Friday, November 14, 2008

Kamler: Western Conference Finals Preview

Keepin' It Real is pleased to have the following preview of the Western Conference Finals courtesy of former RSL midfielder and MLS Humanitarian of the Year award winner, Brian Kamler. Kamler is currently part of the RSL broadcast team, providing color analysis.

It was not long ago when both New York and Salt Lake were fighting for their playoff lives, three weeks to be exact. But, now both are hoping to gain a birth in the MLS Cup Finals after both squads won their first round playoff match ups. Both teams qualified for the playoffs on the final day of the regular season and both did not look well in their final games of the year.

New York lost to Chicago, 5-2, on a Thursday night, in which they hardly looked the part of a playoff team. If the team had won that game they would have qualified for the playoffs, but instead they had to wait for help from Columbus with their victory over DC United and with DC’s loss, New York was in.

Salt Lake had its own troubles in their last game of the season against Colorado. A game in which coach Kreis thought it might have been one of RSL’s poorest performances of the season, seemed destined to end as a win for arch-rival Colorado. RSL pulled off what will go down in team history as one of the most important ties of its short existence with a tap in goal in what was basically stoppage time. With the tie RSL was in as well.

Not much was expected from New York or RSL going into the semi’s, but both teams pulled off upsets in the first round. No one gave New York much of a chance against the two-time defending champs, Houston and RSL was supposed to challenge Chivas, but not many believed RSL would pull the upset.

So, that brings us to RSL hosting its first MLS Conference Final. These two squads met recently at the first ever game played at Rio Tinto Stadium, which resulted in a 1-1 tie. Both teams are playing some of their best soccer of the year. Lets take a look at each of the squads.

We start with New York. This is a much different team than RSL fans watched just two weeks before the end of the regular season, with five changes in the lineup. Coach Juan Carlos Osario started the same squad in both playoff matches against Houston. This is how they lined up: Danny Cepero in the nets, in the back (left to right) Kevin Goldthwaite, Andrew Boyens, Diego Jimenez, and Chris Leitch, midfield (left to right) Dave van den Bergh, Luke Sassano, Sinisa Ubiparipovic, and Dane Richards, and at forwards Juan Pablo Angel and John Wolyniec. It is tough to see how this team conquered the defending champs, but this group followed a plan and torched Houston for a total of four goals in their two matches. It would be hard to see Osario making any changes in his lineup with the success they had against the Dynamo in that game, but stranger things have happened. We can only assume the squad will be the same.

Coming off of their miserable showing in their last game of the year, New York is playing well, very well. They had a 1-0 lead over Houston in the first game before conceding an 85th minute goal that tied the series going to the Dynamo home field. In Houston, they played a similar style as what they did when they played against Real Salt Lake late in the season. It looked as if they drew a line of confrontation (when they would start pressuring the ball) somewhere around the center-off circle in Houston’s defensive end. It would not be surprising if they did the same with RSL. Against the Dynamo (especially in Houston), they looked for counter attacks and it paid off big dividends for them.

Osario will trust the middle of the field to two young players, Sassano (a rookie) and Ubiparipovic (2nd year), who between them had 34 games played and only 20 games started. The strength for the Red Bulls is their attack and how quickly they get forward with the ball. One player RSL did not see when the Red Bulls came to Salt Lake is Dane Richards. The second year player out of Clemson is a dangerous weapon going forward as seen in New York’s first goal in Houston. He has speed, is good with the ball and is one of the main contributors to the offense. On the other side of the field is van den Burgh. He, along with Richards, provides the service to the ever dangerous Angel. Angel is the Total Package and has been the engine that has carried the Red Bulls all year. Add in veteran Wolyniec, and those four are the Red Bulls’ main offensive weapons. The big question marks for this team on offense are Sassano and Ubiparipovic. What kind of distribution will the rookie and second year players bring for their side?

The weak link in the armor for New York, in my opinion, is their back four. Although they only gave up one goal to the Dynamo in two matches, the game against Chicago showed how porous the back line could be. During the regular season they were ranked third worst in the league for goals against. Also, along with their back line being vulnerable, I think their midfield is a liability defensively as well. The Dynamo picked apart the New York defense in the second half of the game in Houston and if it were not for some of the acrobatic saves by Cepero, Houston might have tied the game before Wolyniec’s back breaking third goal.

