Real Salt Lake plays in their biggest game of the year tonight: a US Open Cup semifinal tie against foes-turned-rivals Sporting Kansas City.
It's hard to overstate the importance of this match. Real Salt Lake's regular season hopes are, well, up in the air, and so this and CONCACAF Champions League become the two most important competitions.
Tensions boiling over
Watch out for the tension between Javier Morales and Benny Feilhaber, or Kyle Beckerman and Benny Feilhaber, or — well, anyone and anyone, really, but mostly anyone and Feilhaber. In our last match against them, it got heated, and this match promises more of the same.
There's been a lot of talk coming out of the Sporting KC side, and they're all rallying around this "Beat RSL" notion that seems too focused on the opponent and not focused enough on the play. That's fine by us — the prize of playing in a final is our motivating factor, and that internal motivation out of aspiration, not out of rage, is valuable.
However, do look for Real Salt Lake to be a bit cheeky. It's something that's upset SKC so often in the past — our "arrogance" and all that — that we know full well how to get in their head. And that's kind of funny, isn't it?
Sane midfield play
This is where things get really important. We can get in their head, we can avoid letting our players' frustration boil over — we can take care of ourselves in that way, really — but if we let the midfield get overrun, we'll land ourselves in hot, hot water.
What we need, then, is to continue to compress the space between the midfield and the defense — that's how we can best boost our presence defensively while still keeping Javier Morales available for his incredible attacking sense.
It's tough, but if we let our center backs function as occasional pressure-relieving outlets, that frees up our midfield to make good decisions on and off the ball.
Key to that: Luke Mulholland. His role should be clearly defined and set out. Will he play a more defensive role, or will he be asked to be that sinewy connector we need?
Take advantage of opportunities
Real Salt Lake will have opportunities in this one. Sporting KC isn't so defensively staunch that they won't allow a few things through, especially if they continue this curious trend of attacking (and using their center backs to heave the ball in from the sideline).
Javier Morales and the forwards in front of him have to be on their game — if one clear chance is all that comes, they have to take it. That's easy for me to say, being here behind a screen, of course. The act of finishing is a mysterious one, and it's not really exposed to human understanding*.
Maybe with more time, we'll get there. Philosophy's not dead yet, right?
* That's probably not true.