By TRAVIS CLARK
Real Salt Lake's reward for finishing with the second-best point total in MLS? An opening playoff series against FC Dallas, one of the hardest teams to beat in MLS this season.
It's a matchup of two similar teams — both favor a possession-oriented game, aiming to dominate the ball in search of that killer pass that unlocks the opposing defense. Each side boasts a South American playmaker (Javier Morales and David Ferreira), a top goalkeeper (Kevin Hartman and Nick Rimando) and an industrious defensive midfielder (Kyle Beckerman and Daniel Hernandez).
Two meetings this year produced mirroring results — each time the home side won by a 2-0 score. Real Salt Lake's home dominance has been well documented, a fact that will heap pressure on FC Dallas in Saturday's first leg at Pizza Hut Park.
Injuries will factor in this one. Hartman has yet to make an appearance since the infamous Thierry Henry incident, though is expected to start Saturday, while Ugo Ihemelu, Daniel Hernandez and Dax McCarty all missed significant time for Dallas as well. Compounding matters is the chance that Heath Pearce might miss Saturday's opener. For RSL, midfielder Will Johnson is questionable after suffering an injury in training this week.
Here's a closer look at the series:
REAL SALT LAKE vs. FC DALLAS
July 17: FC Dallas 2, Real Salt Lake 0; October 16: Real Salt Lake 2, FC Dallas 0
First leg – at Dallas, Oct. 30, 5:00 p.m., FSC
Second leg – at Real Salt Lake, Nov. 6, 10:00 p.m., ESPN2
KEY MATCHUPS TO WATCH
David Ferreira vs. Kyle Beckerman: The silky smooth Colombian playmaker was recently lauded as an MVP finalist, and is the engine of the Dallas offense. If Beckerman can clamp down on Ferreira, it would grind FCD's offensive threat to a halt, forcing the attack to stem from other parts of the pitch. To give an idea of how important the Colombian has been to Dallas, he's played 2,699 minutes this season — all but one of the regular season.
Javier Morales vs. Daniel Hernandez: While RSL isn't as reliant on Morales as Dallas is on Ferreira, the clash of these two in the center of the park should provide for enthralling theater. If Hernandez can't track Morales, the crafty Argentine will surely punish Dallas.
Alvaro Saborio vs. George John and Ugo Ihemelu: The battle between Saborio, and FC Dallas' central defenders — provided both are healthy and good to go — could be a decisive factor. The Costa Rican international led RSL in the goal-scoring department this year, and is going to be a handful for FCD to contain.
It hasn't been a great year for Robbie Findley. He failed to make an impact at the World Cup, and his goal-scoring totals were down this year to just five. Still, he has the speed and skill to stretch an MLS defense, and could be the difference maker for the defending MLS champions.
FC Dallas youngster Brek Shea has enjoyed a break out year, starting 21 games, and playing a key role out the left wing. But it appears that he'll be relegated to the bench for at least the first game in favor of Marvin Chavez, and hasn't started a game since getting sent off on September 16 against New York. His impact off the bench could prove to be a difference maker.
A low-scoring defensive-minded series seems likely in this one when comparing the two styles. An early goal would obviously chuck that out the window. Home battles will prove to be key — RSL is unbeatable at home, while FC Dallas just dropped a single game at home all year. If Dallas fail to take the lead at home this Saturday, they will be hard pressed to advance in this one.
Who do you think will advance from this series? Cast your vote here:
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