[SCOUTING REPORT] Real Salt Lake’s Mexican foe in the Concacaf Champions League final, which begins Wednesday (TV, 10 p.m. ET, live, Fox Soccer Channel), isn’t as well known to most American fans as Guadalajara, Club America or Pachuca, but Monterrey has emerged as one of its league’s top teams in the past few seasons.
Without deviating from its own system, to some extent Real Salt Lake will have to match Monterrey’s strengths in the first leg at Estadio Technologico. A common characteristic of good Mexican teams is ball control: intelligent movement of players in coordination with confident, accurate passing. In this basic tenet they and RSL are superior to most MLS teams, which is a particular point of pride for head coach Jason Kreis.
By acquiring Argentines Javier Morales and Fabian Espindola and Costa Rican Alvaro Saborio, RSL has built an attack around skill more than the pace and power typical of its opponents in MLS. A midfield that includes Andy Williams, Will Johnson and Kyle Beckerman offers opportunities to keep the ball under pressure, a critical factor in depriving a talented foe of attacking possibilities stemming from turnovers.
“I believe that one of the best defenses you can have is a team that is very good with the ball,” Kreis said in a conference call Monday outlining the series against Monterrey. “Barcelona, the number of attacking players they put on the field is extremely high, and they’re able to do that because they have the ball for 70 percent of the game.
“I think it’s going to be critically, critically important that when we have the ball we recognize that we can keep it for long stretches. We need to be very mindful of not giving it away cheaply, because when you’re playing a team as talented as Monterrey, they’ll punish you for that.”
His mentions of Barcelona prompt an incredulous rolling of eyes, yet Kreis is referring to philosophies, not quality or talent. One method of beating talented teams is to minimize opportunities for them to use said talent, and that means intelligent, effective possession.
A few media outlets have played up Monterrey’s recent dip in the league, but it’s unlikely those matches have been taken as seriously as the CCL finals. It has won the last two Apertura championships and is seventh in the current Clausura campaign with a record of six wins, five losses and four ties.
After beating Cruz Azul, 3-2, on aggregate in the semifinals, Monterrey went to Estadio Azul for a league match last Wednesday and absorbed a 3-0 thumping. Los Rayados tied Morelia, 1-1, at home Saturday.
Among the regulars rested for that match were forwards Aldo de Nigris -- second on the team in league scoring with four goals -- and Sergio Santana, who headed home one of the goals in Monterrey’s 2-0 defeat of Cruz Azul in the semis.
Chilean striker Humberto Suazo, Monterrey's top league scorer with five goals, has been bothered by a shoulder injury but played the whole game against Morelia. He notched the vital penalty kick by which Monterrey extracted a 1-1 tie in the second leg of the semifinal series at Estadio Azul. Trailing, 1-0, Monterrey was 15 minutes away from elimination on the away-goals tiebreaker when a pushing foul in the box provided it a chance to advance.
“We haven’t seen Suazo as much as we’ve seen de Nigris,” said Kreis. “De Nigris is more of a box forward in my opinion. He has really good size and really good speed and probably better feet than most people would think a guy of that size would have. Typically, box forwards lack the technical ability that he does have. Suazo is a bit of a bulldog and can drop into the midfield more and turn and make plays. He has a lethal, lethal shot.
“Both of those players we’re going to have to be extremely mindful of and they have some midfielders that are quite special on the ball as well. It just depends on which four they play because they’ve been using a lot of different players throughout the last four or five matches.”
Among those players are Argentine midfielder Neri Cardozo, an elusive, crafty playmaker who can thread balls through the back line. He also packs a hard shot from medium range but will get into the box as well, as he did to score the first goal in Monterrey’s 2-0 semifinal, first leg win over Cruz Azul. Walter Ayovi and Jesus Zavala can play through the middle or drift wide, and there are other flank options for Boy.
Though unlike RSL, Monterrey is not taking breaks from league play to accommodate the CCL finals, head coach Tomas Boy – like Kreis – has spread around the playing time. Boy has used an incredible total of 26 players in Monterrey’s 10 CCL matches dating back to group play that commenced last summer. Sixteen field players have appeared in seven or more of Monterrey’s 15 league matches.
RSL expects Monterrey to pile on the attacking pressure, yet the home team – roared on by 32,000 fans – will be under its own pressure of enormous expectations. The last two CCL finals were contested by Mexican teams. Last year, all four semifinalists were from Mexico.
“These teams know how important these tournaments are and they are used to this type of tournament,” said Beckerman. “I think they feel a big part of pride over [not] losing to an American team.”