Robin Fraser understands better than most what his Chivas USA team will be up against Saturday afternoon against Real Salt Lake. The Goats' head coach was part of the braintrust that changed Utah's team from something of a joke to MLS Cup champion to, by nearly every account, the finest side Major League Soccer has known.
He's making his first trek as Chivas' boss to Rio Tinto Stadium, and the chance to match wits with his former boss, RSL coach Jason Kreis -- and see his family, which is still in Park City -- makes this a rather special occasion.
"It'll be great," Fraser said before heading to Salt Lake City on Friday afternoon. "It'll be good to spend some time with my family, and we have a number of friends that we're looking forward to seeing and that sort of thing.
"And then with regard to the game itself, it'll be strange for a little, and then, really, it will just come down to the game, and the fact of the matter is it's a game against a really good opponent and a good opponent to test ourselves, and we feel like we're doing some things well, and now we get the best team in the league to see if we can do things well against them, as well."
It might be an emotional homecoming for Fraser, 44, a former star defender in Major League Soccer who joined Kreis' staff midway through the 2007 campaign and quickly became the RSL coach's most influential assistant coach, but he's far more analytical than he is emotional -- "At the end of the day, [going to Salt Lake] is so not about me," he says -- and it's the tactical fight that he's most looking forward to.
"This is a team I've known for a long time, so personally, if you could put what's in my mind in my players' minds, it would be a different story ...," Fraser said. "How do we match up? It'll be an extremely challenging match for us, because they are extremely technical, extremely composed and have a ton of experience on their side. Most of the key components of that team have played together for about three years now. And we're going on three months."
It is, he says, "as tall a challenge as we're going to face all season."
Fraser, who took charge of Chivas USA (2-2-3) in early January, has used RSL (4-1-0) as a model as he has begun building the team almost from scratch, working extensively on team movement and on being aggressive while staying tight at the back. It has led to a five-game unbeaten streak, the last two victories at San Jose and, in a 3-0 rout, over New England.
"I don't know if we're becoming like Real Salt Lake," he said, "but certainly we try to be a possession-oriented team with a lot of midfielders who are good on the ball and move and find good spaces and that sort of thing. Certainly, I was there [when Real Salt Lake was built into a winner], and I would be foolish not to try to model the building process for us after a process I've already seen work.
"It's nice to see this group starting to come around, and we certainly see signs of building success, and in some ways it does remind me of the early years with Real Salt Lake."
WORTH NOTING: RSL is Chivas' cousin, sort of. Both entered MLS in 2005, with the Goats (4-22-6) finishing at the bottom of the standings, two points behind the Utahns (5-22-5). ... Chivas leads the overall series, 9-6-5, but it's winless in three games at Rio Tinto Stadium, which opened in October 2008. The Goats lost in the '08 playoffs (1-0 on a goal by Pasadena's Yura Movsisyan, now playing in Russia) and were blown out in August 2009 (conceding three times in the final 16 minutes), but they rallied for a 1-1 draw last July. ... RSL hasn't lost in 27 home MLS games, last falling on May 16, 2009, to Kansas City. ... Goats forward Justin Braun is from Salt Lake City.
INJURY LIST: The same six players as last week, all still out: midfielders Blair Gavin (hamstring strain) and Paulo Nagamura (calf strain), forward Tristan Bowen (sprained ankle), and defenders Seth Owusu (torn meniscus), Jimmy Conrad and Michael Lahoud (both concussions). The good news: Bowen and Gavin are training.
REAL SALT LAKE
A top MLS forward who never won a regular job with the U.S. national team, Kreis was MLS's first 100-goal man, retiring to take charge of RSL in 2007 with a then-record 108 strikes, now the No. 4 mark. He's an intense and demanding coach who has built RSL into MLS Cup champ (in 2009) and this year took the club to the CONCACAF Champions League final, in which it lost last week to Mexico's Monterrey.
Three key players
Argentine midfielder Javier Morales is MLS's best pure playmaker, has 16 goals and 31 assists in league play since the 2008 season started.
Captain Kyle Beckerman, whose absence through suspension impacted RSL in the loss to Monterrey, is the club's emotional leader and its rock at holding midfielder
Montclair's Nick Rimando is among the league's elite goalkeepers, a superb shot-stopper who ably organizes MLS's best backline.
MLS has been secondary for Real Salt Lake early this season, subservient to its Champions League run, but its four-win start to the season was marked by brilliantly stylish possession soccer, as nice as the league has seen. The Lions were hung over, still processing the loss to Monterrey, in last week's loss at Portland, which left RSL in third place in the Western Conference, three points behind the Galaxy (with four games in hand) and one in back of second place Colorado (with three games in hand).
Rimando played at Montclair High School and UCLA. Right back Tony Beltran is a neighbor -- he's from Claremont (Claremont HS) and also played at UCLA. ... Teen playmaker Luis Gil emerged from Santiago High School in Garden Grove. ... No. 2 goalkeeper Kyle Reynish, from Valencia, played at Hart High School and UC Santa Barbara. ... Midfielder Ned Grabavoy was with the Galaxy in 2004-05.
Four starters are ailing, with varying degrees of probability. Forward Paulo Jr. and right back Robbie Russell (both hamstring strains) are questionable, and midfielder Will Johnson (fractured thumb) and forward Alvaro Saborio (bruised foot) are probable.
At Rio Tinto Stadium (Sandy, Utah), 1 p.m. PT
TV: TeleFutura (KFTR/Channel 46)
Radio: W Radio (XEWW/690, Spanish)
Referee: Paul Ward