CARSON, Calif. – The biggest storyline for Real Salt Lake heading into their Western Conference Championship match against the LA Galaxy on Sunday has been the possible absence of one or both of their center backs, Nat Borchers and Jámison Olave.
But if all goes according to plan for RSL, it’ll be another pair, forwards Álvaro Saborío and Fabián Espíndola, who will grab all the headlines once the game is over.
“They’re important players for us,” said Javier Morales, the player responsible for helping create scoring opportunities for the two strikers. “They each had a great season with a lot of goals. Let’s hope that [Sunday] they can have a big night and can keep contributing goals to the benefit of the club.”
Saborío impressed in his first year in Salt Lake last season. On loan from Swiss club FC Sion, the Costa Rica international notched 12 goals and dished out four assists. Most importantly, though, is that he started to develop a rapport with Espíndola up top.
“Ever since he arrived at the team, I think we’ve complemented each other very well,” said Espíndola. “We understand each other well.”
Their relationship has developed into quite a one-two punch, arguably one of the best in the league. Saborío – who was signed by Salt Lake this year – is a prototypical No. 9, good at holding the ball and lurking around the box ready to pounce on any chance that comes his way; Espíndola, meanwhile, uses his competitive edge to take on defenders and make runs in order to open up space for his strike partner.
“[Espíndola] is a great forward,” praised Saborío. “He’s fast, creates lots of openings, and also knows how to finish very well.”
Said Espíndola of Saborío: "He holds the ball very well and I can break away with my speed and give him a good assist.”
The formula that has worked wonders for both forwards, and especially for the club. But at the start of the season, that hardly looked like it would be the case.
After coming back from offseeason knee surgery, Saborío suffered through a dry spell that lasted through the first half of the MLS season, as well as through the Gold Cup with Costa Rica. When he finally broke out of the slump, however, he did so in fashion, depositing the ball in the back of the net twice against Toronto FC on June 25.
“I was coming off a big surgery in my knee and I think it was hard for me at the beginning of the season,” Saborío said. “But I think I found my rhythm afterwards and that helped me the rest of the season.”
Saborío went on to score nine more goals in league play – he finished with 11 to take home the team’s Golden Boot award – and also registered his two assists of the year in the second half of the season.
Espíndola, on the other hand, flourished in 2011. The Argentine scored 10 goals and bagged three assists in 27 appearances (25 starts). He set career highs in goals, starts, appearances and minutes played (2,096) and matched his MLS career high for assists.
Together, the two strikers accounted for nearly half of the team's 44 goals in 2011.
Although it’s Saborío who had the strongest finish in season play of the two – and the one whose brace against the Seattle Sounders in the first leg was crucial to booking a spot against the Galaxy in the West championship match – LA are more concerned with the pesky Espíndola.
“[Espíndola is] a very good player and he’s shown it for many years in this league,” said Galaxy captain Landon Donovan after the team’s final training session on Saturday. “He’s played well against us historically, so it’s something we certainly have to be aware of. Between him, Saborío and Morales – possibly the three best attacking players in the league on one team – that’s going to be a big challenge, no question about that.”
The challenge for RSL’s two forwards, meanwhile, will be to unlock the Galaxy defense – the strongest in the league this season – at The Home Depot Center, a venue where the Galaxy have yet to fall in MLS this year.
But Saborío and Espíndola remain confident in themselves and in each other that they can find a way to get past LA’s vaunted back line.
“We already saw their games and I think we can hurt them,” Saborío said. “Hopefully we’ll be accurate and score some goals.”