Real Salt Lake's match tonight against Houston Dynamo pits two sides hopeful for a playoff spot against each other tonight.
And before you go shouting about how Real Salt Lake has been awful and whatnot, let's just get one thing clear. Houston are sitting with only three more points than RSL. That's a razor-thin margin, and the match tonight will almost certainly sway things in one direction, whichever that ends up being.
The big problem, though? Real Salt Lake is out some key players — both Tony Beltran and Luke Mulholland are out on yellow card accumulation, which was bound to happen at some point. But they're both out at the same time, which seems rather unfortunate considering we're trying to claw our way in right now, doesn't it?
Regardless, Real Salt Lake has options.
Right back: Tony Beltran out
First, replacing Tony Beltran is not exactly an easy task, considering he's reliable and an intelligent one-on-one defender. Jordan Allen seems the popular choice to step into his place, but there are other, more defensive options, too.
First up, Allen, who brings an attacking mindset to the table: He's a very good option, and probably the best corollary for Beltran RSL has on the team. While he's largely played in forward or midfield roles this season, he's also played full back at a national team level, so there should be no rumbling that he's being played particularly out of position. This is not an unusual place for him to play.
Second, Boyd Okwuonu, who has been steadily impressing with Real Monarchs. He's less of the attacking full back (although not entirely without prowess as he moves up into the midfield) and more keen on the defensive side, which is fine, too. That's important, especially against a team with some talented wide players.
Central midfield: Luke Mulholland out
Luke Mulholland is out of contention, and this leaves us in a bit of a tight spot. It's not entirely obvious who replaces him, because nobody in any sort of form does that reliably.
John Stertzer is a good option that would slot alongside Kyle Beckerman well, but despite his reasonable performances, he's not exactly setting the world alight. That's fine, actually, and shouldn't count against him: It takes a reliable player to do what Beckerman does, and Stertzer could still become that. Interestingly, he's also an interesting player further up in the midfield, but the system hasn't afforded that freedom recently.
Luis Silva is the other strong option, simply because he's been particularly good recently. However, he's not going to be the type that sits alongside Beckerman (unless I've missed something), and he's definitely more talented in the attack. But this is all dependent on Jeff Cassar opting to play with Beckerman as the sole defensive midfielder, and that's been something he's opted not to do in recent weeks.
Whatever happens, it's at least reassuring to know that there are options — which is certainly a step-up from the start of the season. Whatever happens now, Cassar is stuck between trying to balance defensive options and attacking options — and with a win essential if any playoff hopes are to be retained, there's a very fine edge between playing aggressively and playing for a draw.