LEHI — Real Salt Lake coach Jason Kreis has a very important decision to make this week.
Kyle Beckerman, the heart of RSL's midfield, is suspended because of yellow card accumulation. The absence of the team's best ball-winner is a major blow, and leaves RSL shorthanded heading into the second leg of the Champions League final this Wednesday against Monterrey.
Real Salt Lake refuses to pout about the situation.
"Kyle's a massive loss, but we've seen guys suspended and red carded before and ... we've always stuck together and come through," said RSL midfielder Will Johnson. "Whoever steps up and fills that role for Kyle has big shoes to fill, but we've got a lot of big personalities on this team and I think we'll be OK."
As for who fills those shoes, Kreis isn't talking. He has several options though.
Beckerman started 22 of 30 leagues matches in 2010, and 5 of 6 Champions League matches. In the nine games he sat, three different players — Johnson, Ned Grabavoy and Jean Alexandre — all made at least one start at holding midfield.
Even though Kreis is hush-hush about which direction he's leaning, those nine games offer a glimpse into his thought process.
In the nine games Beckerman was out Grabavoy and Alexandre each got the starting nod at holding mid four times, while Johnson started just once.
Seven of those nine games occurred last summer while Beckerman was out nursing a stress fracture in his foot. Alexandre was Kreis' choice in the first two games Beckerman was out, but he seemed to quickly fall out of favor as Grabavoy started four of the next five.
"We have to be confident with whatever we choose to do. It's a big loss either way cause Kyle's a great leader," said Grabavoy.
Grabavoy started as a wide midfielder in the first leg in Monterrey last Wednesday, but he's completely comfortable filling in for Beckerman if that's where he's needed.
"It's a different position, so obviously the mindset will be a little bit different and the job I have to do," he said. "I played that spot last year about 6 or 7 games, so I'm not unfamiliar with it. I'm just going to be ready to do whatever's asked."
Grabavoy's experience in the spot last year, not to mention his appearance in virtually every game this year, makes him the logical choice to get the starting nod.
Kreis will likely wait until after Tuesday's practice to make his final decision about a replacement.
Despite what seems like an obvious decision based on trends from last year, Kreis has to give consideration to Alexandre, whose big physical stature could be very disruptive to Monterrey's attack.
Grabavoy and Johnson are much better technical players though, which could be more important.
"Whoever's in there is gonna have to be a ball winner and a guy who connects the pieces from the back and find Javier and these other guys in good spots going forward," said Grabavoy.
The ability to read the game, and specifically Monterrey's dynamic movements in the midfield, is just as important.
"(Monterrey's) midfield runners run late and they run often, so you're constantly picking up guys that aren't there when the play builds up. Whoever is in there is going to have to play simple and connect the team and link the team, and at the same time be that guy in front of the back four picking up those late runners," said Grabavoy.
An eight-year veteran with 98 career MLS starts, Grabavoy's experience makes him much more qualified to read the Monterrey attack as opposed to Alexandre, who has just six career league starts.
Like Grabavoy, Johnson has plenty of experience too, but with only one start at holding mid last year it seems unlikely Kreis would put him there in such a monumental match.
Regardless of who he starts, Kreis is acting confidently
"I also believe we're good enough and we're strong enough and we're deep enough we can still have a positive result without (Beckerman)," he said.
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