Compelling spectacles rarely unfold on cold, damp and wintry evenings like the one that enveloped central Ohio last night.
Unfortunately for the hearty souls on hand at Crew Stadium to witness the 0-0 draw between Columbus and Real Salt Lake in the first leg of their CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinal tie, the circumstances surrounding the match conspired to ensure a entertaining affair never emerged to provide some warmth during an otherwise frigid night.
“I think more than anything, it was the conditions of the match tonight,” Real Salt Lake coach Jason Kreis told reporters in his post-game press conference. “It was just difficult. It was an ugly game to watch, wasn't it?”
Few observers could argue with Kreis' assessment as these two MLS sides submitted exactly the type of sloppy showing expected from players far short of mid-season fitness and sharpness, though one rather interested party somehow managed to find the modest silver lining.
“Knowing that we are only a month into preseason, I think that was a good game,” Crew coach Robert Warzycha told the Salt Lake Tribune after the match.
Good operates as a particularly peculiar and relative descriptive term in the wake of this disappointing display. Chances were few and far between as Columbus lacked the necessary guile – or is it Guille, in this instance? – to break down RSL's composed defense and RSL missed its usual panache in possession on the poor playing surface. Neither side conjured up much in the way quality on the ball, though Columbus didn't try to linger on it. There were few coherent moves in the match and those intermittently successful forays yielded mostly scuffed attempts at goal. Columbus wasted a few promising chances – Eddie Gaven, in particular, squandered a glorious opportunity with a meek header from six yards – while RSL couldn't even muster a shot on frame.
In both form and function, the ragged proceedings favored the Crew. Without the aforementioned Barros Schelotto to orchestrate (or slow down, as some might interject) the proceedings, Columbus opted for a blunt and direct approach with emphasis on playing the ball quickly down the flanks and into the front two of Andres Mendoza and Emilio Renteria. The physical duo looked bright at times, but both players lacked support for most of the night and required more creative service in order to break through. The dearth of ingenuity allowed the seasoned and stingy RSL back four – despite the hindrances and shifts enforced by a pair of second-half red cards – to cope fairly comfortably.
If RSL parried Columbus' attacks with little trouble, the Crew could hardly accept similar credit after a jarringly quiet night at the back. Most of the Crew's defensive success arrived due to the failings of the visitors, though the defensive organization and the individual efforts from a makeshift back four deserve some credit as well. The Claret-and-Cobalt knocked the ball around acceptably at times through the middle third, but the visitors could not translate that modest degree of fluidity into any semblance of coherence in front of goal. Alvaro Saborio appeared stranded for most of the night, Javier Morales operated on the periphery of the contest, Fabian Espindola stumbled for much of his truncated spell on the park and the Crew defense – manned in part by a rookie center back and a former Los Angeles midfielder recast as a left back due to Shaun Francis' injury – strolled through the night with few causes for concern.
Both managers will enter the second leg with one or two additional problems to contemplate after referee Jair Marrufo dished out three second half ejections. Poor camera angles obscured the incident that prompted Marrufo to send off Nat Borchers and Emilio Renteria in the 73rd minute, but the dueling dismissals will leave Columbus without its most imposing striker and RSL without one of its two excellent central defenders for next Tuesday's second leg regardless of their propriety. RSL right back Tony Beltran will join Borchers in the stands after coercing a rather suspect second yellow from the inconsistent Marrufo after 53 minutes, though any complaints about a wrongful dismissal should be tempered by the sheer frivolity of the late first-half challenge that elicited Beltran's initial booking.
With neither side able to overcome the conditions or the ejections in order to secure an aggregate lead, the advantage swings toward Real Salt Lake ahead of the second leg. RSL will have to retool at the back with Beltran and Borchers suspended, but the Claret-and-Cobalt can lean on its depth, its home dominance and Columbus' apparent lack of creativity and incisiveness in the final third to enter the decisive fixture as the favorites. Robert Warzycha's side, however, will take heart from a fairly positive performance – particularly in light of the five debutants included and the low external expectations before the match – as it seeks to secure the shocking result required to progress.
Although few, if any, people will remember this match fondly in its aftermath, the appreciation for this languid encounter could grow in a week's time. The conditions may have worked against last night's affair in Columbus, but the groundwork laid at Crew Stadium may just contribute to the circumstances required to inspire an entertaining piece of theater as this quarterfinal tie concludes on Tuesday.
Kyle McCarthy writes the Monday MLS Breakdown and frequently writes opinion pieces during the week for Goal.com. He also covers the New England Revolution for the Boston Herald and MLSsoccer.com. Contact him with your questions or comments at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter by clicking here.
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