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Real Salt Lake vs. Columbus Crew - CONCACAF Champions League 2nd leg - Match Preview

rslvcrew 2nd
rslvcrew 2nd

Well most people expected the first leg to be rough, I don't think many expected it to be played on a surface that would be so icy it would have caused the match to be postponed in most leagues.  I don't think many people expect the match to be as physical as it was, and I know that nobody expected 3 red cards to be given in the match.  I don't think many people expected Columbus to have a chance but they looked scrappy enough to make life rough on anyone who gets in their way, they are faster and stronger than last year's version but can that youthful enthusiasm last them through a long MLS season?

One big question will be if Jair Marrufo ends up having a bigger impact than any of the players on the pitch?  I was confused and still am why an official who was suspended by MLS at the end of the 2009 season for poor performance was chosen to officiate such an important match.  In fact why after the group stages featuring officials from neutral countries did CONCACAF change for the knockout rounds to officials from the nations taking part in the matches, and yet that will continue on Tuesday at Rio Tinto.  

The impact of each team losing key pieces to their team because of calls that have many scratching their heads could really be the key on Tuesday.  RSL will look to Robbie Russell, who was a regular part of their rotation at outside back in 2010, and Rauwshan McKenzie, who played in a pair of RSL's Group stage matches to replace Tony Beltran and Nat Borchers.  For Columbus they will likely look to Jeff Cunningham to replace Emilio Renteria up top, and that will test the defensive changes for RSL.

After the jump I will take a look at my key matchup, wildcards and of course my prediction:

Key Match-ups:

Robert Warzycha vs Jason Kreis:

Robert took over the helm of the Columbus Crew after the won MLS Cup and Sigi was stolen away by the Seattle Sounders, he took over a championship team and for the past 3 years they have continued to be one of the very best teams in MLS.  He had been with the club for several years before taking over as an assistant coach, learning from one of the best MLS has ever seen.

Jason took charge of Real Salt Lake after 2 ¼ season of poor results, as then head coach John Ellinger was let go, since Jason took over RSL have gone from cellar dweller to MLS power with a MLS Cup in 2009 and just 3 points away from the Supporters' Shield last year.  They are the first team in MLS to win a Champions League group, and are fighting for the right to be the first MLS team in the Semi-finals of the CCL.  Jason went from playing for RSL to being the coach overnight, and has never looked back.

Perhaps no teams this off season have been more polar opposites than Columbus and Real Salt Lake, one team lost over players that accounted for over 12,000 minutes of playing time in 2010, the other lost just one player who saw the pitch in MLS action.  One team brought in rookies and transfers galore, the other team has just one draft pick still with the team, a player won in a lottery, and one new player via trade.  Yet in the first leg, it was the team with all the transition that looked the best on the pitch, of course it is always easier to play at home, and the true test will come about 60 minutes in at Rio Tinto when their lungs are burning from the elevation and no stop pace that RSL will bring to the match.

So how will the coaches approach the match, well that one is easy for me.  We know that Jason will come out looking for the win, he will have the team attack from the starting whistle until the final whistle.  That is how he approaches almost every match, he knows that the home crowd will likely number over 10,000 on a chilly Tuesday night, and he knows that those fans will bring an energy that will both motivate and put pressure on his team as they defend a 33 match home unbeaten streak. 

He knows the key is that his team can't give up a goal unless they score at least 2, the team simply must win if they want to advance to the Semi-finals and that is the next step to actually winning the Champions League, one of RSL's goals heading into 2011.  Jason is one of the most intense and focused people I have ever met and tonight that intensity and focus will be put to the test.

Robert is a different type of animal, I think you will likely see Columbus play a style like LA Galaxy did for most of the last two years. Defend and counter attack, he knows that if they can keep RSL's offense in check that all they need is a 1-1 draw to win the series, or 0-0 to push to extra time.  He also knows that in 3 matches at Rio Tinto the Crew have scored just a single goal, while giving up 8.  He knows that his roster is full of talent but not experience, and he knows that they were able to disrupt the RSL game plan last week. 

Perhaps no decision will be bigger than the risk/reward of starting Jeff Cunningham, who can be a terror to defenses and keepers but who generally doesn't play a lot of defense.  If he is the lone striker than you can be sure they are playing a more defensive mindset on the match and hoping for Jeff to get behind the RSL defense, if they go with two guys up top (likely Cunny and Mendoza) then they are going for the win in a big way and it should be a very exciting up tempo match.

These two teams battled to a 0-0 draw in rough conditions but they also split their matches last year with Columbus winning 1-0 at home, while RSL got the 2-0 win at Rio Tinto.  I have to say that neither coach gets a huge advantage over the other, Robert has more experience but I think Jason has more drive and passion. 

Emmanuel Ekpo vs. Kyle Beckerman:

Kyle Beckerman has been the on field leader for Real Salt Lake almost since the moment he put on the jersey, once he was among the most hated rivals and now he is one the most loved and admired on the roster.  It is the fact that while he is soft spoken and very kind off the pitch, he turns into a total bulldog once he is on the pitch.  It is that type of attitude that lead to one UK based blogger naming him as one of the top 5 players in MLS who could "cut it" in the EPL.

