With two shutouts in three games and two goals in three games, it's pretty obvious what Real Salt Lake's strength has been thus far.
That defensive prowess will need to be even better tonight in the Cotton Bowl if RSL (1-1-1) has any hope of earning a good result against FC Dallas (2-0-1).
"They're an extremely talented group," said Jason Kreis, who played in Dallas for nine seasons before being traded to expansion Salt Lake this offseason. "That's going to have to be our main focus is to defend well as a team, just as it was last Saturday."
Unlike last Saturday in a 1-0 win over Colorado, Salt Lake is facing a very formidable attack-minded team in Dallas, whose 4-3-3 formation enables them to attack in waves from all over the field.
The three-headed strike force of Eddie Johnson, Ronnie O'Brien and Carlos Ruiz would intimidate any defense.
First there's Johnson, who has quickly emerged as the most dangerous scoring threat on the U.S. National Team as it tries to qualify for the 2006 World Cup in Germany.
Then there's Ruiz, who was traded to Dallas just days before the season-opener so the Los Angeles Galaxy could clear a roster spot for Landon Donovan. During his four seasons in L.A., he was one of the most productive goal scorers in MLS.
"You have to watch (Carlos) for 90 minutes, because he can be invisible for most of the game, and then all of a sudden he's going to kill you," said RSL coach John Ellinger. "He doesn't miss too many."
And finally, there's O'Brien. Defenses who mistake O'Brien as the third fiddle in this attacking trio are in for big trouble. Last week in a win over Chivas USA, O'Brien scored the MLS Goal of the Week on a 35-yard looping shot just before halftime.
As potent as FCD's strikers are, Ellinger is confident in his defense, which he's keeping intact after last week's win.
"I think right now that group is feeling pretty good," said Ellinger.
Realistically, the key will be in the middle, in terms of defending and attacking.
Dallas' three midfielders, led by Richard Mulrooney, really like to attack through the middle. That doesn't mean they'll abandon the wings, but the center of the pitch is their comfort zone.
That will put a lot of pressure on Leslie Fitzpatrick, who is getting the start at holding midfield in place of the injured Brian Kamler. Ellinger doesn't foresee the change being a problem. Fitzpatrick, who RSL acquired from Atlanta of the A-League last week, starts at holding midfield for the Trinidad & Tobago National Team. He made his Salt Lake debut as a second-half substitute last week and played well as a left midfielder.
"He's very good with the ball, and he's very quick," said Ellinger.
Wing midfielders Luke Kreamalmeyer and Chris Brown will need to assume an increased defensive role to ease Fitzpatrick's load.
When Salt Lake has the ball, Fitzpatrick could be the key as well.
Last week, Colorado succeeded in limiting the space Salt Lake attacking midfielder Clint Mathis had to work with, content to let Kamler be the primary ball distributor. You can bet Dallas will do the same thing this week, especially with the T&T international getting his first start.
When Salt Lake breaks through the middle, Ellinger likes how forwards Kreis and Dipsy Selolwane along with Mathis match up against the Dallas defense.
Kreis is the x-factor. Will he shine in his Cotton Bowl homecoming, or will Dallas keep him in check?
"There's no doubt for me that during those 90 minutes, they will be my enemies," said Kreis of his ex-teammates.
With a win, Salt Lake would move into a tie with Dallas atop the Western Conference standings with seven points. A loss would put them six points behind just four games into the season.ENDLINES: Tonight's game was originally going to be broadcast tape-delayed in Salt Lake City on Fox Sports Network. It will still be broadcast tape-delayed but by KSL-TV, Ch. 5, at 11 p.m. after SportsBeat Saturday . . . Salt Lake's available substitutes are Jay Nolly, Evan Whitfield, Nelson Akwari, Jordan Cila and Leighton O'Brien.
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