[MLS] Defending champion Real Salt Lake (15-4-11) split the season series with FC Dallas (12-4-14) yet comes into the conference semifinals healthier and riding a season-long unbeaten streak at home.
GOALKEEPING. Kevin Hartman posted an amazing goals-allowed average of 0.62 and 11 shutouts before a wild kick by Thierry Henry in mid-September left him with a sprained MCL. He’s back in training but his lack of recent action might keep Dario Sala (1.52) in the nets. Twelve-year veteran Nick Rimando has played some of his best stuff this season, and his goals-allowed average (0.67) shows it. He’s quick to sense and snuff out danger, and seldom makes a bad decision challenging for high balls and crosses.
DEFENSE. Centerbacks Nat Borchers and Jamison Olave, both finalists for MLS Defender of the Year, anchored an RSL defense that shut out 14 opponents, one short of the league record. By anticipation and positioning seldom are they exposed in flat-out sprints and they can be dominant in the air. Chris Wingert and Robbie Russell are the regular outside backs, Tony Beltran has started in 17 of his 18 appearances. FCD linchpin Ugo Ihemelu has been out since early August recovering from a concussion; rookie Zach Loyd has done well partnered with George John, but he’s a rookie. Outside backs Jair Benitez and Heath Pearce are adept at working combinations and pushing up the flanks.
MIDFIELD. Playmaker Javier Morales led RSL with just nine assists, yet Andy Williams notched seven while playing in every game for the first time in his career. The renowned midfield diamond buttressed by Kyle Beckerman is perhaps the strongest in MLS, equally capable of strangling opponents and slicing them apart. FCD’s five-man midfield has been jumbled by injuries to destroyer Daniel Hernandez and conduit Dax McCarty, and as a result attacking catalyst David Ferreira (8 goals, 13 assists) sometimes doesn’t get enough of the ball. When he does, his quickness, vision and touch are difficult to contain.
FORWARDS. For RSL, Alvaro Saborio is a strong, deceptive striker who netted a dozen goals. Fabian Espindola (6 goals) is tricky, streaky and unpredictable, Robbie Findley (5 goals) can burn past defenders but his finishing is spotty, and livewire newcomer Paulo Junior popped up with two goals in the Concacaf Champions’ League finale. At age 35, Jeff Cunningham can still bring enough power and desire to score goals; he led the team this season with 11, but in his last 12 playoff games he’s only scored once. Since joining the team, Milton Rodriguez has started all of his 13 games and scored five goals. His goalmouth instincts and sense of space are valuable.
COACHING. Jason Kreis challenged RSL’s players to build on last year’s title; they responded with 16 more points and nearly won the Supporters’ Shield while also playing in the Concacaf Champions’ League. He’s a Coach of the Year finalist and so is Schellas Hyndman, who transformed Dallas into one of the league’s best teams by drafting wisely and tinkering with formations and personnel.
REGULAR SEASON. FCD lost at RSL, 2-0, on the penultimate weekend of the season, reversing a 2-0 win in Dallas July 17. All of RSL’s four losses this season were on the road; it also won four and tied seven. FCD was 8-1-6 at home.
FORM. RSL rallied from two goals down in stoppage time to salvage a 2-2 tie at Colorado in its final game a week after beating FCD. Dallas ended the season with a second straight loss when it fell, 2-1, at Home Depot Center, and in its last seven games against playoff teams it hasn’t been able to win.
PREDICTION: RSL, 3-1.