Javier Morales and Real Salt Lake beat Osvaldo Alonso and the Seattle Sounders in every facet of the game in their playoff opener. As such, RSL is heavily represented in B&RU's Best 11 of the Conference Semifinal First Legs.
What we need is a diversion. One soccer-related topic that has been sort of fun - more fun than the anguish of the stadium/relocation issue, anyway - has been the MLS Cup Playoffs, where United fans have gotten to enjoy losses for the New York Red Bulls and Seattle Sounders, as well as a world-class show in dishonorable behavior by Rafael Marquez, who yet again proved himself to be a disgraceful person. There have been some outstanding performances, quality goals, and big-time talking points.
Yeah, I get that if you're like me, part of you hears "playoffs" and thinks "we should be there." Ignore that part of you; it'll be back the next time someone from United speaks to the press but has nothing to announce as far as stadium progress or new investors in the team. Let's take a second to focus instead on the playoffs and the best performances thus far. Who knows? They might provide some instructive examples on where this team needs to bridge the gap and get back where we belong.
Like most Best 11s you'll see, I'm fudging with the specifics on this one to get the best players out there. I'm not going to go nuts and list 3 keepers and 6 forwards, but I'm also not going to be 100% strict about things either (it would be pretty hard to do so anyway, with the Philadelphia Union playing roughly 7 formations over 90 minutes and Sporting Kansas City shifting from a 433 to a 4141 early).
Goalkeeper: Josh Saunders (LA Galaxy)
We always hear about keepers needing to make "the big save," the one that usually makes fans forget about the one big mistake a team made defensively. Saunders did exactly that, fighting his own momentum to rob Joel Lindpere of what looked to be a sure goal early in the 2nd half with the Galaxy clinging to a 1-0 lead on the road. LA's back-up - or is he, after the season he had? - also made an important save less than 40 seconds into that same half. There was no stood-on-his-head candidate here, but of the keepers that came up strong, Saunders was the best in my book.
Right back: Robbie Russell (Real Salt Lake)
Obviously playoff goals, assists, saves, and controversial calls will get a lot more attention than dogged defending or endless running. However, I submit that Russell did his job within RSL's system as well as any player did their duties in this set of games. The former Rosenborg man made huge blocks and stayed connected with an RSL back four that never looked shaky, even after losing both starting center backs to injury. Going forward, meanwhile, Russell pushed up so often and with enough purpose that Andy Williams could shift inside at his leisure, which in turn helped RSL leave Osvaldo Alonso with too much to do defensively while also having no space to set a rhythm for the Sounders on offense. Russell probably had his single best MLS performance, and in turn it enabled Jason Kreis to win the tactical battle with Sigi Schmid.
Center backs: A.J. DeLaGarza (LA Galaxy) and Nat Borchers (Real Salt Lake)
Omar Gonzalez gets the lion's share of the attention for LA's outstanding defensive record, but at Red Bull Arena it was DeLaGarza who looked more like the guy we should be discussing. DeLaGarza is very much undersized at center back, but his performance against NYRB was a perfect example of how anticipation, focus, and determination can be enough to shut down any opponent. Despite facing a team that can stretch defenses horizontally by using Lindpere and Dane Richards on the wings and vertically with the direct runs of Luke Rodgers, DeLaGarza never seemed disconnected from his teammates and was always a step ahead of everyone in a NY shirt.
Borchers, who eventually had to limp out with a knee sprain, had to do his normal job of marshaling the RSL back four despite an early injury to Jamison Olave. As I touched on before, Alonso being suffocated hurt the Sounders in possession, forcing them to play long; that's where Borchers came in, winning just about every header and also directing those headers towards teammates. Seattle offered up a poor performance, but you can't take credit away from RSL's defensive showing, and Borchers is the brains of that group.
Left back: Chris Wingert (Real Salt Lake)
It's safe to say I was impressed with RSL, no? Wingert was faced with Lamar Neagle in the first half, then Alvaro Fernandez in the second, yet never looked flustered. He didn't get forward as much as Russell did on the opposite side, but he still managed to get an assist on the vital first goal. Wingert was solid all game long, and also did well enough when he had to shift into the spot Borchers vacated late on with that injury.
Right midfield: Andy Williams (Real Salt Lake)
Williams was perfectly suited for RSL's tactical plan designed to confound Alonso, drifting into the central attacking role he has often played in his MLS career. With Williams and Javier Morales both pushing into space that Alonso is used to only being taken up by one player, RSL took advantage of Seattle's reliance on the Cuban going in both directions. The most impressive thing about Williams was that his movement was never predictable; on two consecutive first-half moves forward by RSL, Williams ended up drifting diagonally all the way across the field to Real's left. That kind of thing confounds defenses, because now they have to account for the possibility of a player showing up anywhere across their end.
