Real Salt Lake vs Columbus Crew - 3 questions Champions League Style

It may be almost a month until the Major League Soccer season kicks off but with Champions League starting today, there is no better time for a round of 3 questions.  So I exchanged questions with Matt Bernhardt who writes for the Examiner and this is how it went:

His questions for me:

Q - How much of a role do you think the weather will play tomorrow night? Platitudes about "both teams have to play in it" aside, do you know if any of the players on RSL spent the winter in Salt Lake City, or are otherwise ready to deal with temperatures in the mid-20s and potentially sleeting/icing conditions?

A - I don't think it will play a deciding role, RSL has practiced here in Salt Lake both indoors and outdoors several times and many of the players have spent the off season in town and dealing with less than perfect conditions is something they have done in the past (the match in Mexico City against Cruz Azul comes to mind). We usually end up with one or two matches where it is snowing or very bad weather here in Salt Lake. The big thing is that both teams will have to play in the conditions, I do think this early in the year it may be a very dangerous match for injuries.

Q - Looking over the roster for Real Salt Lake, the most notable change has been the departure of Robbie Findlay. How do you think the team is handling that gap, and who should Crew fans expect to see instead?

A - I think RSL will miss Robbie, but he had an off year last year (for a number of reasons) and with the extension of the Paulo Jr. loan and trade for Arturo Alvarez we should see the most lethal offense in MLS continue their ability to score goals. I also think that this year you will see even more of Alvaro Saborio, it is often said that it takes players a year to 18 months to adjust fully to a new team, if that is the case then it could be a blockbuster year for Sabo. A big question for RSL fans will be if Alvarez can live up to his potential, he seems to be very comfortable with the style of play that RSL offers. The guy to watch tomorrow will be Paulo Jr. he has been a real spark plug for RSL everytime he is on the pitch, and 3 CCL goals in 2 matches is nothing to laugh at.

more after the jump:

Q - There's been a bit of heat generated between these two teams over the last 12-18 months, to the point where some have asked whether this is becoming a real rivalry. How does this issue look from out in Salt Lake City? Are the Crew really becoming a rival for your team?

A - I think it was no big deal between the two teams until Hesmer started talking trash, yes you won the Supporters Shield, but when facing RSL in the playoffs it was a clean sweep for Salt Lake. His comments coming after a match that was "gifted" to Columbus last year, were just bad timing but I think any team that you play multiple times with high stakes can become a rivalry and if it wasn't one before, this series to be the first MLS team to advance to the Semi-Finals might just be enough to make it one.

Yeah he got in a 4th question, but it was a good one so I answered it

Q - Lastly, what do you think RSL needs to do tomorrow, given their recent home record over the Crew, to advance from the series?

A - I think a win is what they need, listen you never want to have to rely on getting a win at home. RSL has played every CCL match the same way, going for broke. It is why the match in Mexico City is considered an instant classic by many, and while the final result didn't go RSL's way they were clearly the better team that day. I would expect that RSL will come out and go for the win, they know they are facing a team with many new faces and inexperienced players and getting the win on the road would put even more pressure on the Crew to do something they haven't done, get a win at Rio Tinto.

Here are my 3 Question for Matt:

Q - Will Hesmer is out but at least on the Champions League roster, normal back up Andy Gruenebaum it out and you had to sign a guy last week that hasn't played since 2009 and has a total of 25 matches in his 3 year MLS career, in Ray Burse Jr.  Then factor in that Hejduk, Brunner, and Padula are gone from the team, how will the Crew expect to keep the leagues top scoring offense off the scoreboard on Tuesday night?

A - The last indication I saw was that yes, Ray Burse is going to be the starter on Tuesday. I don't know that I've seen his signing officially announced, but he beat out a handful of other triallists through the course of the Arizona camp. We'll have to see whether he's up to the task - Real Salt Lake has a formidable offense, but the Crew starting lineup has not been as decimated as many seem to believe. I do think, however, that our back line will have to be resolute on Tuesday, and not expect too many heroics from the man behind them.