RSL also came off of a poor showing in its last game of the regular season, but was able to rally with a tie. Since then, they have played their best soccer of the season. I would not expect too many changes in the side that Jason Kreis puts out on the field. The only question marks would be: 1. Will he re-insert Joy for Russell? 2. Who will man the right side of midfield, Kovalenko or Williams? So, I can only speculate at how I would start, so here it is: Nick Rimando in goal, in the back (left to right) would be Chris Wingert, Nat Borcher, Jamison Olave, and Robbie Russell. In the midfield Kyle Beckerman at holding and (left to right) Will Johnson, Javier Morales, and Andy Williams, with Clint Mathis and Yura Movsisyan up front. Again this is only speculation. Even if Joy is close to healthy, I don’t think you start him because you do not want to use a sub for one of your backs in a game (as was done in the first game against Chivas) like this. If you are not in the lead late in the game, you want to be able to bring on as many offensive weapons as you can. As for Williams instead of Kovalenko, they both played superbly when they started. Williams provides more possession for RSL and his creativity will be needed to break down a Red Bulls team that will more than likely sit back and wait for RSL to come to them. Plus, there are the emotional feelings Kovalenko has towards his old team that might get him in trouble card wise.

Salt Lake’s ball movement over the past two games has been better than it has all season. Runs off the ball have been great and no player is holding the ball too long. They have also created more chances in the run of play than I can remember in two consecutive games. But, if they are to move on to the final, they need to take their opportunities better. Real could have been going into their away game at Chivas with a comfortable win, but did not finish its chances at home. When they had the chance to close the game out at Chivas with a late goal they squandered their opportunities, which left the door open to the tie which sent them through.

It seems as though the defense which RSL fans were used to seeing throughout June and July has somewhat returned and Nick Rimando has come up with a couple of big saves (the two saves that didn’t even count because of Nagamura’s off sides come to mind). But, here is where I have a problem with the last ten to fifteen minutes of that game. Once again, RSL gave up a goal in the last ten minutes to finish a game. Sure, all they needed was a tie to move through, but it has been a common theme throughout the season. RSL was in the bottom half of the league in goals given up in the last fifteen minutes. Should RSL be ahead in the last ten to fifteen minutes of the game, they need to make a stand and finish any chances they have to put the game out of reach.

So, that brings us to the break down of the actual match of New York Red Bulls verse Real Salt Lake and what RSL needs to do.

- Salt Lake needs to come out with the same presence it did in its first home playoff game. The first ten or so minutes they need to put pressure on the Red Bulls all over the field as they did against Chivas. They have to do it as a team and not be disjointed as they were against Colorado in their last game of the season. If they do not do this as a team, New York has the weapons on offense, as mentioned above, to make them pay.

- New York will play the same way it did the first time it came to SLC and the way they did in Houston. I believe they will draw a line of confrontation somewhere around midfield and then start to put pressure on RSL. What this does is take away the ball over the top that Movsisyan feeds off of. RSL will need to move the ball quickly and retain possession in order to break down New York’s half field defense. If RSL is given the chance to counter, they must do so quickly, because I don’t think there will many opportunities to do so unless RSL is up a goal or two.

- Make New York work defensively. This is similar to what was said in the previous statement, but the possession game will be key. Chivas struggled to catch a second wind and was visibly tired in the second half. RSL must use the altitude to its advantage.

- Danny Cepero has been fantastic in two playoff games for New York. To get an early goal might deflate this young player’s confidence as well as the confidence the back line of New York has built up from the series with Houston. The more pressure RSL is able to put on Cepero early in the game the better.

- New York is a great counter attacking team with van den Bergh, Richards, Wolyniec, and Angel. RSL must stay away from bad give-aways in their own end and be aware of these four players. This means it must have a good offensive shape when going forward, making sure you have enough players back. Out of the four weapons New York has, Richards is the only one that will kill you with his speed.

- Finishing chances will be a key for both sides. There are too many times in soccer where a team gets one chance and finishes while the other side creates numerous chances with no results.

- Find Morales, early and often. Its no secret Morales is the engine offensively for RSL, but they tend to stop getting him the ball at different times during the game.

- Get service into the box. Two out of the three goals for RSL in the playoffs have come off of crosses and many other chances were created by getting the ball wide for service.

- On the flip side it will be important to close the service quickly provided by van den Bergh and Richards. Angel thrives off of their service and he is able to take even a bad service and turn it into a chance on goal. They also need to pay attention to Wolyniec who is a savvy striker in his own right.