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Real Salt Lake @ Columbus Crew CONCACAF Champions League- Leg 1 Match Preview


Well it is time for me to add my voice and my match preview for the 1st RSL match of the 2011 season, kicking off a month earlier than usual is the price you pay for making it to the knockout rounds of the CONCACAF Champions League.  Real Salt Lake will head to Columbus, Ohio to face the Columbus Crew on Tuesday, Feb. 22nd at 6pm MT, in the first leg of the home and away series that will decide who advances to the CCL Semifinals.

One would never pick MLS Originals Columbus as a rival for Real Salt Lake, but over the last couple years they actually have become a team that a lot of RSL fans have grown to dislike. In 2008 the Crew won MLS Cup, beating a New York Red Bulls team that had just beaten RSL to keep them out of their first MLS Cup, and in 2009 RSL was moved to the Eastern Conference of the playoffs and had to face the Crew in the first round.  

Columbus had a great regular season in 2009 and finished as the best team in MLS and winners of the Supporters' Shield, but when they came to Salt Lake City for the first round of the playoffs they looked anything but like a class team, they played defense for entire match just trying to scratch out a draw at Rio Tinto.  It was Yura Movsisyan's alert play as the seconds ticked away at the end of the match that found Robbie Findley who put the ball past the Crew's keeper and gave RSL the 1-0 win and lead in the series.

The second leg was in Columbus and early on it looked as if it would be the Crew moving on after two 1st half goals by GBS (Guillermo Barros Schelotto), it looked a bit bleak but Javier Morales would answer just 2 minutes after the second Crew goal to tie the series at 2-2, then just before the half RSL got a PK opportunity and Robbie Findley buried it to get RSL on the scoreboard and that evened the match at 2-2 and gave RSL the 3-2 edge in the series, a 74th minute goal by Andy Williams would seal the fate of the Crew who finally decided to play some soccer but were still outclassed and played by RSL.

more after the jump:

All of that was good and fine, RSL went on to win MLS Cup and the Crew were content with their Supporters' Shield but prior to the two team facing off for the first time in 2010, Will Hesmer their keeper opened his mouth proclaiming that Columbus were the real champions of 2009.  Then came what in my opinion was one of the worst hack jobs by MLS officials that I have ever seen, first they gift Columbus with a PK on a call that was anything but clear and Columbus took a 1-0 lead.  RSL battled back and got a brilliant goal from Will Johnson that the officials pulled off the scoreboard after a very bad offside call that clearly wasn't, and one was left to wonder if they had gifted the Crew a win as some type of consolation prize for the 2009 playoff losses?  Clearly on that day RSL was the better team, but didn't get to leave Columbus with the points. RSL got a bit of revenge when the Crew came to Rio Tinto and were handled 2-0 by the home team. I don't remember any of the Crew players talking smack after that defeat but clearly for many fans they had already opened their mouths too often.

So that brings us to now and while RSL maintained an incredible amount of stability in the offseason, they had anticipated the loss of Robbie Findley, and lost two additional players who had been on loan to D2 teams all year in David Horst (now with Portland) and Alex Nimo (in limbo).  They gained a player who some in MLS had given up on, but others (myself included) have believed that the best is yet to come for Arturo Alvarez.  He seems to have fit in very quickly with the RSL players and staff.  The other side of the offseason is the chaos in Columbus where after some questionable decisions by their front office, players were demanding to be traded to get out of town.  The list of players gone from Columbus reads like their starting lineup for most of 2009 and 2010:

  • Guillermo Barros Schelotto - 2,545 minutes, 9 goals and 8 assists
  • Brian Carroll - 2,390 minutes, 1 goal
  • Adam Moffatt - 1,951 minutes, 2 goals and 1 assist
  • Frankie Hejduk - 1,736 minutes, 2 assists
  • Steven Lenhart - 1,640 minutes, 6 goals and 2 assists
  • Eric Brunner - 1,145 minutes, 1 goal
  • Gino Padula - 1,001 minutes
  • and a few others with minor minutes and impact
But that accounts to over 12,000 minutes of play in 2010 that is gone from the total of 29,700 minutes played by Columbus in the regular season.  So the question is how do you replace almost 1/2 of your first team, and half of your goals in the offseason?  Well for Columbus it was back to the future as they picked up Jeff Cunningham in the re-entry draft, so Jeff gets to go back where his MLS career started, they also picked up a player from Chile and one from the Carolina RailHawks and some draft picks.  While we don't know who will be in his starting lineup on Tuesday, I do know that there are 23 names on their roster for the match: You can download a pdf of the rosters by clicking here.

So that brings us to the Key Matchups:

Nick Rimando vs Jeff Cunningham

Jeff Cunningham won a golden boot while playing for Real Salt Lake, and when playing against RSL he usually plays like it.  6 times he has scored against RSL and while he was "dumped" by FC Dallas in the offseason, Columbus jumped at the chance to get him back in the "banana yellow" as they say their top 2 scorers from 2010 leave in the offseason.  Jeff may be a year older, but he never seems to get any slower and his nose for goal always makes him a dangerous player, his success against RSL makes him one of the keys to a match anytime he is on the other side.

Since coming to Real Salt Lake, perhaps no player has been more influential in turning both his career and the team around, than Nick Rimando.  Last year he was the best keeper in MLS with 14 clean sheets in 27 matches, a GAA of 0.67, in 2009 he was the MLS Cup MVP.  While he can rely on the best backline in all of MLS, he has simply been amazing with his incredible vision on the pitch and cat like reflexes that allow him to make saves that other keepers simply watch go by.  His leadership on the pitch and performance has made him a favorite of many fans and with a pair of MLS Cup rings, he has the respect of every player in the league.  Now he is ready to establish himself as one of the best keepers in CONCACAF.

