When the soccer season began, coach Jason Kreis had a clear idea about which of his Real Salt Lake players would make the biggest impact and take the "biggest step forward."
Striker Fabian Espindola.
And now, two games into his return from injury and crushing disappointment, the 26-year-old Argentine is making his coach look prescient at a time that could scarcely be more convenient.
RSL takes on the Columbus Crew on the road Wednesday night, its second of six games in June and the second of three in eight days while the roster is dramatically depleted by injury and international duty.
"He's taking probably a few more risks than typical," Kreis said.
"And I think he's doing that because he knows that someone has to make a difference for us right now and he is trying to be that guy a little bit."
Espindola certainly looked like "that guy" when RSL beat the Vancouver Whitecaps 2-0 at home last weekend to snap a four-game winless streak.
While teammate Jean Alexandre was enjoying the first goal and assist of his career and Collen Warner was trying to put his stamp on the attacking midfielder position vacated by the injured Javier Morales, Espindola scored his first goal in nearly two months and left Kreis admiring "the ground that he has covered and the balls that he has chased down."
"In this situation, it's probably been the first time since he's been with us where he kind of knows he's going to play," Kreis said, "and I think he's enjoyed that."
Looks like he does, that's for sure.
The disappointment of RSL's loss to Monterrey in the CONCACAF Champions League left Espindola so devastated that Kreis left him home from its subsequent road trip to Portland. Then he picked up hamstring and back problems that kept him out three more games.
At practice during that time, he often looked sullen, scowling on his way off the field.
While fellow forwards Alvaro Saborio, Arturo Alvarez and Paulo Junior all are gone or injured, Espindola appears refreshed both physically and mentally which is good for a team that desperately needs him to score goals. After striking against the Whitecaps, he sat stretching on the floor of the locker room, gleefully describing for the reporters around him the brilliance of Alexandre's goal.
"Unbelievable!" he said with a smile. "It was like Cristiano Ronaldo!"
And that's the Espindola that Kreis remembers from the preseason. He was a "monster," the coach recalled, "so it's good to see him getting back to what he was doing in the preseason and the early parts of the season."
Espindola, however, believes he has more work to do.
He's acutely aware that he has scored only twice in league play so far never mind his missed opportunities to turn that Champions League loss into a win which is "not so good."
So he's happy only "for now," wanting desperately to keep proving his coach right.
RSL at Columbus
P At Crew Stadium, Columbus, Ohio
Kickoff • 5:30 p.m., Wednesday.
TV • KMYU 2.2 / Comcast 22 / Dish 12.
Radio • 700 AM, 1600 AM, 106.1 FM
Records • RSL 6-2-2, Columbus 3-3-6
All-time series • Tied, 7-7-2
Last meeting • RSL 0, Columbus 0 (Feb. 22, 2011)
About RSL • It will have reigning MLS Defender of the Year Jamison Olave back, after serving a red-card suspension. … Forward Jean Alexandre and midfielder Collen Warner are expected to start again, though coach Jason Kreis acknowledged that Alexandre is "still learning" about the position and it's "too early to say" whether Warner is the long-term answer in place of injured Javier Morales. … It has allowed only four goals in 10 games, by far a league-low. … Defender Robbie Russell is questionable with a strained adductor muscle in his leg. … It played a scoreless draw against the Crew in frigid conditions on the road leg of its Champions League quarterfinal in February.
About the Crew • Riding a five-game winless streak, they are 3-0-3 at home. … Midfielder Robbie Rogers is away at the Gold Cup, and his replacement, Dilly Duka, suffered a sprained ankle in a 1-1 draw at New York last weekend. … Rookie midfielder Rich Balchan rescued the point in New York, with a stunning stoppage-time equalizer. … They have scored just 12 goals in 12 games, second-fewest in the league. … Forwards Jeff Cunningham and Andres Mendoza could be the only strikers available, with leading scorer Emilio Renteria expected to remain out with a strained quadriceps and Tommy Heinemann nursing a sore hamstring.