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.
George John vs Alvaro Saborio:
The second year center back from FC Dallas has had a very solid campaign. Having battled the injuries that plagued him in 2009, John became a valuable leader in the heart of the defense. His ability to challenge for high balls and his preparedness for RSL attacking movements will be imperative.
When RSL came to Pizza Hut Park in July the only target up front for the defending champion was Robbie Findley. The US International wants to run in behind a backline more than he wants to come short for it. Findley will come short for it, but he’s not known for his ability to bring attackers into the game.
The story is much different when defending Alvaro Saborio. The talented Costa Rican has more than picked up the scoring slack of the departed Yura Movsisyan. His 18 goals through all competitions shows his attacking prowess, but his true asset is his ability to link with another forward or charging midfielders. He is a physical presence up top that could match the size of John, and that alone would make the match-up entertaining.
Saborio is clever in his off the ball movement to create separation from a center defender in order to receive a pass from a teammate when beginning an attack. That is where the decision is made by John. Does he communicate to his midfielders to block the passing lane into Saborio or does he track the forward into midfield? His reading of those situations must be timely.
Schellas Hyndman vs Jason Kreis:
Hyndman, in his third season at the helm of the Texas club has made an impact on this team. Securing the team’s first playoff birth since 2007, FCD has taken on his personality; a 12-game road unbeaten streak and the ability to take something away from matches in which they find themselves down shows exactly that.
With only four losses in 2010, FC Dallas tied a single season record for fewest defeats in a season, and the team’s character has a lot to do with that feat. Hyndman is a MLS Coach of the Year candidate for what he has done this regular season. Can it carry over against another coach of the year candidate?
Jason Kreis has spoken about his extra motivation to win a match against the club he represented more than 240 times over an eight-year span. Kreis is a Coach of the Year candidate who has pushed his team to new heights. That is including the fact that RSL hoisted the 2009 MLS Cup.
His ability to utilize his entire roster while navigating the tricky CONCACAF Champions League opening rounds was impressive, to say the least, all while still challenging for the Supporters’ Shield. Like FCD, RSL also only lost on four occasions in 2010. The last loss for Real Salt Lake was against FC Dallas.
Both Kreis and Hyndman lead teams that will fight and scrap for every inch, and in the playoffs that is mandatory.
There are many keys to victory for both sides in this clash between two of Major League Soccer’s best teams. Coaches will make their points known to their players, but once the whistle blows, it’s up to the player to carry it out. These four particular match-ups may be the very best of the entire series and I expect to see a combative spirit that is only present when Everything Is On The Line.