[MLS] Since he ended his playing career five games into the 2007 season to take over as Real Salt Lake head coach, Jason Kreis has challenged the organization, his players and coaches, and himself. Once it captured the 2009 MLS Cup, Kreis set out his objectives for 2010: to succeed in the Concacaf Champions League, and get back to MLS Cup.
RSL has advanced to the CCL quarterfinals, where it has been paired with league rival Columbus, and it faces a stern test to keep alive its interest in this year’s championship. RSL trails FC Dallas, 2-1, from the first leg and while all it needs to do is repeat its 2-0 victory Oct. 16 at Rio Tinto Stadium when the teams meet Saturday at the same venue (10 p.m. ET, Fox Soccer Channel), there are a few conditions attached.
Playmaker Javier Morales is suspended, top scorer Alvaro Saborio is hobbled by recurring pain in his right knee, and while RSL went 2-1-1 in games without Morales this season, the teams it beat – Toronto and Chicago – didn’t make the playoffs. RSL’s incredible performances at home this season – and unbeaten (11-0-4) record, 31 goals scored, seven conceded – will be quickly forgotten if this year’s season ends at Rio Tinto.
“I don’t think [being without Morales] affects the way we play,” said Kreis to mlssoccer.com. “Of course, Javier’s a fantastic player and can be a difference-maker at times, but we’ve got four other guys that can step in and do a great job.”
Veteran Andy Williams is the most likely candidate to step in for Morales, yet just as vital for RSL are the roles and performances assigned to the other three midfielders. In the first leg, Dallas catalyst David Ferreira got too many touches in dangerous situations and set up both goals when RSL challenges failed to win the ball cleanly.
Because Ferreira likes to float and drift outside the penalty yet is quite capable of explosive dribbles into the box, central midfielder Kyle Beckerman and the outside mids – presumably Ned Grabavoy and Will Johnson – must be ready to shut off passing lanes and get in tackles as well, as both Daniel Hernandez and Dax McCarty can also hit accurate balls from their central midfield slots.
If there’s not enough attacking impetus from RSL, don’t be surprised to see Beckerman sneak forward to emulate the goalscoring heroics of former Miami Fusion teammate Pablo Mastroeni in the first leg of the Colorado-Columbus series. Johnson nailed an incredible hit from distance in 2008 to win MLS Goal of the Year honors; he’s only scored twice since then in regular-season play, but that 2008 goal came against Dallas. If Saborio’s injury slows him down, Kreis may opt for the speedy Robbie Findley alongside lanky Fabian Espindola, who nailed an early goal to provide a 1-0 lead in the first leg that FCD wiped out with strikes from substitutes Jeff Cunningham and Eric Avila.
FCD has injury concerns as well. A groin injury has sidelined forward Milton Rodriguez; his place on the roster has been taken by teenager Ruben Luna. Outside back Heath Pearce, who sat out the first leg with a strained hamstring, remains on the injured list. Like Morales, FCD outside mid Atiba Harris is suspended, and though he’s not as influential as the RSL maestro, his jarring, aggressive play caused the defending champ some concern.
FC Dallas has never won at Rio Tinto in three tries but with a one-goal lead it doesn’t have to. These teams tied a combined 25 games while equaling a league record for fewest losses (four), and that could produce a very cagey match of few chances but great drama.