If you've ever watched "soccer tennis," you'll understand some of my references about Rice Eccles. We touched on Real Salt Lake's home pitch in my column prior to the San Jose-Real Open Cup match a month ago. The same rules apply: What can a team control with respect to the pitch and what effect can we establish by playing intelligent football? The Earthquakes '08 version spent the evening of April 30th getting drummed 4-0. Let's hope in the four weeks since then, they have established an idea as to how one adjusts to what has to be the worst pitch in MLS. With a hard surface and thin air, the game seems to be played waist high! It's soccer tennis on a really big court.
To have success one has to play quickly when the ball refuses to sit down. One of the first thoughts of the professional player is, "Can I play direct?" If the answer is yes, then get it up the floor. In addition, soccer at Rice-Eccles is all about movement, hard work, being first to the ball, and picking up the "seconds" as we alluded to a month ago. Real has not lost at home — they get it.
Real has dropped their last two matches, letting Dallas back in to take three points and then losing to Columbus in an Open Cup match this week. They will be happy to be back home, but they trotted out more than a few regulars midweek so I would think fitness might be an issue. With the Quakes having a nice spell between games, this could prove a factor.
With the exception of the suspended Ian Joy, Real looks to have most of their first eleven. I would think Rimando retains his starting spot despite Seitz's performance in France with the U-23's. RSL usually sends out a 4-4-2 with Borchers and Mantilla or Olave in the central defense, with Wingert and most likely Beltran the outside defenders. In the middle, look for Beckerman, Williams, Kovalenko and Morales. Up top choose two of the three—Deuchar, Findley, or Espindola. I like the play of Espindola and think Deuchar makes a good foil for the Argentine. Robbie Findley is a great late-game sub in my opinion. Beckerman is the real deal — I like him a lot and believe he gets better every year. He will join late as well as shoot from distance. Williams, while not fast ,will hold the ball and, like Kyle, is not afraid to hit it from a long way away.
San Jose, while rested, has a few holes to fill with Kei and Ivan away on international duty and Ronnie O'Brien getting a break from the Rice-Eccles turf. San Jose must hold the middle of the park to have any success in Salt Lake. If RSL is weak in any spot, it is their defense. Beltran, if he plays, is too slow. Borchers, to use a favorite term, is wooden — run at him! With Kovalenko and Williams wide there will be room in the channels. Johnson has to get in those spaces, hold the ball, drop it off and then get in the box. Once again, shape in attack is vital. Williams will cheat forward, not come back to defend and once the ball pops forward away he goes. Watch out for the quick transition.
My keys for a result:
Decide to sit in or pressure, everyone must be on board.
Take away passing channels so Deuchar can't get on the ball.
Shape (surprise), defend with six, attack with no more than four.
Be aware, communicate.
This might not be pretty but ugly points are still points!
(Tim Hanley is a former assistant coach with the Earthquakes, Dynamo, and Galaxy, and also played for the NASL Quakes.)