Every year, when the MLS schedule is announced, there are always a few games that catch the eye. There are the local rivalries of course, but there are also those games that have the look of a possible MLS Cup final preview. As luck would have it, the season's second edition of the ESPN Game of the Week features precisely such a matchup, with the defending champion Columbus Crew traveling to Salt Lake City to take on up-and-comers Real Salt Lake (Thursday, 9 p.m. ET, ESPN2).
Five story lines to follow
1. The Crew continue their title defense
Uneasy is the head that wears the crown, although in the case of Columbus, it's in the shape of a hard hat. In the first two weeks of the campaign, the Crew got an up-close view of what they can expect this season, namely that every week their opponent will bring its A game in a bid to stick it to the defending champs. The championship luck hasn't been with them either, with a Gino Padula own goal forcing the Crew to settle for a 1-1 tie against Toronto last weekend.
"I'm happy about the way we've played, and also the players' performance," said Columbus coach Robert Warzycha. "But I'm a little disappointed in that we only have two points. I know we have a lot of games left, but I thought we'd have more than two points at this point in time."
2. Great Expectations
The Crew aren't the only team with a bull's-eye on their backs. Last year Real reached the playoffs for the first time in their history and with the Western Conference seemingly there for the taking, RSL have a genuine shot at claiming a conference championship. The good news is that the core of players that took them within one game of the MLS Cup final is back. The bad news is that there will be no sneaking up on teams this year.
"We've earned a bit of respect," said RSL coach Jason Kreis. "And with that respect, you earn the right to face a better prepared opponent every time. That challenge is before us and I think we can handle it."
Columbus at Real Salt Lake
Rio Tinto Stadium, Sandy, Utah
9 p.m. ET, ESPN2, ESPN360
3. The Warzycha era continues
Keeping a championship team together is hard. In the case of the Crew, keeping their head coach proved harder, as Sigi Schmid bolted for Seattle just minutes after the championship champagne had been consumed. Into the fray stepped longtime assistant Warzycha, who faces the daunting task of keeping things mostly the same, while at the same time putting his own twist on it.
"I think the coach's personality is very important, because that is something you have to transfer to the team," said Warzycha. "And it's a question of whether they are going to listen to you and trust you or not. But I know what it takes to win the championship because I saw it last year, and I'll just try to do my best."
4. Real's Rio Tinto return
Kreis admitted that in last week's 2-0 loss to the Sounders, "the nerves played a significant factor" in his team's sub-standard play, with the hostile crowd proving to be difficult to deal with. But with his side returning to the friendly confines of Rio Tinto Stadium, there will be no such concerns, and RSL are hoping to get an equally positive jolt from their home fans.
5. Battle of the Argentine attackers
Last year, the Crew's Guillermo Barros Schelotto copped the rare double of winning league and MLS Cup final MVP awards, something that had been done just twice previously. Real counterpart Javier Morales somehow failed to be among the finalists for league MVP, despite delivering six goals and 15 assists. Thursday night will see both Argentines in action, although Schelotto has enjoyed better form in the early going, scoring two goals. Kreis, meanwhile, is hoping that Morales can build off of an improved second-half performance against Seattle.
"In the first half, [Morales] didn't get enough of the ball, and when that happens he gets a little bit frustrated," said Kreis. "In the second half he was better."
Five players to watch
1. Chad Marshall, D, Columbus
With Alejandro Moreno away on international duty, and Robbie Rogers' availability still uncertain due to a left hamstring strain, it will be imperative that the Crew turn in a solid defensive performance, and much of that burden will fall on the reigning Defender of the Year. It was thought that Marshall might head to Europe in the offseason, but instead he signed a new contract with MLS, improving the Crew's chances of repeating as champs.
2. Kyle Beckerman, M, Real Salt Lake
While Kreis insists he has a team full of heart-and-soul guys, Beckerman remains the glue that keeps RSL together. The U.S. international has taken on a more defensive role since the arrival of Morales, but the timing of his runs as well as his ability to shoot from distance make Beckerman an unpredictable offensive threat.
3. Emmanuel Ekpo, M, Columbus
|MLS Fantasy 2009|
|Sign up now for the free MLS fantasy game
With Brad Evans now plying his trade in Seattle, the job of partnering Brian Carroll in the center of midfield has fallen to Ekpo, a player whose strengths lie more on the attacking side of the ball. But Warzycha insists that the Nigerian is making progress with his defensive duties.
"I always tell [Ekpo] that you don't always have to win the ball," Warzycha said. "If you make [your opponent] play negative, square, or back, you've done your job, and that is what Manu is doing. He's been in the right place defensively."
4. Yura Movsisyan, F, Real Salt Lake
Movsisyan enjoyed something of a breakout season in 2008, netting seven regular-season goals as well as another in the playoffs. But the Armenian-born forward is expected to break into double digits this year, and with his combination of power and pace, such a mark is well within his reach. But Movsisyan's finishing touch abandoned him last weekend, and he'll be another player looking to bounce back Thursday.
5. Jason Garey, F, Columbus
Ever since he was taken third overall in the 2006 SuperDraft, Garey has found it difficult to live up to the hype, although he was effective in a super-sub role last season. Moreno's duties with the Venezuelan national team should present Garey with another opportunity to start, and provide the kind of physical presence that Moreno often delivers.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He also writes for Centerlinesoccer.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.