Real Salt Lake faces D.C. United in what is perhaps the most anticipated match of the last two years, and it's one Jason Kreis and his team will be hoping to put to bed easily. But that's rarely as simple as it seems, despite their opposition's wholly dismal form in MLS.
Form: What is it good for?
If you've guessed that the answer is something close to "absolutely nothing," then you're right on track. It's not really that form means nothing, but that when we're talking about the biggest matches, form won't dictate anything on a grand scale. Quality players step up for games of this nature. There's nothing controversial about that. We've had trouble in the past in these circumstances, but again: Form, even over the longer term, doesn't mean a thing.
Who plays? One major choice remains
If Saturday's defeat of Vancouver Whitecaps (which, I might add, was quite nice) is any indication, and it surely is, then we'll see as strong a lineup as we've seen all season. The only player who would seem a real doubt, Alvaro Saborio, is back, having trained for at least a week now.
But there remains one question: Who plays in the midfield alongside the Beckerman, Grabavoy and Morales trio? Luis Gil has just come off a superb 90-minute performance on the weekend; Sebastian Velasquez the same. Both played heavily in the Reserve League game during the week. This leaves Khari Stephenson as the obvious choice, but as we've seen so often, the obvious choice is so often the one not taken. Luis Gil is hardly out of the running.
Stephenson adds some great work, a calm head, and a great long shot. It perhaps should be noted that he's won an Open Cup before — a champion with Kansas City in 2004.
Gil adds more attacking movement and combination, which is essential to the way we play. He also would come into the match with some renewed confidence, having been the midfield boss throughout Saturday.
The pass-and-move fabric of our side is an important factor: Stephenson is decidedly less mobile (owing in part to his stature and in part to his style of play) than Gil. He isn't a player that fits neatly into our system the way Gil does at current — a testament to Gil's development at Real Salt Lake, surely.
But that, on its own, isn't the determining factor: Stephenson adds new variables to the equation, and it's tempting to deploy that business buzzword, disruption, to the element he would bring. And maybe we should: By allowing us another type of option, Stephenson disrupts the tendency we have to end up in a desperate spot on the flank, flinging ball after ball into the box. He'll stick more centrally, he'll stay calm, and he'll try to find a sane — if not spectacular — pass.
Setting out on the front foot
If there's one thing that's universally agreed upon about this D.C. United side, it's that allowing them to play their game yields dividends for the opposition. The "inevitable mistake," as a group of United podcasters and bloggers described it during a conversation I had with them tonight, will come, and it'll push their chances to something approaching zero.
We won't give them the opportunity to make that mistake. Not easily, at least. At home, with Jason Kreis as our manager, we aim to control nearly everything that comes our way. We lead the league in passes per possession. We make the game ours and not the opponents. Even with the weakness of our opponent, there's little chance we break from that. This is who we are, and we'll continue our unabashed approach.
That's of course to our benefit. There's little point in completely changing the way we play. Responding to our opponents is one thing; playing to exploit one specific weakness is another. We'll play to exploit multiple weaknesses in the midfield and defense, and if it works out, we'll have a very strong chance of coming out victorious on the other side.
We didn't get here by not being us. It's been a difficult road, and the final won't be easy. But we're not going to abandon that road now — not right at the end.