RSL has edge in CONCACAF CL final
Everything appears to be lining up perfectly for Real Salt Lake ahead of Wednesday's CONCACAF Champions League second leg match against Monterrey. It's almost too perfect, in fact.
Just how good does RSL have it? The two road goals Real claimed in the first leg against Monterrey mean a 0-0 or 1-1 tie will be good enough to raise the trophy courtesy of the away-goals tiebreaker, putting the onus on the visitors to attack. But Los Rayados are also wounded in the form of a thigh injury to midfielder Luis Ernesto Perez, as well as the suspensions of replacement Jesus Zavala and striker Aldo de Nigris. Monterrey's league form has been patchy as well, and it's now in danger of missing the Mexican league playoffs.
If you think that sounds like an invitation for overconfidence, you're not alone. That was the initial impulse of RSL's head coach, Jason Kreis, as well.
"I started to think about that, that our guys might take [Monterrey] lightly, and that we got such a positive scoreline [in the first leg] that our guys might forget everything that goes into it," Kreis said by phone. "But not in this game, not when it's a final. When you have this unbelievable opportunity in front of you, I just don't think there's any chance of being overconfident."
That's not to say RSL doesn't have its share of worries heading into the match. Among those is deciding who will replace suspended captain Kyle Beckerman in the holding role at the bottom of Real's midfield diamond. The decision seems to come down to a choice between mobility and skill in the form of Ned Grabavoy or size and tackling provided by Jean Alexandre. Although Kreis indicated he had made his choice, he refused to tip his hand. Either way, Real's track record without its captain is impressive. General manager Garth Lagerwey was quick to point out on Monday's conference call with reporters that during his side's recent 34-game home unbeaten streak, RSL had gone 7-0-3 when Beckerman was unavailable.
Of course, none of those games was against an opponent as talented as Monterrey. So Kreis can now focus on how to cope with the tactical wrinkles his Monterrey counterpart Victor Manuel Vucetich threw his way in the first leg. Kreis admitted he was surprised at how many players Los Rayados sent forward, and while he was loath to get into specifics, his concern will likely focus on the regularity with which outside backs Ricardo Osorio and Sergio Perez ventured into the opposition half to create numerical advantages. The interchanging of roles by players such as Sergio Santana, who is battling a hamstring strain, and Neri Cardozo also caused problems.
To combat this approach, Kreis is expecting his side to play with greater defensive intensity, and he's hoping this increase in pressure will tilt the game in RSL's favor.
He said: "No matter how many times you tell the guys, 'This is our mentality, you need to be confident, you need to step forward,' what happened in the [first leg] is that guys who typically take a very positive step to defend were taking more of a safe approach. Those were the decisions that were being made and that was why we kept inviting pressure, because there was too much time and space on the ball. Those are hopefully the things that at our place, with our crowd, that we'll make the exact opposite decisions and make more aggressive choices."
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If Real is successful in this endeavor, this could also have the effect of neutralizing Monterrey forward Humberto Suazo. When di Nigris exited the first leg with a leg injury midway through the first half, Suazo abandoned his usual tactic of dropping into midfield to collect the ball, and instead snuck in behind Real's back line to great effect.
"The big onus is on us in the back," said RSL defender Nat Borchers on Monday's conference call. "The back four need to communicate better in terms of staying with runners, in terms of making sure that Suazo isn't running in between us and beating that offside line."
Kreis is also anticipating that his side will take better care of the ball than it did in the first leg. And with Monterrey expected to take up the same aggressive stance, opportunities should be available on the counterattack. Throw in the cold and high altitude -- Salt Lake City is about 2,500 feet higher in elevation than Monterrey -- and you have all the ingredients for a Real Salt Lake victory. There are no guarantees, of course, but expectations around the league are running high.
"I think when [RSL] plays at home, there is a level of confidence that is undeniable," said Chivas USA head coach and former RSL assistant Robin Fraser. "I do think that early in the game it will be very difficult for Monterrey. If we -- make that [RSL] -- scores early, then I think it will be over. The longer it goes on, the more confidence Monterrey will get, but [RSL] is so well organized and such a talented team, I think they'll prevail."
For Real Salt Lake and nearly everyone associated with MLS, that would be a perfect outcome indeed.
Changes afoot in Quake-land: San Jose manager Frank Yallop, as well his players, bemoaned the team's poor performance against Chivas USA, with the Quake's lack of effort brought up as Exhibit A in explaining the team's defeat. But there are times when the cause for a side's malaise runs a bit deeper. Chivas USA had great success in pressuring San Jose's back line, and the explanation of Chivas USA forward Alejandro Moreno proved most illuminating.
"From the beginning, [San Jose] were content with just dumping the ball over the top," he said. "The more pressure we put on them, obviously the less time they were going to have to react, and the less time they were going to have to pick people out, not only in midfield, but on a 30-40 yard ball, which would be to our advantage."
Such a tactic proved to be fatal for the Quakes given that a prototypical ball-winner was nowhere to be found in their five-man midfield. Sam Cronin comes the closest, but he's more link-man than enforcer. None of the remaining quartet of Simon Dawkins, Chris Wondolowski, Khari Stephenson and Bobby Convey did enough of the dirty work needed to win the ball. For that reason, don't be surprised if Yallop opts for a bit more steel in midfield, with Brandon McDonald a possible candidate. It won't solve the problem of exiting cleanly out of the back, but it will allow the team to compete better for loose balls in the middle of the field.
Kansas City's road odyssey hits the halfway point: Sporting Kansas City manager Peter Vermes knew that his team's stretch of 10 road games to start the season would contain its share of challenges. He just didn't know how many.
Five games into the odyssey, SKC's record stands at 1-3-1. Worse yet, his team has endured three red cards in its past four games. Some of these have been of the bizarre variety, such as Aurelien Collin earning a second yellow for pushing New England midfielder Benny Feilhaber when the actual perpetrator appeared to be Birahim Diop. The difference in Kansas City's performance when avoiding the red mist is striking. Including the U.S. Open Cup victory over Houston, Kansas City is 2-0-1 when finishing a match with 11 players. When shorthanded, its mark is 0-3-0.
"With all the red cards, we keep losing continuity, especially in the places we need it, which is defensively," Vermes said. "That's really hurt us."
The other knock-on effect of all the road games is the extent to which practice time is limited. Given the current schedule, two days a week are eaten up by travel, preventing further cohesion from being established.
There have been some signs of life for SKC, however. They are tied for the league lead with 10 goals, yet have accomplished the feat in five games, despite having not played a home game. And Vermes has been pleased with the attitude of the players, even as they've been snakebit in the discipline department.
"I know the guys are coming in every week and putting the time in," Vermes said. "You can see that they're not thinking about something else, they're focused. We continue to score goals on the road, and I do think we've made some strides in some aspects of defending. But the lack of continuity is wearing on us."
It doesn't seem possible, but Kansas City's run looks set to get even more difficult, both in terms of distance traveled and quality of opponent. Its next four games are against New York, Los Angeles, Seattle and Colorado. If SKC can somehow snag a win during that run, that may be enough to survive. Otherwise, they may find themselves dead and buried in the standings when they finally open Livestrong Sporting Park on June 9.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN.com. He is also the author of "Soccer's Most Wanted II: The Top 10 Book of More Glorious Goals, Superb Saves and Fantastic Free-Kicks." He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.