It's being billed as Kyle Beckerman versus Michael Bradley, but there is much more to Saturday night's match between Real Salt Lake and Toronto FC than each team's respective U.S. national team player.
Some of the bigger questions that have arisen in the days building up to the game include "How does RSL plan to stop the Jermain Defoe?" and "How will TFC's counterattacking style work in the Utah altitude?"
There is certainly no shortage of subplots to this early season matchup between one of the league's perennial powers and a doormat-turned-glamor club. But the biggest may be the contrast in philosophies between the two sides — with RSL playing the money ball role to Toronto's free-spending ways.
This contrast is personified in the Beckerman vs. Bradley matchup, which the league has been hyping up after RSL defender Nat Borchers posited that his humble club captain is a better player than TFC's highly paid midfield general.
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And while the battle of the central midfielders is certainly an intriguing one, there are other issues for both sides heading into the match. RSL will be without pint-sized offensive catalyst Joao Plata, whose two goals and two assists leads the team. Plata's partnership with striker Alvaro Saborio has caused fits for opposing defenses, and his absence is made worse by the fact that fellow attackers Robbie Findley and Devon Sandoval are still recovering from offseason ailments.
That leaves the home side with precious few options up top against a Toronto side that has been defensively solid in its opening pair of matches.
TFC has, of course, been able to score thanks to English designated player Defoe, who has racked up a tidy three goals in two games to start his MLS career. His pace and ability to pounce on half-chances will surely be a cause for concern for RSL, which is likely to start Borchers and Chris Schuler in central defense.
Schuler may not be at 100 percent after returning to RSL's lineup last weekend following an ankle injury, and Toronto could look to exploit any lingering weakness in his game through the runs of Defoe and Brazilian striker Gilberto.
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The visitors have some absences of their own, as well. Wide midfielder Jackson is serving a one-game suspension for elbowing an opponent in TFC's home opener last week, and his absence throws coach Ryan Nelsen's starting XI into disarray. Newly signed Canadian international Issey Nakajima-Farran could slot into the lineup, but it's more likely that Mark Bloom will be shifted into the midfield.
In addition, Bradley's central midfield partner Jonathan Osorio is doubtful after leaving training Friday with a hamstring injury, which could mean the possible 2014 debut of Jeremy Hall.
While Nelsen may not be able to put out his preferred lineup at Rio Tinto Stadium on Saturday, he'll still have all his big guns available to him, making for a intriguing match against an RSL team that seems to thrive on facing star-studded squads.
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