Traditionally MLS teams have taken a casual approach to the US Open Cup. There is little prestige and even less money involved. Most coaches try and sneak through the early rounds using reserve players. It does, however, represent a trophy and I can't help but think that San Jose's coaching staff may consider the Open Cup a winnable prize. In addition, both San Jose and Real Salt Lake have lost games recently and need to get back on track. Coaches cannot afford to let their side get used to losing.
I think we'll see some reserves but I also believe each team will be very serious in their approach to this match. We'll know immediately how important the Open Cup is to San Jose as the line ups are announced. If the Quakes play with mostly reserves then the upcoming Dallas match is the priority and we are in for a long night. Maybe David Beckham's upcoming visit has Real's attention. Then we really are in for a long night!
In this one, the lineups are pure guess work. I think Jason Kreis will play his younger starters, guys like Beckerman, Wingert and Findley. After that it becomes mysterious. The Argentine contingent has seen action this year but Cordoba and Mantilla spent the last game on the bench, a game which RSL lost to DC 4-1. Does Kreis leave the back four in after last week's performance? I think he does — messing with the defense without allowing them to make up for the last performance makes for a tense locker room.
Without over-emphasizing RSL's strengths and weaknesses, we'll move on to what we know for certain will affect the game: Rice Eccles Stadium and the rock hard turf. This is one facility where the grounds can be a huge factor. Rice Eccles ranks right up there with Spartan Stadium for opponent disdain.
The key to playing well against Real at their ground is to understand their ground! The ball bounces and bounces due to the hard surface and the light air. Flighted balls that are headed or knocked down are called "seconds," and winning "seconds" is crucial. High pressure works here as the ball is difficult to get on the floor, so running at an opponent and forcing a rushed first touch becomes very effective. Unfortunately for aficionados of the beautiful game, direct play also works very well at Rice Eccles. Send the ball up the floor, get on the end of it somehow — flicks, knockdowns, bounces, you get the picture. A big target forward and a quick player running underneath is the ideal striker set up.
The Earthquakes can win this match and gain entry into the tournament by outworking Real Salt Lake. Generally a poor surface or playing conditions favor a weaker team. Not to say that the Quakes are necessarily weaker but there definitely some mitigating factors San Jose can take advantage of. This is a good match to apply pressure, try and keep possession at the appropriate times but don't be afraid to air it out and chase the ball down. The fact that a smaller than normal crowd will be on hand could take a lot of the home field atmosphere-advantage out of the picture.
My keys to victory:
Be first to the ball; just plain outwork the guy facing you.
Win all the "seconds"
Communicate to stay in tune on defense.
After their initial surge, go at Salt lake and apply pressure without losing team shape.
(Tim Hanley is a former assistant coach for the Earthquakes, Dynamo, and Galaxy and also played for the Quakes in the NASL.)