but our guys understand what it takes day-in and day-out to be competitive,” says Kinnear of facing the defending champ in just the second game of the season.
Says Mulrooney, “Now they’ve got the ‘X’ on their back. We’ve always said before that it’s tough when you’re the champs and you have the ‘X’ on your back. I’m sure they’re up for the challenge but you have to be ready for all 30 games and a couple more as well. Everybody’s going to be gunning for them.”