What a game! FC Dallas scaled the barricades that are Rio Tinto stadium and knocked the defending champs and Power Rank topping Real Salt Lake out of the playoffs. While the result confounded the oddsmakers, it was not a complete shock (apologies for the haiku hyperbole) for loyal Power Rank readers as last week we rated the game a toss-up when considering the difference in rankings, home field advantage, and the 2-1 victory Dallas earned at home. However, the intensity and execution made for one great match and offered a showcase for how much improvement MLS has made in it’s short 14 year history.
An interesting question to ask is: did the two-leg format provide an edge to RSL or FC Dallas? To The Power Rank, the answer is simple: advantage Dallas. Before the tie started, we estimated Salt Lake had about a 0.6 goal advantage over both legs. If instead it was a single match playoff at RSL’s house, they become even more of a favorite with a 0.8 goal rating over Dallas. Those are the numbers, so let’s see if the two leg format benefited FC Dallas in this particular playoff series.
Two key bits of fortune benefited Dallas in the first match that would pay dividends on their trip to Sandy, Utah. First, for almost the entire second half in Dallas, the teams were even at 1-1. The Royal Army would likely have been happy to march back to the Red River fortress with an away draw, but it was not to be. Last minute substitute Eric Avila secured the win with an excellent goal in the 88th minute. It was crucial because having a one goal advantage enabled Dallas to apply a defensive approach for their away leg, looking for the aggregate win.
In Salt Lake, FC Dallas chose to take a defend-and-counter approach to blunt RSL’s possession game, shutting down the passing lanes and forcing Real Salt Lake to play out of their own half. Playing defensively reduces the chances of an opponent scoring, but doesn’t yield many scoring opportunities either and isn’t as viable a strategy when a goal is required. Going into Rio Tinto on level terms, Dallas could have risked playing defensively and going for the win on penalty kicks, but it seems unlikely they would have chosen to keep so many men back. In addition, they ran excellent counter attacks throughout the first half, getting an early goal and building an even stouter wall Real Salt Lake would have to penetrate twice.
While Dallas put on a defensive clinic in the first half, Real Salt Lake was able to get back to their passing style in the second. Once they gained possession, RSL did generate several scoring opportunities. However, their attack didn’t have quite it’s usual punch because of the other piece of luck that went Dallas’ way in the first game: Javier Morales getting red carded. As The Power Rank founder Ed Feng pointed out two weeks ago, having a midfielder with the ability to possess the ball, make cutting passes, and manage the game is a prerequisite for being successful with their style of play. Kyle Beckerman had to play the part quarterback, part point-guard role instead, but he wasn’t able to carve open the defense quite as effectively as Morales likely would have.
All these factors combined to give fans a fantastic final 45 minutes of soccer. Exerting the amount of energy needed to defend against the Royal onslaught would have been difficult anywhere, but it really took a toll on Dallas at altitude. Real Salt Lake knocked on the door, even pulling one goal back, but a bit of bad luck in the first leg and a phenomenal performance from FC Dallas keeper Kevin Hartman in the second saw off the defending champs and earned Dallas a berth in the Western Conference title game in LA.