February 22, Real Salt Lake and Columbus Crew will face off for the first leg of the CONCACAF Champions League Quarterfinals at Crew Stadium in Columbus, Ohio. This CCL Quarterfinal series is a huge kickoff to the upcoming MLS season and could raise the bar before the season even starts. Kickoff is at 8 p.m. ET and the game will be broadcast on Fox Soccer Channel and Galavision.
The second leg of the home-and-away Quarterfinal series is scheduled for March 1 at Rio Tinto and the winner will be decided on aggregate. Either RSL or Columbus will advance to the Semifinals on March 15 and April 5 and face Olimpia or Saprissa in another home-and away series. The CCL finals are held on April 19 and 26 and the winner will represent CONCACAF in the FIFA Club World Cup.
What to expect
2009 MLS Champion Real Salt Lake (4-4-1, 13 pts, 1st Group A) has a depth advantage over Columbus Crew (4-2-0, 12 pts, 2nd Group B). The Crew have reached the CCL quarterfinals for the second consecutive year and shouldn’t be underestimated despite their obvious handicaps this time around.
RSL is the likely winner, but Columbus is somewhat of an unknown quantity because of the offseason loss of so many high profile players – Guillermo Barros Schelotto, Steven Lenhart, Adam Moffat, Brian Carroll, Frankie Hejduk and Gino Padula.
Promising young Columbus players Shaun Francis and Dilly Duka were looked at as game-changers, but both were injured in a 4-2 preseason loss to Houston Dynamo and may not be available. Columbus Coach Robert Warzycha will be challenged to pull together a re-invented team so early in the season and will look to defenders Andy Iro and Chad Marshall, midfielders Robbie Rogers and Emmanuel Ekpo and forwards Eddie Gavin and Jeff Cunningham for leadership.
The Crew will need a strong backline because their top two goalkeepers, William Hesmer and Andy Gruenbaum, are sidelined with injuries. Instead, Ray Burse Junior, who last saw game minutes in 2009 with FC Dallas, will stand between the posts. In 2010, Burse was working on a post-graduate degree at Ohio State and practicing with the Crew. Now the student has been given a temporary contract and a mandate to patrol the net in a game with huge consequences against arguably the best team in the League.
RSL’s Fabian Espiondola, Javier Morales, and Alvaro Saborio have minor injuries but are listed as probable. Nick Rimando is expected to play net and Robbie Russell, Jamison Olave, Nat Borchers and Chris Wingert are likely to staff the backline. RSL’s game notes show Kyle Beckerman, Ned Grabavoy, Will Johnson and Morales in midfield and Saborio and Espindola on top. RSL’s roster of two-way players use a diamond shape and connect tightly with short passes to capitalize on the speed and tenacity of strikers Espindola and Saborio. Even on the road this early in the season, RSL could walk away with a winning game.
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