Just before the lights went down at Crew Stadium late Tuesday night, Real Salt Lake coach Jason Kreis pointed out the obvious about the damage done by red cards to defenders Nat Borchers and Tony Beltran in Tuesday’s 0-0 draw in the first leg of the Champions League quarterfinals amid the frigid conditions in Columbus.
“Nat, in particular, is an extremely important player for us and very vocal in the back,” Kreis said. “Tony [Beltran] has played a lot of games for us as well. Our depth will be tested, as is Columbus' right now.”
The RSL faithful will hope this isn’t a statement of foreboding. On paper, Salt Lake entered this series with all of the advantages in their favor – fewer injuries, continuity of roster, etc. Coming back home with a level score line, those advantages could be even greater. After all, they haven’t lost at Rio Tinto Stadium in 30 matches.
[inline_node:329272]However, if there is an Achilles heel for this team, it may be depth along the back line. This lack of depth even saw midfielder Will Johnson filling in at right back during a Champions League match against Cruz Azul late last year.
The team has seen glimpses from Rauwshan McKenzie and Chris Schuler, both having had a couple of solid starts in Champions League and MLS play last season. However, both are still largely unproven, and an appearance in next week's second leg would undoubtedly be the most important professional match for either player.
The ejection picked up by Beltran after his second yellow card was, by itself, somewhat inconsequential to the second leg. After all, Beltran, Robbie Russell and Chris Wingert all rotated through the outside back positions last season, with the slightest of differences in quality among the three. And McKenzie is there as a fourth option, if needed.
However, the ejection of Borchers has a greater degree of consequence. First of all, the primary backups in that spot are Schuler and Russell, and the latter may well step into the right back in place of Beltran. Schuler was not in the 18-man roster for the first leg match, and has not played since surgery on his foot last October. His availability is uncertain, although he did participate in his first preseason scrimmage a little more than a week ago.
RSL do have options at the center back spot. They could put McKenzie into that role, or move Russell inside and give McKenzie a run at right back. However, none of the choices available are likely to come close to replacing Borchers communication abilities in the back. Along with goalkeeper Nick Rimando, he has shown to be a solid organizer and helps to ensure that his backline mates are properly positioned. Simply put, it’s not easy to replace a 2010 MLS Best XI defender.
So does this give the Crew an opener? Is this potentially the chink in the armor of RSL that will give them confidence heading into next week’s decisive second leg? Or will all of the advantages pointed in the direction of Real Salt Lake ultimately come to fruition amid their home field advantage?
We'll find out on March 1.