SANDY, Utah – Much has been made of the two suspensions that Real Salt Lake need to overcome if they want to advance past the Columbus Crew on Tuesday night in the second leg of their CONCACAF quarterfinal series (10 pm ET, Fox Soccer Channel, LIVE CHAT on MLSsoccer.com).
But what if there were a silver lining to having two new faces on the back line?
In losing right back Tony Beltran to a red card last week, RSL manager Jason Kreis will plug in Robbie Russell, who has extensive MLS and international experience. In a do-or-die match-up like the one at Rio Tinto Stadium, the eight years the 31-year-old Russell has over Beltran could prove valuable.
“Robbie has played numerous games for our team, and Beltran has, too,” RSL goalkeeper Nick Rimando said. “But experience-wise in bigger games, Russell has been in those games before. Having that experience is always an advantage.”
The instinct might be to believe that Beltran is the more attack-minded of the two right backs given his age (23) and speed. However, Rimando disagrees.
“I think they both attack,” Rimando said. “Robbie does get up the wing I think a little bit more. And I think they’re both dangerous attack-wise, but I think Robbie does like to send a lot of balls across. I think maybe the advantage to Robbie is his size and getting up for head balls and maybe being a little tougher on defense.”
The Crew midfielder who may have to battle Russell is Columbus winger Robbie Rogers, who played with Beltran on state teams in the Los Angeles area growing up.
[inline_node:329603]According to Rogers, it’s a challenge to go up against the more physically imposing Russell.
“Russell’s a really strong guy,” Rogers said. “You don’t want to get into too much contact with him because he’ll shoulder you and body you. [Beltran and Russell] are different, but it’s more about the way I want to play and hopefully dictate the game on them and not let them dictate on me.”
Of the two suspended defenders, Nat Borchers’ absence will likely hurt the most because of his vocal presence and his ability to help his team maintain its shape. Manager Kreis has been clear that Jamison Olave, the reigning MLS Defender of the Year, cannot fill that void.
So it will be up to Raushawn McKenzie, who has started just seven matches in the last three MLS seasons and is expected to fill in. Five years younger than Borchers, McKenzie’s speed may be just what RSL needed to handle Crew veteran striker Jeff Cunningham.
Also, his inexperienced presence along the back line will heighten the awareness of his teammates around him, who know they need to be on alert on every play.
“We have total confidence in Rauwshawn or whoever else is going to be in the lineup,” said left back Chris Wingert, who will line up to McKenzie’s left. “I’m going to try to be an extra loud voice in the back organizing and helping the guys out positionally.”
The Crew may be licking their chops at the prospect of facing a new-look Salt Lake back line, but RSL may have gotten a lot tougher and more focused in the process.
“It started four to five days ago when we started training, keeping their [reserve defenders'] confidence up with a lot of talking,” Rimando said. “I talk a lot as it is and now I’m going to have to talk even more to stay organized. I’m going to have double the work.”
Make sure to download the latest episode of ExtraTime Radio, featuring Columbus Crew defender Andy Iro on the CONCACAF Champions League series and ESPN's Allen Hopkins discussing Shalrie Joseph and his role with the New England Revolution.