RSL has Rio Tinto edge against defending champ

[MLS PLAYOFF PREDICTION] The Eastern Conference semifinals get underway Saturday with a "crossover" Western team, Real Salt Lake, hosting the defending champion Columbus Crew, which didn't fare well the last time it visited Rio Tinto Stadium.

SATURDAY
REAL SALT LAKE (11-12-7) vs. COLUMBUS (13-7-10), 6 p.m. ET, Fox Soccer Channel/Fox Sports en Espanol

Way back in early April, when the weather was cold and so was the Crew, RSL laced Columbus, 4-1, at Rio Tinto Stadium with a Robbie Findley hat trick. The Crew eventually posted the league's best record, but finished just a point ahead of Los Angeles and Houston. RSL needed to win two of its last three games to sneak into the playoffs, yet retains the experience gained from upsetting Chivas USA in the first round last year.

Its dominant home form (9-1-5) gives RSL a great opportunity to take the lead in this series, as do the speed and finishing of Findley (12 goals) and Yura Movsisyan (eight). Yet more than the zealous work rate and energy of midfielder Kyle Beckerman may be needed to unlock the Crew defense, and this hasn't been a great season for playmaker Javier Morales (one goal, five assists). More may come from Clint Mathis and/or Andy Williams, who registered a combined 13 assists. They will be closely watched by Crew destroyers Brian Carroll and Adam Moffat.

Columbus has lost three of its last four league games while scoring just one goal. Though Guillermo Barros Schelotto's 12 goals is the most he's scored in MLS, the 2008 league and MLS Cup MVP has been bothered by injuries. A sprained knee has plagued 2008 Defender of the Year Chad Marshall, who hasn't played since Sept. 13 and is listed as probable. Columbus may be the most potent flank team in MLS with midfielders Robbie Rogers, Emmanuel Ekpo and Eddie Gaven, plus outside backs Gino Padula and Frankie Hejduk, so RSL must stay tight in those areas while it monitors Schelotto's movments.
Prediction: RSL 2, Crew 1.

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