Scouting Report: Real Madrid tearing through North American competition
There's no denying it — the Philadelphia Union are in for a monumental test on Saturday night.
You could easily make the argument that Real Madrid are the most successful sports team on the planet.
Just take a look at the trophy case.
Madrid have won the Spanish league 31 times. They've lifted the Copa Del Rey 18 times. They also have eight Spanish Super Cups, and nine Champions League titles. No other team can show off that much hardware.
Last season, Real could have realistically added two or three more trophies to the collection if not for hated league rival, FC Barcelona.
Just a few months ago, soccer fans were treated to four Madrid-Barcelona matches in a span of 18 days. A league match on April 16 preceded the Copa Del Rey final on April 20. The teams drew 1-1 in the league game, which pretty much killed off any chance of Real catching Barcelona at the top of the La Liga table.
The Copa Del Rey final was a different story. Madrid got revenge on Barcelona, beating their rivals in a 1-0 thriller at Valencia's Mestalla stadium. Cristiano Ronaldo's extra time goal secured Madrid's first and only trophy of the campaign.
Following the Copa final, the sides squared off again in the Champions League semifinal. Barcelona won 2-0 at Madrid's Bernabeau stadium, and held serve at home in a 1-1 draw. Winning the series on a 3-1 aggregate, Barcelona would go on to beat Manchester United in the final, claiming both the Champions League trophy and La Liga title.
Real Madrid ended their domestic season with a record of 29 wins, 4 losses, and 5 draws. They claimed 92 points in La Liga, and had a goal differential of +69.
But for the most successful club in the world, it's all about the trophies. Real went 1-2-2 against Barcelona last year, and could have easily won more trophies if it weren't for Barcelona's stellar form.
Manager Jose Mourinho is one of the best in the business, and a club like Real demands nothing less. Each year, the goal is simple: win La Liga, win the Copa Del Rey, and win the Champions League.
Who to watch for
It all begins with Ronaldo. If he's not the best player in the world, he's definitely second or third on the list.
The Portuguese forward came to Real in 2009 from Manchester United. He's already scored 66 goals in just 63 appearances with the club. Ronaldo is on fire during this preseason trip, with four goals in just two games on the West Coast. He hit a phenomenal tight angle shot in Los Angeles, then struck a second half hat trick against Chivas de Guadalajara in San Diego.
It's not that difficult to break down Ronaldo's game — he does it all.
He has great pace, excellent vision, and unmatched skill on the ball. He's particularly good at creating something out of nothing, as you can see from some of his goals this preseason. He's powerful in the air, and he can set up his teammates as well. His free kicks are knuckle balls, flat shots that barely clear the wall before dipping and swerving in front of the goalkeeper.
The only criticism of Ronaldo over the years has been his attitude and mental focus. He's shown frustration when he gets fouled, or when something doesn't go his way. But at 26-years-old, he's becoming more mature, and, in turn, even more dangerous.
In 2009, Ronaldo was one of three big money transfers that brought Real back to their goal of seeing football's biggest superstars play at the Bernabeau. Florentino Perez rejoined the club for his second stint as president, and began trying to replicate his initial term, which saw blockbuster signings like Zinedine Zidane, David Beckham, and Luís Figo.
Brazilian superstar Kaká was the second of those 2009 signings. His tenure with Real has been a bit difficult, due to knee surgery that kept him out for a number of months in late 2010 and early 2011. But Kaka is healthy again, and he was back in the starting lineup against Chivas and LA.
When Kaká is at the top of his game, he's one of the best attacking midfielders in the world. This is a guy who scored 70 goals in 193 appearances with AC Milan. He was considered one of the best players in the world during his time with Milan, and at age 29 he still has some good years ahead of him.
Karim Benzema is the third superstar who came in during that 2009 spending spree. The former Lyon striker struggled initially, but is improving steadily. Benzema found himself coming off the bench during his first year-and-a-half with Real. But after the departure of Raul, and an injury to Gonzalo Higuaín, he cracked the starting lineup and began to play at a much higher level.
