SANDY — It's generally accepted in MLS circles that Real Salt Lake is blessed with the best and deepest midfield in the league. One can't really gripe about RSL's defense, either, as both Nat Borchers and Jamison Olave were named MLS Best XI defenders in 2010.
There's always been a level of uncertainty about RSL's defensive depth, though, but that notion was put to bed quite convincingly on Tuesday night.
Tony Beltran started in place of an injured Chris Wingert and played one of the best games of his career. Two weeks after an impressive performance in a starting role made possible by Borchers suspension, second-year center back Chris Schuler was forced into emergency duty again after Olave exited the game with a pulled right hamstring.
The level of play never dropped with Schuler on the pitch, and he had big shoes to fill as Olave was named last year's MLS Defender of the Year.
Despite making just his fifth appearance for RSL, Schuler has already proven himself to be a useful asset. Don't be surprised if coach Jason Kreis takes advantage of his emergence by resting Olave and his troublesome knees a few more times this year.
Beltran started 24 total matches last year, but he was at his best Tuesday night against Saprissa — another feather in RSL's cap.
Kreis had the luxury of a very productive three-man rotation at outside back last year between Robbie Russell, Wingert and Beltran. The veterans Wingert and Russell were counted on a bit more with 31 starts apiece compared to Beltran's 24, but Beltran might be poised to close that gap with his defensive effort against in the first leg of the CONCACAF Champions League semifinal series.
"Tony had a very, very good week of training. In the couple days leading up to the game, he was probably the most confident I've seen him this year," said Kreis.
ANOTHER LULL: For 60 of 90 minutes on Tuesday, Kreis was very pleased with his team's performance. It's the other 30 minutes he's concerned with.
Following a bright start, RSL struggled to stick with the game plan over the final half hour of the first half. In the second leg of its quarterfinal series with Columbus two weeks ago, RSL had a similar lull to start the second half.
"We've got to get rid of that if we hope to win this thing," said Kreis.
He attributed a portion of Tuesday's lull to a drop-off in effort.
"End of first half, I started to see a few guys taking a few plays off. We have enough history together that we know we can't afford to do that," said Kreis. "We need everybody to be tuned in defensively for all of the 90 minutes for every single play."
IMPRESSIVE NIGHT: Even though Alvaro Saborio scored against his former team and was named man of the match, Fabian Espindola stole the show with a goal and an assist and a tireless work rate that frustrated Saprissa's defenders all night.
"Fabian started out this preseason like a man on fire. The very first day in preseason, I could see something different in his eye. He seems to be an extremely hungry player that wants to take the next step forward in this league and in his career," said Kreis.
He'll have of opportunities to take the next step with Robbie Findley no longer in the equation.
SUSPENDED TRIO: Saprissa picked up five yellow cards on Tuesday, and three of them were very, very costly. Defender Jose Mena and midfielders Douglas Sequeira and Ricardo Blanco already had a yellow card in the knockout stages of the competition, and will be forced to miss the return leg in Costa Rica on April 5.
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