The MLS is Back Tournament Round of 16 clash between the San Jose Earthquakes and Real Salt Lake on Monday night (8:30 pm ET | FS1, FOX Deportes in US; TSN in Canada) represents a stark contrast in playing styles.
You've got Matias Almeyda's hard-charging, man-marking Earthquakes, who play every match like their hair is on fire, sprinting up and down the field for all 90 minutes. Then there's Freddy Juarez's technical, disciplined RSL who might not wow you with attacking firepower, but know how to throw opponents off their game and limit mistakes.
It all creates an interesting chess match between Almeyda and Juarez, with the former telling reporters on a Saturday conference call that he considers RSL one of the tougher opponents they could've met in the Knockout Stage.
“I believe that we got to the Round of 16 and we got the worst team to face," Almeyda said through a translator. "It’s a team that is compact and strong with quality in a lot of their players who make a difference, good in the air and that they have their own style and they know what they’re playing.
"It’s going to be a tough game and we’ll see if we can detect their virtues, whether we can detect their defects and somehow beat them. We’ve played two games against them, and they’ve been difficult games and this game, because of where we’re at and what we’re playing for, will be difficult. We respect and value each opponent, but we want to get through and hopefully we can be up to the challenge."
Juarez, for his part, said he's watched Almeyda's teams dating back to when the Argentine led Chivas Guadalajara in Liga MX. Juarez said he's always been intrigued by Almeyda's unorthodox style, which he's employed to great success though is certainly rare.
“It’s not an easy game for the players because it’s so physically demanding, but it’s the type of game as a fan that you want to see. It’s open, people are sprinting, there are a lot of duels, dribbling and exciting moments," Juarez said. "There’s a lot of space to combine and all of that. And you’re creating so many chances because of the energy and high intensity. I don’t think it’s easy to teach and that’s why not a lot of people do it."
Either way, it makes for an intriguing matchup at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex. When it comes to preparing for San Jose, Juarez said it's all about anticipating chaos and using past matches between the sides as a barometer. They split the 2019 season series, with each team earning a 1-0 win at home.
"We’ve played this style," Juarez said. "We saw it twice last year. We’ve watched a lot of video on it. Even when you do all of that, you know it’s going to be a sloppy game at times. You know they want it chaotic. It’s a very unique game and there’s a lot of giveaways, a lot of sloppiness, chaotic moments that we have to try to control to limit those situations.
"… It’s going to be a challenge, guys. Any time you play San Jose, for any team in the league and any team in the world that plays against that style – ask the teams in the Championship in England playing against Marcelo Bielsa’s team [Leeds] – it’s tough. You’ve got to be ready for a fight."