This one is a stalemate, two guys who can get it done, the only advantage I can give Nick is that he knows the guys he can count on, while Jeff is getting used to another new team.

Alvaro Saborio vs Will Hesmer or ??

So the starting keeper for the Crew has been Will Hesmer for the past couple years but Tuesday we could see Ray Burse Jr. or Alex Riggs, as Hesmer has been out since a shoulder injury at the end of last year and normal backup Andy Gruenebaum isn't even on the teams 23 man roster for the match with a hip injury.  When facing the top scoring offense in MLS in 2010, you really don't want to have to try to depend on a backup, now you have to depend on a guy who hasn't played in a match since 2009, Burse has a total of 25 MLS starts over last 5 years.  Which still puts him ahead of rookie Riggs who was in net for Missouri State last year.

Now imagine you are a veteran striker, one who has already found the back of the net 6 times in Champions league action and who in the offseason got his wish for a permanent move to Real Salt Lake, and you see a unproven keeper in goal. Even while Sabo is a bit dinged up and nobody likes playing in 20 degree weather, you have to believe he is looking forward to starting the year off right.  Saborio knows the Champions League well from his time with Saprissa, but he has never lifted the trophy, and I know that is something he would love to do.  

It won't matter who is in goal for the Crew, I expect that they will have their hands full trying to keep Sabo from adding to his already impressive 6 Champions league goals.  Only Mexican side Santos scored more goals than RSL did in the group stage, and I expect that RSL won't leave Columbus empty handed.


Paulo Junior

Perhaps no player took better advantage of his limited minutes in 2010 for RSL than did Paulo Jr., with just 2 CCL appearances he found the back of the net 3 times.  That was enough for RSL to get his loan extended and work a deal that would allow them his rights until 2014, that should be motivation enough for the young Brazilian to continue to be a monster in 2011.  With injuries to Espindola and others it could be a perfect chance for Paulo to start his season early in Columbus and if history says anything it says this kid can score.

Emilio Renteria

While 26 year old Venezuelan has played sparse minutes since joining the Crew in 2009, you have to believe that he is likely the player who will be up top with Jeff Cunningham, his 5 goals and 1 assist in under 900 minutes of playing time last year.  With Lenhart and Garey gone I have to believe that Robert Warzycha will look to Renteria for some offense.  Emilio did contribute 2 goals in his 4 appearances in CCL play last year for Columbus.

Jair Marrufo

Yes just like for the vast majority of 2010, I start the 2011 season with the Referee as one of the wildcards, Jair is a long time MLS official and I actually had hoped with this being Champions League that we would have gotten an official from another country that wouldn't have exposure or potential bias in the match.  The last couple times that RSL have played in Columbus there have been some iffy calls, I just hope that we get a match called down the middle on Tuesday Night.

Thoughts from others- so now that I have some others contributing to the blog, I thought I would share some of their thoughts about the match as well:

Spoonsky offered up this:

When all is said and done, I envisage a pretty even game at Crew Stadium. I don't RSL will play their best seeing as it's their first game, so I think Columbus will score first. However, I think RSL will wake up and pull one back, and grab an important away goal as well.

Columbus 1-1 RSL

realsaltlake24 had this insight:

I am going to go with a 2-2 tie for leg #1. Sabo will be important early for RSL, as I don't expect him to play a full 90. Beckerman will be the key to controlling the hardworking midfield of Columbus. Set pieces will be the best opportunity for the Crew to score so RSL needs to be extra cautious on all set pieces and defiantly need to not give away PK's or too many good looks on set pieces. This will be a great way to start the season as both teams look to get an early edge on the series for the return leg in Salt Lake a week later.

Stryker1sf is thinking big:

RSL should go for the throat; multiple away-goals. Columbus lost a lot this offseason (Hejduk and Schelotto being the big names); RSL lost very little. This doesn't mean RSL should be reckless and throw numbers forward looking for away goals; that obviously leaves them vulnerable to a counterattack. Rather, RSL should look to play its style of soccer: control, possession, and then strike. In my mind, a multiple-goal win in Columbus should be the sought-after and optimum result. A one-goal win is acceptable, a tie is a disappointment and a loss would be a wasted opportunity.

My Prediction:

Well it is hard to predict a match so early in the season, with just a few weeks of practices and a handful of scrimmages there are clearly more questions than answers for this match.  I think the advantage of having your core team still together has to give an edge to RSL, losing almost 1/2 of your minutes played in 2010 and 1/2 of your scoring are huge things to overcome for any team.  The Crew not only have to replace those minutes but the guy who was in goal for all 30 of the league matches last year is out, and in his place is a guy who simply has never performed at the professional level.

But with the Crew you have a number of their core back, Marshall, Rodgers, Gavin, and a whole lot of guys trying to prove themselves.  That means guys with nothing to lose, who might just be trying to secure minutes this season by playing with a bit more passion earlier on.  Perhaps the biggest impact on the match will be the conditions, it will likely be in the 20's at match time with a slight chance of snow in the forecast.  That means a hard ball, a hard surface and as we have seen from these teams in the past hard play, MLS called it a "budding rivalry" well maybe for some, but Columbus has talked a big game for several years but when they face RSL the results most often end up with them eating some crow.

Winning on the road is a tough thing in any sport, but in soccer it even harder, most often teams are lucky to get wins in 1/3 of their road matches.  Real Salt Lake were robbed of a road result their last time in Columbus, but in 2010 they had their best year on the road since joining the league in 2005.  Now they will need to find a way to recapture the magic that helped them get a 3-2 win at Crew Stadium on their way to the 2009 MLS Cup, and I am going to say this one ends up 2-1 for Real Salt Lake as they continue on their journey to lifting the Champions League trophy this spring.