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Real Salt Lake vs. Deportivo Saprissa S.A.D. CONCACAF Champions League 1st leg preview

I am going to steal a quote from a MLS Insider post:

While many around North America are gearing up for tomorrow night's nationally televised First Kick match-up between the Seattle Sounders and LA Galaxy (ESPN 9:30pm ET) Utah will be focused on another match entirely. Real Salt Lake continue their CONCACAF Champions League run tomorrow night as well in a match that has much more at stake than the one taking place in at Qwest Field.

If you haven't checked out that post, do so it has a great video from RSL GM Garth Lagerwey, great stuff talking about how important this match is.  As I spoke with RSL's President this afternoon about how important the Champions League is, he made it clear that since the day they knew they qualified for the tournament that from top to bottom of the organization they were going to approach this with 100% effort (something not every MLS team can say), and it has been clear with lineup decisions and the approach RSL has taken in every match that they are "in it to win it".

That is evidenced in how fit players stayed in the off season, how intense the practices have been, and how focused the entire organization has been around these matches.  RSL has become the first team to advance to the Semi-Finals since the old Champions Cup was reformed into a much larger Champions League competiton, and now they represent themselves as well as both league and nation in the tournament, that is a lot of pressure for a team that hasn't even kicked off their league schedule yet.  How will RSL respond?  I expect the same way they did a couple weeks ago against Columbus, they came out sharp and aggressive, they secure two goals before the halftime whistle, and when it was all said and done they had secured a 4-1 win.

after the jump the key matchups, the wildcards, and my match prediction:

Now I can't claim to be an expert of any sort on Saprissa, but I am thankful that I know someone who is, that would be Chest Rockwell from Black and Red United, the SB Nation DC United blog.  So he helped me out a ton with this match preview (thanks much) and his comments will be in the highlight box:

Key Match-ups:

Rio Tinto Stadium vs. Estadio Saprissa:

What often comes up around MLS when talking about Rio Tinto Stadium is the combination of altitude and, in the early and late parts of the season, the weather. The altitude won't be much of a factor for Saprissa, though, because their home city of San Jose is only about 400 feet closer to sea level. The weather is the bigger issue, with the current forecast for Tuesday night saying that temperatures will be in the low 40s. That's not particularly cold for American players and fans, but it's about 15 degrees cooler than Saprissa's players are used to at this time of year.

Saprissa's home field, known as "The Monster's Cave," has long been considered the most hostile environment in CONCACAF. Going back to the 80s and early 90s, this was a place that was actually dangerous to be in for visiting players; most US national team veterans from that era have stories of coins, batteries, and bags of urine being thrown from the stands. Fortunately, those days are over, but the home supporters are still loud and passionate.

It's also worth mentioning that Estadio Saprissa has a FieldTurf playing surface. This is actually an upgrade over the old artificial field there, which was not far off from first-generation astro turf. Thanks to its age (the new rug was brought in last year), it's a better surface than what RSL used to play on at Rice-Eccles Stadium. On the other hand, this isn't the top-of-the-line turf that you see at, say, Qwest Field in Seattle. If it rains (always a possibility in Costa Rica), it will be extremely slick, which would appeal more to Saprissa than to RSL.

Listen when I talk to anyone at RSL, be it players, coaches or staff they all mention how very important the fans are to the team and most will give a huge amount of the credit for their 34 match unbeaten streak to the fans who provide that extra motivation for the players.  One only has to think back a couple weeks to this moment:

that is the type of thing that gives fans and staff goosebumps, but it was clearly heard by RSL's Nick Rimando and others and at a critical point of the match were RSL were protecting a 2-1 lead, this chant help lift their spirits and energy and allowed RSL to end with the 4-1 win.  In this leg of the series the clear advantage has to be Rio Tinto Stadium, and what should be a near sell out crowd.

Alvaro Saborio vs. Victor Bolivar:

Saborio has come back from offseason surgery and appears, if not 100% fit, then certainly pretty close. Saborio's talents match up favorably with Saprissa's back four, which is in transition as longtime captain Victor Cordero, who is possibly playing his last season before retirement, sits the bench these days. Saborio excels at shaking off his marker and finding gaps, while Saprissa looked quite disorganized against CD Olimpia and really benefited from the early first-leg red card to Olimpia's star player, Oscar Boniek Garcia. In a nutshell, I expect Saborio to have multiple scoring chances in both legs; as clinical as he is, I'd be shocked if he doesn't score at least once over the two legs.

Victor Bolivar is Saprissa's current starting goalkeeper, having arrived on loan from upstart Costa Rican club Barrio Mexico (along with three others). This is something of a shock, as former #1 Fausto Gonzalez had been first-choice for years and was expected to continue in the job. New manager Juan Manuel Alvarez, however, had other ideas and installed the 27 year old Bolivar at the start of the Verano season. In their quarterfinal matches against Olimpia, Bolivar looked steady and reliable, showing great confidence in claiming crosses and holding onto shots. However, he didn't look to have the sort of reflexes Nick Rimando has, nor does he have a particularly impressive physical frame. Dropped into MLS, I'd say he'd be seen as an adequate starter on a mid- or lower-tier team. Bolivar isn't going to lose this semifinal match up for Saprissa by himself, but he's not going to win it either.

