Bret Hartman, AP
SANDY — It’s no secret which player Real Salt Lake will be focused on defensively in its Western Conference semifinal series against Los Angeles over the next week.
Back in August, L.A. Galaxy striker Robbie Keane ran circles around RSL’s defense, scoring three goals in a scintillating performance that could be regarded as the best in MLS this season. Afterward, RSL coach Jason Kreis said sometimes you just have to tip your hat and acknowledge that an opponent was simply better, and that was certainly the case in L.A.'s 4-2 thrashing.
Keane finished the regular season with 16 goals and 11 assists in just 23 games, and Kreis said he is “for me the MVP of the league.”
A year ago he scored 16 goals as well in 28 games.
Containing him — along with his strike partner, Landon Donovan — will be of the utmost importance for Real Salt Lake in Game 1 in California this Sunday and then at Rio Tinto Stadium next Thursday for Game 2.
“(Keane’s) very smart with his running, and I think the two of them work very well together. It’s not always one high and one underneath. They take turns on which forward is towing the line and which is going to be dropping into the back. Good combination of two incredibly smart forwards with their running,” said Kreis. “Robbie’s also shown to be somebody who will work extremely hard on the defensive side of things.”
On the attack, he’s been a nightmare for RSL to deal with.
“He’s one of those players if he has space and time on the ball he’s a dangerous player and when he doesn’t have space he’s a dangerous player because he makes those dangerous runs behind your back shoulder into the space. So we have to be aware of him at all times,” said RSL goalkeeper Nick Rimando.
Real Salt Lake 19-year-old center back Carlos Salcedo in particular struggled with defending Keane in that 4-2 loss, but the return of a healthy Chris Schuler should strengthen RSL's backline.
In the four league games Schuler has started since returning from a foot injury that sidelined him four months, RSL is 2-0-2, having conceded just two goals.
“I think he gives us a little bit of a different dimension. He gives us a player that physically can put a little bit of fear in the forwards, and that’s something we’ve lacked quite a bit since we’ve lost (Jamison) Olave,” said Kreis. “I think it’s something that anybody that plays center back for our team needs to recognize and there needs to be more of that. You can’t just allow forwards to have easy days against us. I felt too often this entire season we’ve allowed that.”
At 6 foot 4, Schuler is a physical presence that will give Keane something to think about, which Rimando said is an absolute must if RSL hopes to advance.
“I think he’s one of the best players in this league. We have to respect him but not respect him too much. I think the last couple times we played them he’s gotten a lot of room for his pace and his cheekiness, and he’s made a lot of plays from that,” said Rimando.
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