Kyle is the glue that binds RSL on the pitch, he can be found helping out by making huge defensive saves as other defenders push forward, or he can be found just outside of the area firing a blistering shot on goal (2 goals and 3 assists in 2010, 21 goals and 24 assists in his career).  For many RSL fans the date 7-16-2007 is one of the biggest dates in franchise history as RSL traded Medhi Ballouchy to Colorado for Kyle, and the RSL turnaround on the pitch moved forward in a big way.

Guillermo Barros Schelotto will always be a huge part of the history of the Columbus Crew, it was his creative play in the midfield that helped the team reach the top of MLS in 2008 when they won both the Supporters’ Shield and MLS Cup.  So how do you replace a living legend who was let go by the team he helped reinvent? For the Columbus Crew they look to the 23 year old Ekpo who has just 29 starts, 4 goals, and 7 assists in his 3 years with the team. 

Don’t let those number fool you, he is a big (6’2"), strong, fast player who has more athletic gifts and potential than many in the league, but is he ready to replace GBS?  No, nobody will replace GBS and the Crew will be forced to adjust their style of play accordingly, but with Ekpo in the middle they have a talented young player that they can build their new style around.  I think we saw a lot of good things from him in the first leg of the series, he was alert and made some great passes in rough conditions.  Can he maintain that in the second leg, and how will he adjust to the pressure of playing at altitude?

I have to give an edge to the veteran in this case, Kyle is a handful in every match but very often at Rio Tinto he is able to take that up a notch  and become a special player, and tonight RSL will need him to be special.


Fabian Espindola:

Every fan has players they love no matter what.  Most of them have players that drive them nuts, for me that player is Fabi.  It isn't that he is a bad player, it isn't that he doesn't have talent, it isn't that he doesn't give 100%+, because he is a good player, he has talent and he gives as much as anyone on the pitch.  I think it what drives me crazy about him goes back a few years to 2008, and the back flip.  It wasn't the celebration at the Home Depot Center, but rather the fact the he didn't wait to see if it really was a goal.  He seemed to just think it was, and in fact it was waved off, then he landed wrong and got hurt, then he left for what seemed to be greener pastures. 

None of which do I really blame him for, but all of which clouds my opinion of him a bit, but it is something else that bothers me.  Fabi seems like a selfish player, which isn't a bad thing for a striker, and the numbers (15 goals and 7 assists) are in line with most other strikers in RSL's history.  Maybe it is that he sometimes overlooks open teammates and tries to attack 2-3 defenders, maybe it is that passion that drives him to make great runs and get into dangerous positions only to lose the ball. 

I just think he is a better player than what we most often see form him on a regular basis.  I am probably being too critical, and doing what I accused many fans of doing to Robbie Findley last year, maybe I have just set the bar too high?  I am hoping we see the exciting, passionate, and entertaining Fabi tonight, not the complaining, diving, frustrating one.

Leandre Griffit:

Not a household name, not even one that casual Crew fans will likely know.  The 26 year old frenchman joined the Crew in the middle of May last year and only saw 43 minutes of MLS action, but for those who pay close attention to the Crew they expect big things.  Leandre brings a lot of experience from the lower divisions of Europe with him, and in those 43 minutes of MLS action he did find the back of the net.  Then there was the fact that he has seen action for the Crew 3 times in CCL play, and yes he found the back of the net again.

He came on for the final few minutes of last weeks match, but I have to believe that if Columbus are playing for the win, that he may start or see early action. If Columbus should happen to go down a goal and be forced into playing a more attacking style, I would expect that Leandre is one of the players that they will look to spark their offense.

Mark Geiger:

Well last week we saw why I continue to list officials as one of my Wildcards in each match preview, Jair issued 3 red cards and many question each of them.  I am really confused by the CONCACAF move to go away from officials from neutral countries, while it wasn't perfect in the group stages it did prevent the possibility of conflicts of interest. I like Geiger, I think he is one of the better officials in MLS over the last couple years, and I can only hope that with so much on the line that we will get a match called right down the middle.

My Prediction:

Well I had high hopes for RSL in the first leg and I have to admit that I was caught a bit off guard by the play of the Columbus Crew, but as is often the case in pre-season matches the match went differently than expected.  I was pleased with the resolve RSL showed after going down a man early in the second half, and even more so when the sides dropped to 10 vs. 9.  I was very disappointed in the play of Saborio who seemed unable to get started in the frigid conditions, and I expect much more of him tonight.  He struggled with goals on the road in 2010 but was a beast at home, no reason for that to change.

The advantages that RSL will be able to claim tonight are both physical and psychological,  playing at elevation is tough for teams at the peak of fitness and will be even more difficult for the Crew in pre-season fitness.  The crowd at Rio Tinto should be "Massive" compared to what we saw in Columbus (sorry that was a cheap shot, but I liked it), with well over 10,000 expected to fill the seats in Sandy.  RSL also has an edge with their 33 match unbeaten streak, and the fact that the Crew are 0-3-0 at Rio Tinto with just one goal scored in 3 matches, while allowing 8.  Oh don't get me wrong, I don't expect the Crew to roll over for RSL, I expect the opposite.  I expect a real battle, these teams had no problem getting physical in Columbus last week and I would expect that you may see more of the same tonight, but this is RSL at home and they are simply a different team when playing at home.

RSL 2 - Columbus 1