Well in the last 3 weeks Real Salt Lake has faced off against FC Dallas twice, Saturday will make it 3 times. Last Saturday RSL scored early but for just the second time this year RSL scored the first goal and failed to get a result in the match, the late goal by Eric Avila was the difference maker in the 2-1 win for FC Dallas. For RSL it will be looking to repeat their form from their last home game, a match where they started a bit slow but ended up dominating with a 2-0 win. A win by 2 goals on Saturday will eliminate the need for extra time or a PK shootout.
Almost every pundit and expert out there agrees that the first leg between these two teams was the most entertaining and exciting of the playoff matches, an there is no reason to expect anything less in this match. FC Dallas know they can't sit back and defend, RSL is too good and had a +24 goal differential at home, but straight out attacking by Dallas could be risky as well as RSL has only allowed 7 goals scored at home this year and such boldness would open up the Hoops to the counter attack. RSL has to play aggressive, but that is nothing new at home where they have scored 31 goals and had a 11-0-4 regular season record.
Key Match-up, Wildcards, and my prediction after the jump:
Ned Grabavoy & Will Johnson vs. Brek Shea & Marvin Chavez
While many people will focus on Hernandez, Ferreira, Beckerman, and Williams as they battle in the middle of the pitch, I think the key for the this match will actually be who can control the movement on the outside. Both teams like to move their outside backs forward and to do that you have to have solid play from your guys playing along the edges in the midfield. With FC Dallas bringing Brek Shea into the starting lineup to fill the spot of suspended Atiba Harris, you get a tall player who is quick and loves two things, getting looks on goal and trying to get into the heads of opposing players. You can almost call Brek a dirty player, just watch some of his action off the ball and you will see what I am talking about, he does those little things that annoy opposing players and often in the heat of the match will cause them to react and get called for fouls and often carded. I don't think that will work against RSL and hopefully Jorge Gonzalez and his crew will pay attention to those off the ball antics of Shea.
Marvin Chavez was impressive in the first leg, he is a speed player who loves to get into the attack as often as possible and has gotten 2 goals and 2 assists in limited playing time. I thought he cause RSL's defense real issues in leg 1 as often Chris Wingert was caught moving forward only have to try to get back as FC Dallas countered. I think you will see Will Johnson play Chavez more tightly in leg 2, as both will look to both break up plays and try to get forward to support their attack as often as possible. Will is a guy who is up to the task and fully understands what is at stake in this match, and for a guy who had to come off at the half of the MLS Cup last year you know that getting back to the biggest game is an important goal.
I think Ned Grabavoy may be one of the real keys to this match, he has come up big whenever RSL has needed him, you can go back to last year's playoffs when he came on as a late sub in Chicago only to put away the winning PK to the efforts he has made all year either as a starter or filling in late in matches he simply has done everything that has been asked of him. Oh and his goal over Ugo in the match a few weeks ago was no fluke, Ned can get up in the air very well for a guy who is only 5'7". It will be interesting to watch how he matches up against Brek and then deals with Jair Benitez who loves to move forward from his spot on the backline.
Well I had him listed as my wildcard last time but it was the other Eric, Eric Avila who came on late and fired a rocket shot past Nick Rimando to give FC Dallas the huge leg 1 win. I still think that with the altitude and possibility of 30 extra minutes that FC Dallas might chose to go with Alexander this time and just like Avila last week he could be a real difference maker in just minutes on the pitch. With just over 1,000 minutes this year Alexander scored 2 goals and added 3 assists. If he gets on the pitch, keep your eyes on him because as we saw last week late subs can make a huge difference very quickly.
While he has been my choice before, he has been held back by injury concerns, but now he has practice well and with everything on the line, he could be a guy that RSL head coach Jason Kreis turns to late in the match. We have seen how quickly Paulo can get himself in dangerous positions and like FCD's Avila, we know that taking a shot isn't something that Paulo Junior shies away from. He brings a unique mix of skill on the ball and speed that has gotten RSL fans excited and anticipating things to come from the young transfer, well there is no better time than in the 2nd leg of a playoff series when your team is down to cement your legacy with a new team. RSL knows they will need to win by 2 in order to avoid extra time, at home they have been lethal late in matches and with the nagging injury to Saborio, I expect that we might see Paulo Junior come in and do his best to once again electrify the crowd.
Jorge Gonzalez -
Yes the official is once again a wildcard in the match, as we have seen all season long it very often is a missed call or mystery call that decides what the final outcome of a match will be. FC Dallas has been given 9 PK chances this year, converting 8 of them, while RSL has only had 4 chances and converted 3 of them. I always hope that an official doesn't end up being what decides a match, but with this match being sure to get physical it will be interesting to see who Jorge responds.
I am going to take a fairly unpopular position and say that I am not nearly as concerned about the suspension of Javier Morales as most, I think Javi is one of the best players in MLS, but lately I have been a bit concerned about how he has been distributing the ball, and his decision making. Having enough depth that you can bring in Andy Williams to fill that creative midfielder role is incredible, RSL fans for a long time have known that Andy is the "Heart and Soul" of RSL. The last original, the man who has triumphed over personal tragedy and inspired oh so many both on and off the pitch, the man who if I had to chose a guy to put my money on in the toughest of spots I would chose. Andy will have his hands and feet full as he tries to get the best of both Dax McCarty and Daniel Hernandez and don't be surprised if he frustrates them early and causes them to either make a mistake or get an early card.
8 different players for RSL have contributed more than a goal this year, another 5 have found the back of the net once, and I believe it very well could be one of those 5 (Andy Williams, Robbie Russell, Nelson Gonzalez, Will Johnson, or Chris Wingert) who is the difference maker in this match. 13 times this year RSL has scored 2 or more goals in a match, while 25 times they have held opponents to one or fewer. Both of these teams can score early as both have scored 13 goals in the first 30 minutes of matches, both can score late as RSL has 13 goals in the final 15 minutes and FC Dallas has 12.
I saw an interview clip with Jason earlier this week and he said that the crowd at "El Castillo" plays a huge role in the teams success, he acknowledged the great fan support from the very first match at Rice Eccles all the way to what will be a sell out crowd on Saturday. Time and time again the staff and players have mentioned how important the fans are to the team, and that will be the difference maker on Saturday, RSL is simply a different team when they have the support of their fans. If you don't believe me, and you don't believe Jason, just ask the Colorado Rapids who saw that a couple hundred fans at Dicks Sporting Goods Park could motivate their team to two stoppage time goals.
This match will be a battle early but the undying support of the home crowd will keep guys like Andy playing at their very top level and in the end it will come down to a late goal to give RSL the 3-1 win and move them on to their 3rd straight Conference final.
OFF MY SOAPBOX