There is immense pressure on Real Salt Lake to defend their 2009 MLS Cup title. Not only do they have the defending champion’s target on their back, but they’ve also been picked by many pundits to repeat.
But with FC Dallas hosting the first leg of the Western Conference Semi-Finals, you could easily say there was just as much stress on the home side in a must-win game. The opening 30 minutes showed that clearly in the form of a fifth minute goal from Fabian Espindola, who took advantage of the makeshift FCD back four early in the game to give RSL the lead.
I saw two changes from FC Dallas that changed the momentum of Leg One in the opening half.
First, with the injuries to George John and Heath Pearce, FCD manager Schellas Hyndman had been forced to move pieces around in the Dallas defense. The starting back four was made up of Jair Benitez at left back, Ugo Ihemelu at left center back, Jackson at right center back and Zach Loyd at right back.
The goal by Espindola was a well-struck left footer beyond the 18, but the way it happened was soft. The FCD backline was caught too high, as Andy Williams flicked the ball over the top of Ihemelu. Loyd as the outside back kept Espindola onside, and as the speedy Argentine pushed towards Kevin Hartman’s goal he cut back to his preferred left foot. Without closing pressure from Jackson, Espindola had time and space to unleash the powerful strike.
That’s when Hyndman made his first key adjustment. In the 25th minute he switched Loyd and Jackson in their positions, and the result was a defense that ultimately looked more secure and solid.
The other change for Dallas that played an impact was the injury of Milton Rodriguez. The natural tendency for Rodriguez is to come short for the ball to link up with the midfield. But as he continued to do that, the RSL backline pushed higher and higher up the field to compact the amount of space for the Dallas midfield.
But when Rodriguez went down with an injury, Hyndman had to go to Jeff Cunningham in reserve. That move is what opened the game in the 30th minute, as RSL’s defense was suddenly kept honest due to Cunningham’s blistering pace and desire to get in behind a defense. The result was more room in midfield, and in short order Cunningham found a gap at the top of the RSL penalty area off a deflected pass from David Ferriera. The veteran striker would finish the play and equalize the game 1-1 just before halftime.
Knowing they needed to win at home in the first leg, FCD continued to push the pace of play in the second half. Daniel Hernandez was Dallas’ best player on the day, pushing Javier Morales to such frustration that the Argentine was ejected after receiving his second yellow card in the 69th minute.
But Atiba Harris would be shown a straight red card in the 75th minute for a challenge at midfield, meaning the game would finish with 10v10, an open game that favored the home side. Eric Avila was inserted in the 87th minute with hopes of providing late game heroics, and it took him only a minute to do so in stunning fashion, winning the game for the home side 2-1.
With the FC Dallas victory, all the pressure is now on the shoulders of the defending MLS Cup Champions. They will feel good about returning home to Rio Tinto, the site of their 25-game home unbeaten streak.
I fully expect RSL to high pressure the FCD defense when in possession, with hopes of winning a ball high up the field and taking a chance on goal. FCD must be alert and composed on the ball to break such pressure and force RSL to retreat.
The key figures in making that happen are Daniel Hernandez and Dax McCarty in the center of midfield for Dallas. Note to FCD defenders: play quick and into the feet of your composed central midfielders! If that option does not look like a good one, then the other key figure becomes Jeff Cunningham to relieve pressure higher up the field.
Watch the second part of my Chalk Talk video for an in-depth tactical breakdown of Leg Two.
RSL is a team that likes to pass and move the ball quickly and freely – but tension and pressure can sometimes disrupt crisp, clear passes. Another item of note for RSL will be the absence of driving midfield force Javier Morales. He adds sophistication to one of the league’s best attacking teams, and without him the RSL midfield becomes more blue collar – another point in favor of FCD.
One thing is for sure, Leg Two will be a spectacular game, and one in which both team managers will be unwilling to give an inch. If I were you, I wouldn’t miss a single second of this game.