I think a lot of the changes at Saprissa from new coach to roster changes are clearly from their less than typical results in the Costa Rican Primeria last year, so far it appears to have worked wonders for them as they have a 7-2-1 record with a blistering +19 goal differential.  It will be interesting to see how Sabo does against his former team, where he scored 95 goals in 149 matches for them, he has already stated that he won't be celebrating when he scores against them out of respect. I am fine with that but one thing is clear for RSL when Saborio scores in Champions League play, it usually means a great result for RSL.

Juan Manuel Alvarez vs. Jason Kreis:

Alvarez only came in for this current season, replacing former MLS midfielder Roy Myers. Saprissa had been inconsistent for much of the past five years, relying on former players to take over as their manager. Jorge Vergara (the same man that owns CD Guadalajara and Chivas USA) broke that pattern by appointing his countryman and charging him with taking Saprissa back to the top of Costa Rican soccer. After a few weeks of up-and-down play, Saprissa has found their rhythm, winning four and drawing once in their past five games (along with winning both home and away against Olimpia in CCL play). Alvarez has instituted a change to a consistent 4-3-3 system, in which Saprissa looks to play long out of the back to their wide forwards before bringing the ball back in for playmaker Walter Centeno to orchestrate. Given the players at his disposal and Vergara's desire for his clubs to focus on attacking more than defending, look for Alvarez to make aggressive, offensive substitutions earlier than you normally see from MLS coaches.

Jason Kreis will probably focus mostly on keeping his group's confidence high and defending as a unit. RSL's attack should be strong enough to find goals against Saprissa's somewhat shaky defense, so the big issue for Kreis will be shutting down a dangerous "Monstruo Morado" attack. Kreis is likely less worried about his attack than he is about keeping a clean sheet at home, which can be enormous given the away-goals tiebreaker. On the road, look for RSL to try to slow things down and take the crowd out of the game with smart possession and patient build-ups.

Jason knows that for RSL their best chance of advancing to the finals of the Champions League will be if they can win this first leg at Rio Tinto and take a lead to Costa Rica, does that mean to expect wild and crazy things from his lineup or tactics, heck no.  It means that Jason understands the 5 attacking player and 5 defenders that Saprissa will play with, he knows that RSL must attack the ball no matter where it is on the pitch, and he knows that his team will need to play in control of their emotions and focus their energy on doing things well.  I believe you will see an aggressive lineup and as Rock pointed out expect that Jason might be wiling to make some changes earlier than usual.


Josue Martinez (forward):
The stars of the current Saprissa side are undoubtedly the aforementioned Centeno and right-sided winger/forward Armando Alonso (who scored two of Saprissa's three goals in the quarterfinal round). However, they need other players to step up and play well enough to provide a platform to do damage. That's where Martinez, considered one of the "next big things" in Costa Rican soccer, comes in. At 20, Martinez already has six caps and is likely to start as the left forward in Saprissa's 433. This isn't exactly his best position (he'd likely prefer to play as the withdrawn forward in a more traditional two-man front line), but he's the best man available for the job.

What makes Martinez the wild card here is whether he can influence the game enough from that left wing. Against Olimpia, he became very predictable by trying to cut inside of the Honduran side's right back, Wilfredo Barahona. Before long, it became obvious that Olimpia was taking extra care to shut that channel down, and Martinez stopped influencing the game before being subbed off in the 58th minute. That happens with young players sometimes when things don't go their way. However, if Martinez is less predictable and is "on," so to speak, he can provide the width and extra dose of trickery that makes it much more difficult to contain Centeno and Alonso.

Arturo Alvarez:

It is interesting how polarizing Arturo is among MLS fans, some see him as a one dimensional player who offers little in the way of creativity, clearly this isn't what the staff at Real Salt Lake see in him.  While he didn't see action in either of the quarterfinal matches, I have a feeling that we will see him in action on Tuesday night, we might even see him in a starting role up top with Saborio.  I have been impressed with the energy and dedication he has shown at practices since joining the team, and since his arrival he has been quick to say how happy he is to be here at RSL a team he believe plays a style of soccer that will bring out the best of what he has to offer.  

There were a number of guys I considered as my wildcard, and don't be surprised if you see Paulo Jr. show up at some point during the match.  He has been a player who brings great energy when on the pitch, and has shown that he can make a huge impact within minutes either as a goal scorer or in setting up others to find the back of the net.  With RSL's depth you never know where a surprise will come from.

Surinam's Enrico John Wijngaard

Who?  Oh I know that this name will be a surprise to many but CONCACAF has chosen Enrico to be the man in charge of the first leg of this huge Semi-Final match-up.  The rest of his crew will be; Assistant 1 Ricardo Louisville, also of Surinam, Assistant 2 Ricardo Morgan from Jamaica, and the 4th official will be Courtney Campbell also of Jamaica.  We have seen good, bad, and very ugly work done by the officials in this tournament, I continue to hope that I can stop listing officials as wildcards, but so far we are a long way from that.

My Prediction:

 I expect that this match will be a very entertaining match, think back to both of the RSL vs. Cruz Azul matches, where both teams play a fairly aggressive and attacking style. I wouldn't be surprised if both teams find the back of the net more than once.  I do think while Saprissa has been in season longer than RSL, they made several changes to their roster and a new head coach which will be countered by a RSL team that has worked hard to keep their core of players together under the leadership of head coach Jason Kreis.  The home crowd and home field advantage will prove too much for our Costa Rican visitors as RSL pull out an exciting 4-2 win.  With Saborio playing a key role in the win.