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RSL will miss their ‘Rasta passer’

April 21, 2011

SOCCER/

There is a rare air of jubilation around Major League Soccer after Real Salt Lake managed to come away from the first leg of their CONCACAF Champions League final away to Mexican champions Monterrey with a 2-2 draw but it is tempered by the loss of their best player for the return game.

MLS commissioner Don Garber took to twitter to post ‘Congrats RSL! Well done’ and many fans of other MLS teams have been quick to applaud the result. In many ways, this year’s run to the final by RSL has been taken by the league and its supporters as a validation of their status in the game.

Tired of being labeled a ‘Mickey Mouse’ league by foreigners and dismissed as irrelevant by old-school mainstream sports media and equally annoyed at the tendency of some American fans of European soccer to laugh off MLS as a pale imitation of the ‘real thing’, MLS fans have delighted in Real’s achievement. This is the first time a team from the league has reached the final of the Mexican-dominated competition since it changed to a league format in 2008. In the days when the tournament for North and Central America and the Caribbean was a knockout affair – only twice did an MLS team make the final. Added to the odds stacked against RSL on Wednesday was the knowledge that no team from the North American league has ever won on Mexican soil in a competitive game.

As this emotional account of the game concludes, Javier Morales superbly taken 89th minute equaliser was much more than an equaliser “It was, most of all, the moment so many fans of Major League Soccer have waited for: a concrete result providing a firm reason to believe”.

Still, as the author of the above piece notes, 90 minutes remain to be played and they will be anything but straightforward for the team from Utah. The confidence, verging on over-confidence in some quarters, that RSL can finish the job off next week, is largely based on the fact that Salt Lake have not lost at their Rio Tinto stadium for 34 straight regular season and Cup games.

But Jason Kreis will have to a field a team in the return leg that does not feature his most influential player – central midfielder Kyle Beckerman, who is suspended after picking up another yellow card in Monterrey.
No player is irreplaceable but Beckerman’s importance to Salt Lake’s success over the past two years cannot be understated. The 28-year-old, who sports distinctive Rastafarian-style dreadlocks, is not only the best American midfielder in MLS, he is absolutely central to the team’s appealing possession football.

Put simply, every Salt Lake move starts off through Beckerman. He plays deep but is much more than a holding midfielder. The best phrase would probably be ‘deep lying playmaker’ – his role is similar to that of Andrea Pirlo in the AC Milan and Italy midfield of five or six years ago, or perhaps to Argentine Juan Sebastian Veron in his prime. He picks up the ball of the defence and gets the ball moving around midfield, searching out spaces for the more advanced creative players such as the delightful Morales or bringing the ball forward himself. He keeps everything ticking. Defensively, he offers a layer of protection for the back-line by sweeping up in front of them. He covers plenty of ground and frequently pops up around the opposition penalty area.

When I spoke recently to RSL coach Jason Kreis asked him about the importance of Beckerman to his team . He replied “that position is absolutely crucial”. At the time I wondered why, when I had asked specifically about the player, Kreis replied about the position but it fits in with his clearly defined philosophy – the Salt Lake manager has a mantra that ‘the team is the star’ and it therefore shouldn’t have been surprising that the position in the system was crucial not so much the player.

On Wednesday we will find out how true that is. The most obvious replacement for Beckerman is Jean Alexander – more of a traditional holding midfielder, a player with more bite in the tackle than Beckerman but less creativity and vision. The change of personnel will inevitably impact on Real’s play and it will be fascinating to see how they cope without their skipper – but it is a loss that is far bigger than losing a striker or a central defender – Salt Lake have lost the engine of their team.

The yellow card given to Beckerman was a harsh one and Kreis was clearly annoyed by the decision and the impact it has on his player and team. “It was a travesty to be completely honest. That for me was a fair tackle….it is mind-boggling for me.
“I’m extremely disappointed in the referees decision and now I’m extremely disappointed for Kyle and our team. It’s already had a huge effect on him. He’s extremely disappointed. Of course it will have a huge effect on us when we lose our captain,” he told the Deseret News.

Defender Nat Borchers certainly understands the significance of losing Beckerman: “He’s just had such a fantastic year for us already and means so much to this club. He does so much for us defensively and offensively. There are so many intangibles with that guy.

“It’s going to be tough without him but we’ve had to do this before. We’re going to have to make do in a big, big game”.

Beckerman’s abilities have been undervalued by many in U.S. soccer and he has won just 12 caps for the national team. That remarkably low amount is almost certainly because his qualities do not fit into Bob Bradley’s tactical system but perhaps also because the national team coach prefers the harder-running, tougher-tackling grafters that have featured in the centre of midfield for most of his teams over the more elegant craft of the ‘Rasta passer’.

Salt Lake fans do not need any reminders of what makes Beckerman such a quality player but they will now be hoping that it is not the impact of his absence that convinces the rest of the country of his value.

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