Strike Force

Robbie Findley has Real Salt Lake in the Eastern Conference finals and might even have a shot at the U.S. team
November 16, 2009

Real Salt Lake coach Jason Kreis scored 108 goals, the fourth-highest total in MLS history, during his 12-year playing career, but putting the ball in the back of the net was a snap compared with all he had to pick up on the fly when owner Dave Checketts gave him the RSL coaching job in 2007. "I had to learn everything," says Kreis. "It's such a detail-oriented, time-consuming job, and you have to make decisions that you know people may not be happy with"—such as trading his best friend, veteran midfielder Chris Klein, to Los Angeles in '07 for two rookies. "Our wives were also best friends," says Kreis. "My wife didn't speak to me for a week after that."

She does now, not least because one of those rookies was forward Robbie Findley, whose two goals led Salt Lake to a stunning playoff upset of the top-seeded Columbus Crew in last week's Eastern Conference semifinals. Findley's late strike in the opener gave his team a 1--0 lead, and his penalty kick on the return leg was the decisive goal in RSL's 4--2 aggregate victory over the defending MLS champions. The speedy Findley, 24, broke out with 12 goals in the regular season, tied for third highest in MLS, and might only be starting to tap his potential. "I think he's at 60 percent of what he can become," says Kreis.

Findley is only the latest professional athlete to emerge from his extended family. His first cousins include guard Mike Bibby of the Atlanta Hawks and wide receiver Shaun McDonald of the Pittsburgh Steelers. "I used to work out with Mike in the off-season," says Findley, "and I talk to Shaun now a lot. He played soccer growing up, and he gave me a lot of tips coming into my pro career."

If Findley keeps scoring goals, he may soon get a chance to play on the U.S. national team. He was called up by coach Bob Bradley before the World Cup qualifiers in August, and he'll probably be invited to the Yanks' extended camp in January. Findley's rise in MLS is the main reason for his elevation, but his value as a pacey, productive forward also grew after starter Charlie Davies broke a leg and suffered other injuries in an auto accident last month. "Charlie's a good friend, so I feel bad for him," says Findley, "but it's always good to get with those guys. In August, Bob said I had progressed since the last time he saw me." Findley may even have an outside chance of making the World Cup team.

For now, though, he's focused on this week's conference final against Chicago, in which his ability to split the Fire's injury-slowed back line could be the key to producing another upset. Findley doesn't forget what happened last year when Salt Lake reached the conference finals only to suffer a crushing loss at home to the New York Red Bulls. "It was big to beat Columbus," Findley says, "but there's still a lot to be done."

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Crunch Time

The final four European spots in the 2010 World Cup will be decided in home-and-away playoffs on Saturday and Nov. 18, and some top teams will go down to the wire to secure berths. The most intriguing matchup is between France and Ireland, while the team most ripe for an upset is Portugal (likely minus Cristiano Ronaldo, who has been injured), which plays plucky Bosnia-Herzegovina, led by prolific forward Edin Dzeko(below). SI's picks: France, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Greece (over Ukraine) and Russia (over Slovenia). Meanwhile the U.S. faces tough friendlies at Slovakia on Saturday and Denmark on Nov. 18. Because of the MLS playoffs, coach Bob Bradley will use more Europe-based players as he tries to replace injured defender Oguchi Onyewu and forward Charlie Davies.

PHOTOPhotograph by MELISSA MAJCHRZAK/MLS/GETTY IMAGESPOWER STRIDE The fleet Findley was a step ahead of Crew defender Eric Brunner in Real's win in Game 1 of the semis. PHOTOIMAGO/ZUMA PRESS

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