 

If you look at our back line through last season, the loss of Hejduk, Brunner and Padula isn't as bad as it might seem. Andy Iro won the starters role as he finally matured into the player he promised to become, leaving Brunner as the presumptive backup. Ditto with Padula, whose age caught up with him and he got unseated by the Jamaican international Shaun Francis. While it hurts to lose experienced players who can step in and be starters when needed, three of the four Crew starting defenders are returning. As for Hejduk, I believe his loss will be more in terms of team chemistry and morale than on-field exploits. I cringed every time I saw him go in for a two-footed tackle, and still can't believe he didn't get ejected (or burned) more often. The signing of Sebastian Miranda, in my book was to fill exactly that gap. How good is Miranda? Your guess is as good as mine - but he's played enough in preseason that at least he doesn't seem to be flaming out like Sergio Herrera did last year.

Two factors you didn't ask about, however, are the current health of Shaun Francis and the emergence of Rich Balchan. Francis has apparently been ruled out with a hamstring injury, but I wonder whether this will push us to move Rich Balchan out to that spot. Balchan was drafted primarily as cover for right back, but he's received very positive reviews from his play at either center back or holding mid. Looking over his performances at Indiana, and re-reading some of the quotes from the Crew brass, they see him has the heir to Danny O'Rourke, i.e. somebody who can comfortably step in for any position behind the midfield stripe. He may see his first action at left back.


Q - With Guillermo Barros Schelotto gone, who will be the creative play maker for the Crew?  Everyone has waited for Robbie Rogers to step up for years, will he be moved into the middle or will someone else take over the reins for Columbus?
 
A - The loss of Schelotto hurts, for sure; but the name I've seen most often as the one to fill his shoes is not Rogers - who is the player on the current roster who seemed to be the closest to Guille personally. Rather Dilly Duka has been mentioned fairly frequently as a surprising contributor. Duka himself is only listed as "questionable" after a spate of recent injuries, of course - we seem to be have more wounded than healthy right now. Emmanuel Ekpo has also apparently been playing centrally, which would keep Rogers out wide where I think he can do the most damage. What we do with Gaven is also a question, as he sat out the last few games with an injury but is described as "probable" right now.

Put simply, I don't know that a true midfield leader has yet emerged for this team. Tomorrow's game will be the first opportunity for someone to stake their claim to that position, but there is no heir apparent right now, only many candidates.


Q - What has happened in Columbus? In the offseason longtime stars like GBS and Frankie were let go, then a rash of players started to demand trades to get out of town, has Robert Warzycha lost control of the team or was it simply a case of getting younger and faster and some players not wanting to be part of the rebuilding project?

A - I don't believe it is an accurate reading to say that "a rash of players started to demand trades". Jason Garey is the only name I've seen linked with an active desire to leave the squad, and his statements at the time made it seem more like a resignation and determination to move on rather than "get me the #*(@ out of here". The Crew front office has stated several goals in this current upheaval, but have bristled at times at the notion that they simply wanted to get younger. I've seen phrases like "less predictable" used, generally in relation with our dependency on free kicks around the box. "Faster" also was mentioned, and the realities of the salary cap also were cited.

Of course, they also tried to state that this wasn't a rebuilding process, and that younger was not expressly stated as a goal. When you look at the departures, however, and see that every field player over the age of 27 save one (Renteria) was let go, and the average age dropped by about a year and a half (the last time I did the math, right after they signed Cunningham - the numbers may have moved since then), I'd claim that while younger may not have been an explicit goal, it has certainly been an outcome.

As for the notion of whether Warzycha's lost the team? I doubt it. I think it was more a case of the management not wanting to repeat past mistakes and hold onto a group of players too long. The salary cap probably played some role, but I believe the team leadership saw the limits of the salary cap and had to make some decisions. Do you keep the emotional heart of the team in guys like Schelotto and Hejduk, forcing yourself to let go of younger guys who aren't as rooted in history? Or do you risk breaking up a good thing too early and try to manage the transition to the next phase of the team entirely on your terms?

There you go an interesting kick off to the 2011 season of 3 questions.

OFF MY SOAPBOX

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