Real Salt Lake faces a domineering LA Galaxy side tonight at Rio Tinto Stadium, and the home side has its eyes set firmly on reaching the next playoff round - but to do so, they'll have to come back from a goal deficit against the twice-reigning champions.
The opening leg of the matchup saw RSL fall 1-0 in California, dropping by only a goal - a Sean Franklin missile from distance - despite the greater share of opportunities falling to the opposition. Robbie Keane and Landon Donovan uncharacteristically found finishing difficult, and Chris Schuler and Nat Borchers pulled trick after trick out of their central defensive pairing hat. (Erm, illusions, rather?)
But as the match progressed, Real Salt Lake slowly regained dominance over the play, which, considering it was a difficult match on the road, speaks very highly of the side - particularly the midfield. It was down as much to control as it was to energy, and when Sebastian Velasquez entered for Ned Grabavoy, the match shifted considerably. Whether that was incidental to that substitution or not is difficult to discern: A shift to a four-man midfield and the stretching of play vertically by the addition of another forward surely afforded different space and played a determining role.
Tonight, RSL will be hoping that things go rather differently. Maintaining control from the first minute will be a high priority consideration, and setting out to attack from the outset equally so. Ned Grabavoy remains out, surely a blow to that approach, but Sebastian Velasquez offers a great deal of promise in his place. His success depends in part on the approach of LA Galaxy - do they take a high-pressure stance to limit our chances and produce their own counterattacks, or do they focus more on containment and look to break out in that way? Whatever happens, it is clear that they'll be dangerous on the counter.
The lineup should take on a familiar shape, though: Kreis's experiment with a 4-5-1 in the last match yielded precisely zero dividends, so a return to the familiar diamond midfield with two strikers is almost certainly at hand. Kyle Beckerman, Javier Morales, and Luis Gil should be joined by Velasquez today, and ostensibly, this could be RSL's most creative attacking lineup.
Whoever partners Alvaro Saborio up top will be tasked with quality finishing - something with which our non-Saborio strikers have struggled this season. Joao Plata and Robbie Findley each bring enviable attributes, certainly, but it's increasingly difficult to peg who should start, particularly as both players have excelled coming off the bench. One will get the thankless job of tiring the opposition, the other will be given a strong opportunity to impress against that tired opposition.