By TRAVIS CLARK
For FC Dallas, a tie is all that is needed to knock out the defending champions.
Thanks to Eric Avila's dramatic game-winner in the closing minutes of the first leg of the Western Conference semifinal, FCD carries a slim, 2-1 lead into Saturday night's second leg at Rio Tinto Stadium.
Of course, that's where the task becomes much more daunting for Dallas, as Real Salt Lake is a dominant force at home. In 2010, RSL was undefeated in Sandy, Utah, posting an 11-0-4 mark and outscoring its opponents, 31-7. Throw in the fact that RSL hasn't lost at Rio Tinto in 32 straight games, and the impetus shifts toward FCD.
However, entering the second leg with the lead will allow Dallas to come in and place an emphasis on controlling possession and dictating the game's tempo. With Kevin Hartman fit again, his ability to organize a defense could prove to be a breaking point in snatching the series.
Both sides will be without key contributors, as suspensions and injuries force Jason Kreis and Schellas Hyndman to reshuffle their respective lineups. Milton Rodriguez, who left Saturday's first leg with an injury, didn't make the trip, and neither did defender Heath Pearce, who didn't play against RSL at Pizza Hut Park.
Hyndman does have depth to cover those injuries. Jeff Cunningham, who scored FCD's opener last weekend, will likely start, either Zach Loyd or Jackson can be deployed at right back, and George John could partner with Ugo Ihemelu in central defense. Atiba Harris, who normally mans the right flank, is suspended after receiving a straight red card, giving Brek Shea a chance to start.
Real Salt Lake's attack will be blunted, as Javier Morales' red card suspension means he sits this one out. But more worrying for RSL is the possible absence of Alvaro Saborio with a knee injury. The Costa Rican international was subbed out in the 68th minute in Frisco, and his status remains in doubt for the second leg.
Robbie Findley would likely partner up top with Fabian Espindola if Saborio can't contribute, with Paulo Araujo Jr. and Pablo Campos providing depth off the bench.
Kreis' selection in midfield, with the absence of Morales, is going to be a focal point. RSL's talent and depth tempers the loss of the Argentine, as Kreis could tab either Will Johnson, who started Saturday's first leg from the bench, in Morales' attaking slot. Kreis could also use experienced Jamaican Andy Williams in that role, with Johnson on the wing opposite of Ned Grabavoy.
Hartman, who has been a difference-maker for FC Dallas all season, will once again be thrust into that role for his club. And with him in goal, Dallas has reason to be confident of advancing — when Hartman was the starter in league play for FCD this season, they didn't concede more than one goal in a game.
Not only has his shot-stopping ability bailed out the defense on countless occasions this year, but he also helps keep his defenders organized and in correct positions, making it even more difficult to break them down. And with a shuffling back line in front of him, that asset will prove to be as crucial as ever.
Tactically, Hyndman will likely favor a more conservative approach to the second leg, playing to his team's strengths, luring RSL forward and hitting back on the counter through Cunningham and David Ferreira. There's no reason for any of FCD's defenders to be taking unnecessary risks, because they hold the advantage.
For RSL, the MLS Cup holders managed an early goal against Dallas last game, and they'll look to replicate that sort of success in the decider. Because they need at least one goal, the sooner it comes, the better, as that will allieviate the pressure of trailing in the series. The longer Dallas sits on a 2-1 lead, the more frenetic and open the game will become, making RSL more susceptible to concede.
A repeat performance of October 16's 2-0 win over Dallas at home would suit the defending champions just fine in this one.
What do you think of this weekend's RSL-Dallas match? Do you think FCD can hang on to provide the upset? Or do you see RSL turning it on at home?
Share your thoughts below.