SANDY, Utah – The illness that kept midfielder Ned Grabavoy out of the Real Salt Lake lineup for the first leg of his team's Western Conference semifinal with the LA Galaxy has presented a problem for head coach Jeff Cassar heading into the second leg on Sunday (5:30 pm MT, ESPN2, ESPN Deportes, WatchESPN, TSN2, RDS2).
With Grabavoy feeling better, does he regain his spot in the starting lineup alongside Luke Mulholland? Or does Luis Gil, who turned in what Cassar termed a “fantastic” performance on Saturday in place of Grabavoy, remain in the starting lineup?
Cassar readily acknowledged that Gil's performance makes his decision tougher because of the “great competition” between the midfielders that has gone on throughout the year And because, after battling some nagging injuries for much of the season, Gil seems to be back at full strength just in time for the 2014 MLS Cup Playoffs, presented by AT&T.
“I think we're starting to see his best now, and it's very good,” Cassar told reporters on Wednesday. “It's not just offensive, it's defensive. It's creativity. It's movement. His body's feeling good so he's playing at a different level.”
Heading into last week's 0-0 tie with the Galaxy, Cassar planned to start Grabavoy. But the midfielder felt “completely under it.” Despite being given an IV to try to get up up to playing strength, Grabavoy knew he wasn't ready to go.
“No one feels worse than I do to wake up on Saturday morning just feeling completely awful and having to go into the stadium and have that discussion with the training staff and the coaching staff and make the best decision, not for myself but for the team,” Grabavoy told reporters. But it turned out to be “the right decision.”
He also said he's feeling “a lot better” and expects to be ready if called up for Sunday's game in the StubHub Center.
And no matter the reason he got the call, the younger midfielder said it felt great to be in the starting lineup and added that he thinks he played well enough to merit another start.
“It's his decision,” Gil said of the dilemma Cassar faces. “If I have to come off the bench … I'll have to come on strong. It's playoff time and everybody's got to be ready.”
Cassar indicated that whoever doesn't start nevertheless stands a good chance of getting into Saturday's game.
“I can't imagine I'm going to go this game as well without making a sub,” he said with a laugh. “But we'll see.”
Despite the fact that RSL controlled much of the first leg against LA but failed on repeated chances to put the ball in the net – and take control of the series – the coach said he had no regrets about leaving the same 11 men on the field for all 90-plus minutes.
“I felt like our energy was fantastic in this last game,” Cassar said. “I mean, I couldn't look around and see who I could take out that would really be a game-changer.”
He made it clear it has nothing to do with the players on the bench. But he thought forwards Alvaro Saborio and Joao Plata were playing well enough that bringing in Robbie Findley or Sebastian Jaime would be like “rolling the dice.”
“It was not something where they couldn't help us,” Cassar added. “I just felt the players on the field were in the flow of that game. It's not easy to go into that game and in 10 minutes, and be up to speed. But I thought our forwards were having the right energy and we were creating chances all the way up till the 93rd minute.”