The two MLS teams who will open 2011 CONCACAF Champions League play on Tuesday couldn't be more different.
On one hand, you have Real Salt Lake — the 2009 MLS Cup champions and 2010 Supporters' Shield contenders begin with a roster nearly unchanged from last year's version.
On the other, you have the Columbus Crew — the 2008 MLS Cup champions are now in flux after the loss of mainstays Frankie Hedjuk, Guillermo Barros Schelotto and Brian Carroll.
ESPN.com soccer writer Jeff Carlisle breaks down the Crew's difficulties: "The offseason makeover undertaken by Columbus manager Robert Warzycha has made his side almost unrecognizable... A slew of injuries have compromised his best-laid plans, at least in terms of Tuesday's match. Starting goalkeeper Will Hesmer hasn't recovered from a fractured shoulder he sustained in last year's playoffs, and backup Andy Gruenebaum is out with a hip ailment. That leaves Ray Burse, who hasn't played in MLS since 2009, in line to start."
Meanwhile, RSL appears as stable as a team playing its first game of the season can be. "Real Salt Lake enters this two-legged affair as the heavy favorite for several reasons," Goal.com's Kyle McCarthy writes. "The Claret-and-Cobalt made few changes to its possession-oriented squad during the close season and RSL boss Jason Kreis should benefit from his ability to name a familiar starting XI on Tuesday night. From top to bottom, no side in MLS offers the cadence in possession or the defensive strength usually supplied by the 2009 MLS Cup winners."
Still, the Crew won't roll over, especially on their home turf. SI.com's Steve Davis says the cold conditions and hard pitch will favor Columbus: "Game time temperatures in the high 20s, possible snow flurries and a frozen or bumpy field could hammer RSL's possession game. With good servers for Columbus hitting balls to Chad Marshall and Iro, set-piece plays and determined defense seem the home team's best way forward."
No matter the outcome, the match promises to provide some fireworks. After the Crew defeated RSL early in the 2010 season, Columbus goalkeeper Will Hesmer was quoted in the Columbus Post-Dispatch taking shots at RSL's unexpected championship run. MLSsoccer.com writer Randy Davis reports that Hesmer's comments "reportedly became bulletin board material for the rematch later in the season, but both sides downplayed that factor after the match, which ended in a 2-0 RSL victory at Rio Tinto Stadium."
MLSsoccer.com has also created a video (posted below) of Real's preseason training and journey to Columbus in preparation for Tuesday's game, which will kick off at 6 p.m. MST and can be seen on Fox Soccer Channel.