One of the most important additions to the squad this year is Portuguese left back/midfielder Fábio Coentrão. Madrid was in need of another wide player, someone who can get up and down the flanks. Coentrão is definitely that guy.
Madrid manager José Mourinho has used him in the midfield during these two preseason games, but Coentrao is a player who can fill in at fullback and play on either side of the field. His flexibility makes him that much more useful. He's also just 23-years-old, which means he brings a lot of upside to this squad.
You'll also see new faces Raphaël Varane and José Callejón on this American tour. Varane is an 18-year-old defender who came over from French side RC Lens. At 6-3, he has the physical tools to play center back, and will help Madrid with their depth in that position. Callejon joined from Spanish club Espanyol. He scored in the match against the Galaxy and will compete for forward spots with Ángel di María and Mesut Özil.
Di María and Özil were added in 2010, and both found their way into the starting lineup almost immediately. We won't see di María, who's resting after playing with Argentina in the Copa América, but Özil did make the trip, and he's fun to watch. The German international is a phenomenal playmaker in the mold of Kaká, setting up teammates and breaking down defenses.
Sami Khedira is the other German international on this team. He came over to Madrid following the 2010 World Cup. Khedira is your quintessential holding midfielder. He's really strong at covering ground and breaking up attacks. His great aerial ability gives you something going forward, but with all of the attacking power on this team, there's no reason for Khedira to consistently push into the final third.
Mourinho also picked up Nuri Şahin from Borussia Dortmund. He's another young star who will see time this year. Şahin was critical to Dortmund's 2011 title run, playing with an overachieving group of youngsters who wore out other Bundesliga teams with their speed and free-flowing style. It will be difficult for Şahin to break into Real's starting lineup, but he will see plenty of time this year.
Xabi Alonso is the most recognizable Madrid midfielder, but the former Liverpool man is dealing with a back injury and may not see the field on Saturday. He's a shoe-in for the starting XI when healthy.
Esteban Granero has been getting more time in the midfield on this tour. He's another player who's strong going forward. The 24-year-old came over from Getafe two years ago, and has really added to Real's depth in the midfield.
As far as the defense, expect to see Pepe, Ricardo Carvalho, Marcelo, and Sergio Ramos. Ramos is your right back, and Marcelo plays the other fullback role. Carvalho and Pepe play centrally, and will likely split time with Varane and Raúl Albiol on Saturday. Álvaro Arbeloa can play either fullback spot and could see some time against the Union as well.
2010 World Cup winner Iker Casillas is a stalwart in goal for Madrid. The 30-year-old has been widely regarded as the best 'keeper in the world over the past few years. Back-up goalkeeper Antonio Adán is joined on the US tour by two other 'keepers, Jesús Fernández Collado and Tomás Mejías.
Look for Mourinho to come out with a 4-3-3 formation, a shape he used in the friendlies against Chivas and Los Angeles. While Mourinho used the 4-3-3 successfully at Chelsea, he preferred the 4-2-3-1 during last year's campaign with Real. Mourinho used both the 4-4-2 and 4-3-3 during his time with Internazionale in Italy.
But you can't put much stock in formations and tactics in these friendly matches. Expect to see a number of different players on the field, as the Real staff tries to fit these new signings into their squad. With more depth, and more players competing for limited spots, we'll likely see a number of players moved around and used in roles they might not normally play.
The biggest issue for Mourinho is sorting through all of these great players and finding a spot for them on the field. Some are going to have to come off the bench, but that's reality when you sign with one of the biggest clubs in the world.
Saturday's showdown will be a great measuring stick for the Union, but there's really no pressure. A strong showing will boost the team's confidence, and that's a relative term in a match like this.
No matter the scoreline on Saturday, manager Peter Nowak's squad will still be in prime position to win the MLS Eastern Conference when the final whistle blows.