[MLS] A week ago, most of the RSL starters were pulled off the field by Coach Jason Kreis when a scuffle broke out in a preseason match against Sporting Kansas City. SKC officials deny that Omar Bravo triggered the melee with a kick that caught RSL playmaker Javier Morales in the head, but nonetheless, RSL’s fiesty response indicates an emotional edge it will need against Costa Rican powerhouse Deportivo Saprissa when the two teams start their Concacaf Champions League semifinal series Tuesday at Rio Tinto Stadium (10 p.m. ET, FSC).
"We have much more important things to worry about,” said RSL general manager Garth Lagerwey of the CCL first leg, a road trip to San Jose this weekend to start league play, and then a home opener against the Galaxy a week from Saturday. “We played our reserves the next day and everything was fine, so we just shook hands and moved on.
“We think this competition is on its way to becoming a very important part of our league’s growth. People around here are excited about it, no question. We had a really good crowd (15,405) for our home game against Columbus in the last round and we’re selling tickets faster for this game. And let’s face it, the competition becomes a lot more important to MLS if an MLS team could win it.”
The game is part of the team’s 20-match, season-ticket package and dry, if chilly, weather is forecast. “I don’t know if we can get to a sellout (20,008), but we should be in the high teens, and the atmosphere should be great,” says Lagerwey.
Morales and his teammates came away from the SKC scuffle unscathed yet RSL has injury concerns. Left back Chris Wingert twisted his left ankle in practice Sunday but is expected to start against Saprissa. Forward Alvaro Saborio, who has scored seven goals in CCL play to date, is still recovering from offseason knee surgery.
“I think he’s close, [but] I don’t think he’s 100 percent,” said Kreis, one of the league’s all-time leading scorers whose own playing career was cut short by knee problems. “I have a lot of history with knee surgery, so I know how he’s feeling.”
RSL has upgraded Saborio, a former Saprissa player, to Designated Player status. He scored 12 league goals for RSL last year and also sat out a one-game suspension for retaliating against Seattle midfielder Oswaldo Alonso. Kreis has told his players to be wary of Saprissa’s possible use of aggressive, high-pressure tactics to disrupt RSL’s tempo and temperament; Saborio, who scored 95 goals in 149 games for Saprissa from 2001 to 2006, is a likely target. So, too, are midfielders Kyle Beckerman and Morales, who are carrying yellow cards. Six Saprissa players are also attached to a caution.
Defenders Tony Beltran and Nat Borchers are back in the pool for selection. They were red-carded in the first game against Columbus and sat out the second match. RSL won the series, 4-1, on aggregate after a 3-1 win at Rio Tinto, where the team is unbeaten in its last 34 games. In its 3-1 elimination of Honduran club Olimpia, Saprissa won the away leg in San Pedro Sula, 2-1.
The series winner meets the survivor of an all-Mexican semifinal between Monterrey and Cruz Azul that begins Wednesday. Since the CCL format began in 2008-9, Cruz Azul has reached the finals both times, and both times it has lost to Mexican opposition: Atlante and Pachuca.
Saprissa postponed its league match last weekend to better prepare for the first semifinal game. “It’s important for us to know that we have a whole week to prepare for the game, and to absorb the manager’s plan and also rest a bit,” said forward Jairo Arrieta to Costa Rican newspaper La Nación.
The return match won’t be played in Costa Rica until April 5, when RSL should be sharper with a few league matches behind it, yet since the start of preseason training Kreis and his staff have stressed the importance of this competition, and especially its home games.
“They’ve put a ton of hard work in and they’ve really bought into everything we’re trying to accomplish as a club,” said Kreis of his players. “I think we’re in as good a spot as we can be, but we’re nowhere near midseason form.”