“We understand that we’re in a dangerous position ... but so what?”
Jason Kreis loves the underdog role, and in a few hours the Real Salt Lake coach will see his side take the pitch at Rio Tinto Stadium facing elimination in the second leg of the Western Conference semifinals against the L.A. Galaxy. Twelve days of chatter on how to slow the Galaxy has continued, and the same answers have poured in. If RSL wants a shot at equalizing this series after 90 minutes — or pulling off the upset — it has to rediscover the offensive flow it had in the dog days of summer. In seven competitions in August, RSL scored 18 goals and were zipping by opponents. But in September and October, things slowed.
Soccer changes when the playoff races thicken and thicken even more so when the postseason starts, but RSL will not advance if its on its heels the way it was on Sunday at the StubHub Center. Javier Morales has to play his best match in months, ditto for Luis Gil and whoever fills in for the injured Ned Grabavoy. I’d say the frontrunner would be Sebastian Velasquez, but it’s hard to tell with Kreis — I could very easily see him starting Khari Stephenson or Cole Grossman in that other midfield spot.
Regardless, this match is on the midfield.
After the defense stuck together following wave after wave of attack Sunday in Carson, Calif., it was abundantly clear that RSL’s possession-based offense must be kickstarted, and fast. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Robbie Findley get the nod up top to partner with Alvaro Saborio. The Costa Rican national was visibly flustered during much of the first leg playing solo up top in Kreis’ 4-2-3-1 formation, and it’s no secret Saborio is most potent when having another attacker to play off of.
Expect RSL to revert back to its patented 4-4-2 diamond formation tonight. Kreis said Wednesday that the struggles Sunday must be placed largely on him.
“I do think some of the burden needs to fall on the coach that decided to put his team in a different shape,” Kreis explained. “I am fine accepting that burden. When you put players in different shapes, there’s different passing lanes open, players in different spots when we have the ball and I think it just caused some relative uncomfort with our group and we didn’t do enough to push the Galaxy back. We will put them back in their shape and see how that goes.”
-Saborio vs. Gonzalez, Round II
Physicality versus physicality. The RSL forward will be shadowed by L.A. defender Omar Gonzalez all night, four days after Gonzalez kept RSL’s leading scorer off the sheet. Saborio’s aerial prowess will be matched by Gonzalez, a 6-foot-4 powerful centerback who is emerging as one of the best defenders in MLS as well as on the United States men’s national team. It’s been a funky year for Saborio, who has dealt with lingering injuries and national team call-ups all season. Still, in just 16 match appearances, he’s tied for sixth in the league in goals scored this year with 12, and RSL will definitely need him to go for 13 or more tonight.
-Gil/Velasquez vs. Zardes/Rogers
Lots of talent on both sides of the ball. Gyasi Zardes is quickly turning into one of the more threatening wing players in MLS and Robbie Rogers has always been a classic flanking midfielder. RSL will need Gil and possibly Velasquez to turn in their most dangerous performances of the season. After being subbed on in the 61st minute Sunday, Velasquez calmed the seas a bit for RSL, opening up against the L.A. back line and running at defenders instead of deferring. If you’re looking for an X-Factor in this match for RSL, it’s one of the youngsters.
-Everyone vs. Keane/Donovan
In a conference call this week with the media, Robbie Keane kept a low profile, stating how much he and the Galaxy respect RSL and expect them to come out and really set a tone in the first 20 minutes of the match, “The players can’t think for one second it’s over. If we do that, we’re in for some big, big trouble,” Keane said. RSL dodged several bullets Sunday in Carson. Keane missed two one-on-one chances and Donovan nearly had a goal of his own if not for the hustle play of Chris Schuler. Defending arguably the two best offensive players in MLS is incredibly difficult, but RSL has to attempt to keep the ball away from those two, while simultaneously searching for goals of its own.
Can RSL pull of the stunner? If it overcomes that disastrous first leg on the road, it would certainly be a collective weight taken off of the franchise’s shoulders. But unlike other teams they’ve faced and fared well against, RSL’s style of play seems to play right into what the Galaxy will want to do: Pressure, wait for the ball to come to them and off to the races. I’m predicting a 1-1 draw. I think RSL will come out with intensity and sharpness, but one mistake or poor giveaway could lead to the ultimate undoing of the season.
What are your thoughts? What are your predictions? One thing is for certain: Rio Tinto will be rocking tonight. See you there.