Defensive midfield: David Beckham (LA Galaxy)
Beckham doesn't really play a holding role for LA, but for the sake of this list he'll fit in here. His ability to switch the point of attack, or sweep a ball across the field at just the right speed to take the air out of the game yet maintain LA's potential danger going forward, was the Galaxy's main weapon for throwing the Red Bulls off their game. While his big-name brethren either didn't influence the game enough (Landon Donovan) or lost their cool (Marquez, Thierry Henry), Beckham played up to his paycheck in a game where he had to. For newer United fans that never got to see Marco Etcheverry dominate a game with his long-range passing, this is roughly what it looked like. Bonus points for working as hard as anyone else wearing an LA shirt in a game where New York had 58% of the possession.
Attacking midfield: Javier Morales (Real Salt Lake)
I promise this isn't all RSL and LA players. All Morales did was play a crucial role in two goals, first sending Wingert in behind to cross for Alvaro Saborio's opener, then providing the main assist on Sabo's second himself by cutting in from the left corner. Like Williams, Morales effectively roamed the field, often occupying spots you'd expect a forward to be in. Those holes were opened up by...
Left midfield: Fabian Espindola (Real Salt Lake)
I lied, it's almost all RSL and LA players. That's what happens when two teams are head and shoulders above everyone else. Espindola spends a lot of time playing as high up the field as a forward but along the touchline, so he'll have to play wide left for this selection. This was a typically industrious showing from Espindola, who usually covers a ton of ground and is constantly forcing defenders into situations they don't want to be in. While not directly involved in any goals, Espindola's unconventional starting positions and whirling dervish approach opened up a seemingly endless supply of space RSL could play in and channels that others could run into.
Forwards: Teal Bunbury (Sporting Kansas City) and Alvaro Saborio (Real Salt Lake)
When you're a striker, life can be simple: Score goals and you're the king, fail to score and you're garbage. Both of these guys could say "it's good to be the king" after each bagged two goals. Bunbury was often left on an island by his teammates as Peter Vermes instructed his team to only use their typical high-pressure time in spurts in an effort to conserve energy at altitude. Despite being isolated up front in a 4141 for most of the game, Bunbury made the most of his time with the ball. Not only did he score both Kansas City goals, he also won the penalty kick that he converted (a play that also resulted in Tyrone Marshall being sent off), forced Sanna Nyassi into picking up a booking, and won the physical side of the game against anyone he came up against. Too bad Mark Rogondino keeps insisting it's "Burnbury;" maybe playing like this all the time will get people to say his name correctly.
Saborio's first goal drew lots of attention, as it may have come from an offside position (FSC's low-rent coverage - can't wait for that World Cup, guys! - meant not having a camera angle perpendicular to the field, so everyone was left trying to gauge positions at an angle and with Seattle's last man being blocked visually by a teammate), but it was a typical poacher's goal. Saborio then battled physically, channeling what appeared to be anger into effective play as the target man for RSL. He then added a second with an audacious flick after letting the ball run through his legs, and his taunts towards Alonso ended up drawing a reaction that should have seen Alonso sent off (Mark Geiger, when did shoving someone by the throat become only a yellow card offense?). Sabo won the mental game, he won the physical game, and he scored twice. Not a bad night at the office.
Super sub: Chris Schuler (Real Salt Lake)
Normally the super sub is a guy that comes in and scores or creates a goal; at the very least, he'll change the game offensively for a team that needs a spark. However, the best sub to enter a conference semifinal thus far was Schuler, who replaced the injured Olave after 32 minutes. Schuler has long had a rep of being an MLS-quality starter stuck on the bench because he's on a great team; think of him as a center back answer to Saunders. That reputation is deserved, and this was further evidence. Schuler stepped in and won headers with the same regularity that Olave did, all while having to catch up to the mental and physical speed of the game at a position that punishes even the smallest lapse.
Second team: Tally Hall (Houston Dynamo); Sheanon Williams (Philadelphia Union), Geoff Cameron (Houston), Omar Gonzalez (LA), Seth Sinovic (Sporting); Dane Richards (NYRB), Kyle Beckerman (RSL), Graham Zusi (Sporting), Mike Magee (LA); Calen Carr (Houston), Brian Ching (Houston). Super sub: Freddy Adu (Philadelphia)