With the first leg of the Western Conference Semi-Finals between FC Dallas and Real Salt Lake behind us, I wanted to look at a few key match-ups. In their trip to Pizza Hut Park on July 17th, RSL changed their tactics. I expect them to run out there usual 4-4-2 formation on Saturday. FC Dallas has played in a 4-1-4-1 shape all year long and should stay the same against the defending MLS Cup Champion. Within those formations, roles are specific for the players. Here are four key match-ups you need to watch closely, because the game could be won or lost within the following individual battles.
Daniel Hernandez vs Andy Williams:
The FC Dallas captain has been the club leader both on and off the field from day one. His role in the center of midfield is clear; sit in front of the FCD back four and shield the two center defenders. Rarely will you see Hernandez venture wide to defend opposing midfielders, and his communication will be important in leading his midfield into a good shape defensively.
Can the FCD midfield win the ball and frequently spring attackers in wide areas to force the RSL midfield to break out their diamond four shape? If FCD is able to break up RSL attacks in the center of midfield, the Utahans midfield passing could be disrupted enough to deny the kind of synchronicity that makes them such a threat going forward. An added bonus is Hernandez’s composure on the ball when under pressure. He'll need to receive passes from the FCD backline to break the RSL high press.
The absence of Javier Morales due to his ejection at Pizza Hut Park in Leg 1 is significant. The man likely to move into the attacking role in the RSL midfield diamond four is Andy Williams.
The MLS veteran is enjoying his finest professional season with a career high in starts. He brings a similar amount of creativity and can play the killer pass in the final third. Look for attempts to unsettle the FCD defense with good vision, and the courage to try something unusual. His passing is an asset as much as his ability to pop up in dangerous areas for chances at goal.
With these two MLS vets duking it out, you have to wonder who will deliver the final blow.
Kevin Hartman vs Nick Rimando:
These two experienced goalkeepers have been the best in Major League Soccer this season. With Hartman’s return between the posts, Dallas’ defense got a boost in confidence in one specific area- communication. Hartman demands an accountability to the defensives shape in front of him that limits the types of shots that opponents can take. He has repeatedly been in the right place at the right time for a reason.
Hartman has always been a tremendous shot-stopper, but his presence has been the difference for the best Dallas defense in club history. Warning: his mobility shouldn’t be threatened by his previous injury, but thanks to Monsieur Henry his ability to strike a ball while under pressure could.
Rimando was the story for RSL in the 2009 MLS Cup Playoffs. One of the shorter goalkeepers in MLS stood tall on many occasions to make the big save. His presence in goal during the MLS Cup Final penalty kicks forced even a Landon Donovan attempt well off target.
He has a good back four in front of him, and much like Hartman he is best known for his shot-stopping ability. When FCD traveled to Rio Tinto on October 16th, Rimando stuffed a Jeff Cunningham one-on-one to keep the game level. It’s saves like those that turn games on their head. This may be the best match-up of them all.