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Real Salt Lake vs. FC Dallas - 1st leg playoff match preview

OK, I am going to do a quick match preview for you of Saturday's big playoff match between Real Salt Lake (15-4-11 56 points) at FC Dallas (12-4-14 50 points).  What makes this match-up so interesting is that these two teams faced off just a couple weeks ago when Dallas brought the MLS record unbeaten streak to "El Castillo" and left with just their 3rd loss of their MLS season after RSL won the match 2-0.  It was an interesting match that took RSL some time to gain their composure and focus in, and if they have those issues at Frisco they could well find themselves playing from behind.

The pressure of the MLS playoffs are hard enough on teams but when you add in the fact that Real Salt Lake is 0-8-0 all time in Dallas with just 5 goals scored and 18 goals allowed, and factor in that the only loss RSL had since the end of April this year was a 2-0 loss at Dallas. Well pressure for the visitors will be beyond what most of us can imagine, but this is a RSL team that has done well against pressure this year and this is a RSL team that like last year has put on a very different mentality when it comes to the playoffs.  They don't expect things to be handed to them and despite being the defending MLS Cup champions they still see themselves as a bit of the underdog.

For FC Dallas this marks their first post season match since the 2007 season, and they are a team that hasn't won a post season series since 1999.  They are coming into the playoffs having lost two straight matches for the first time all season, and having given up multiple goals in their last 3 matches.  A good deal of their struggles over their last 6 (2-2-2 with 9 goals both for and against) have come as a result of the injury to goalkeeper Kevin Hartman, injured in their match against the New York Red Bulls.  

On offense they have looked to a couple of different players over the last several weeks to be their spark, there is still Jeff Cunningham who has two goals in their last 5 matches coming from the bench but it is the 2 goals from speed Marvin Chavez (who RSL had their hands full with a couple weeks ago) and their newcomer up top Milton Rodriguez who has 3 goals in their last 5 matches and each of them coming in the first 30 minutes of matches.

My Key Match-up, Wildcards and my prediction after the jump:

Key Match-Up:

Javier Morales and Kyle Beckerman vs. David Ferreira and Daniel Hernandez

Perhaps one of the best possible match-ups of midfielders in all of Major League Soccer, you have to offensive players who can simply dominate a match for their team and you have defensive midfielders who can simply shut down the entire flow of the opposition.

Javier Morales has 7 goals (3 game winners) and 9 assists (3 game winners) this year despite missing 4 matches due to injury.  Javi started hot in the season opener against San Jose, and remained hot getting the second goal against FC Dallas just two weeks ago.  Javi forces other teams to either adjust their midfield alignment or double team him or they pay the price and find themselves on the losing end of the match.

David Ferreira with some help from the media was vaulted from being fairly unknown to being a MVP candidate, oh he is a legit MVP but with Dallas getting little attention until the end of the season it was the big numbers of 8 goals (2 game winners) and 13 assists (5 game winners) that spoke loudest. No matter if he is making a direct impact by scoring goals or simply being the provider of quality chances, David is a player you have to pay attention to.

Well if you look at the results of the last 6 matches for FC Dallas, and wonder what has happened to the team it is easy, an injury to Hernandez that limited him to playing in just one match during their 2-2-2 run to end the season. While he went the full 90 minutes against RSL two weeks ago, his effectiveness was clearly impacted by the injury and he didn't play last weekend in the teams lost to the LA Galaxy.  If Daniel is less than 100% in this match, it could be the difference maker in RSL favor.  I actually included Hernandez on my top 3 choices for defender of the year, that is the type of difference he can make when he is healthy.

What can you say about Kyle Beckerman?  It is funny how he went from one of RSL's most hated players when he was with the Rapids to one of the most loved and admired players when he but on the Cobalt and Claret.  His never say die, never back down, fight until the final whistle mentality makes him the bane of most opponents but also makes him one of the spark plugs of what RSL does.  He is the embodiment of "everyone plays defense and everyone plays offense" and with 2 goals and 3 assists he proves that he can be dangerous in either aspect of the game.

I have to give RSL the slight edge in the midfield, the injury to Hernandez is going to play a role and Dax may be a nice guy be he is simply going to be in over his head on this one.


Eric Alexander-

a player that RSL has never had to face but has in limited minutes (1054) found a way to get 2 goals and 3 assists. The 6'1" midfielder was the 44th pick in the 2010 superdraft and found his way into the starting lineup towards the end of the season.  The one match over the last couple months he didn't play in was FCD's 2-0 loss at Real Salt Lake, were they hiding him?  Here is a player RSL would be wise not to overlook.

Paulo Junior-

The 21 year old loanee from Miami FC, has provide moments of pure energy for Real Salt Lake since his arrival, and while he hasn't found the back of the net in a MLS match yet he has shown in CCL play that he could be the next big thing for RSL.  He has been battling an injury for a while which may limit the minutes he is available but if he should find himself on the pitch against FC Dallas they would be very wise to play close attention to him or it may be too late he likes to strike early and often.

Kevin Stott-

Oh yes it is the post season and all year long we have seen the difference the officials can make, for RSL fans this year we have actually seen more balance in the calls than ever in the past as a good number have gone our way, almost as many as have gone against us.  I was very worried at MLS Cup when Kevin as the man in charge and while I think he missed the early call against Beckham (the foul that took out Javi), other than that I thought he called a good match.  Here is hoping that he calls the match fairly and that the final outcome of leg one is determined on the field as opposed to by the officials.


My Prediction

Well it is tough to say that RSL are going to get a win in this match, they have never gotten a result in Dallas, their underdog role is gone, and the pressure to repeat is intense.  There is a major factor that plays in RSL's favor 14 to 7, that is experience in MLS playoff matches, almost the entire RSL roster for this match will have MLS playoff experience, for many including the MLS Cup.  FC Dallas has 3 guys with real quality post season experience, Jeff Cunningham, Daniel Hernandez, and Kevin Hartman, and while the first leg is being played at home and much of the attention of the Metroplex will be on the baseball game in Arlington, you can expect that the loyal FCD fans will be there to voice their expectations.

FC Dallas may have struggled a bit over the last couple matches, there is no doubt that this is a very good team, you don't end the season with just 4 losses and not be a very good team. RSL however was a history making team, allowing just 20 goals all year, ending with a +25 goal differential, and leading all of MLS in goals scored with 45.  I think this is going to be a tough match and like so many it could come down to simply who scores first. 27-2-7 is the combined record of the two team when scoring first, 1-5-11 when giving up the first goal.  25 times this year RSL has held their opponent to one or fewer goals, while 23 times RSL has scored more than one goal in a match.

I am going out on a limb and predicting a upset win for RSL 2-1, but don't be at all surprised if this one ends up a 1-1 draw.