Four goals for Real Salt Lake in the most open match of the season speaks well of the performance on the night, but the 4-1 scoreline over Chivas USA ignores the task facing the defense on Sunday night — as well as a tactical shift that changed the game in the second half.
Wide open: Defense steps up
The first half and much of the second half against Chivas USA last night saw Real Salt Lake playing in perhaps the most open match they've seen all season. Chances were flying back and forth, and by and large, RSL had the better of the opportunities. But some points of frustration will inevitably emerge the very back-and-forth nature of the match and the fact that it took going up 3-1 for a win to look genuinely secure.
The defense deserves real recognition for the manner in which they dealt with the Chivas attack, with Nick Rimando particularly earning plaudits for two reaction saves in the second half. But Chris Wingert, Carlos Salcedo, Nat Borchers, and Tony Beltran all stepped up to the challenge well and compensated for a more attacking mentality from RSL.
Findley on: Dynamic changes
When Robbie Findley came into the match, Chivas USA had just started to pick their heads up and respond to the challenge in front of them. With Plata and Sandoval both looking a bit tired, the home side was controlling play more readily and unafraid to push players forward in search of an equalizer. Findley's arrival on the scene saw him pushing ahead of a high line defense, with through balls and passes over the top being played into him.
With Findley screaming past the defense, they attempted to adapt and were forced back into their earlier look that had seen them concede two goals. It wouldn't be inaccurate to say that he changed the dynamic of the match. Now, that's not to say that he shouldn't have scored once, twice or maybe even three times, but when his impact is so palpable otherwise, a little forgiveness is in order.
Wingert up: Interception machine
When Chris Schuler earlier this season picked up 8 interceptions, I batted my eyes a bit with surprise. But after turning to the chalkboards last night, I could scarcely believe my eyes: Chris Wingert, who I'd already thought had a very good match, made 17 interceptions. That means that every five minutes or so, Wingert stepped into the line of a pass and regained possession for RSL. That's no small feat.
Those moments can be somewhat attributed to a poor Chivas side, but it's one thing to be poor and another to be made to look so. Had Wingert played more passively and not stepped into passing lanes, it would have been an entirely different game. Given Chivas had 18 shots — though only six on-target — allowing more opportunities would have been, at best, regrettable.
Rather than harping on about the things that went wrong in RSL's 3-2 loss at Montreal on Saturday — and there certainly were a few — it might be more interesting and productive to talk about some of the things that went right and how they contrast with some problems.
Early attack: RSL controls the match
The mentality was right from the outset of the match, and an early goal — albeit an own-goal scored by an Impact player — speaks to that. But more tellingly, In the first 30 minutes of the match, RSL's central defenders rarely touched the ball, with Chris Schuler and Kwame Watson-Siriboe attempting only six passes in the defensive half (only one one went astray.) Lovel Palmer and Chris Wingert were both involved, and a cross from Palmer forced the early Matteo Ferrari own-goal.
Indeed, most of Kyle Beckerman's touches came further up the pitch, and Ned Grabavoy played almost as a left-sided attacking midfielder, Sebastian Velasquez a central one, and Javier Morales as the roving attacking midfielder. It brought Morales some success, completing three passes leading directly to shots, and it led to some dangerous opportunities for Olmes Garcia and Devon Sandoval.
The match wears on: Shifts define things
Velasquez took a more right-sided approach, but struggled to get as involved as he was in the first 20 minutes of the match. Beckerman continued stepping further forward, but he was hardly seen in the final 20 minutes of the match. Morales remained vitally involved throughout and covered perhaps more ground than any other RSL player on the pitch — an indication that age and injury hasn't hurt his mobility, even if he's not quite as quick as he was in his late 20's.
Possession from this point forward flowed through Javier Morales, but the players around him did much work to afford him space. Ned Grabavoy controlled the left flank (22/22 in passing) alongside Chris Wingert, while Kyle Beckerman proved an incredible positive influence, allowing RSL to build play from the back.
After the comeback: Morales bright
As the match wore on, RSL's players struggled for involvement. After going 2-1 up in the 77th minute, key members of Real Salt Lake were kept roundly off the ball. Morales remained involved as ever, but excepting him, the nine outfield players combined for 27 passes with about 66 percent accuracy. Morales completed 10 of his 14 passes during that same period. Despite the problems facing the side, it's clear that RSL's playmaker has as much of a knack for controlling play and possession as ever.
Jason Kreis will have a series of questions on his mind tonight as he prepares his side for a match against Montreal Impact. They all revolve around selection. We'll look at three of these and attempt to answer whether he should look at continuity or change, and what exactly the tactical implications are for each.
Who starts up front: Joao Plata or Olmes Garcia? It's certainly possible that both will start, but Devon Sandoval presents a tactical option neither Garcia nor Plata fulfill. He's scored his first goal, too, and he'll be hopeful to push on. Plata offers more guile on the ball and a better cross, but Garcia is going to push forward more and get into the box. His influence has been undeniable every time he's been on the pitch. While starting Garcia would mean losing a little continuity, the rewards outweigh the risks. At any rate, Plata could make a good impact sub if necessary. Best option: change, Garcia for Plata.
Who starts in midfield: Luis Gil or Sebastian Velasquez? Luis Gil has had some fantastic moments in 2013, and those two goals of his are good indicators of that. But he's also had some struggles, some of which are attributed to a lingering ankle injury. The injury is apparently not so bad as to necessitate his exclusion from the side, so it would seem the prognosis is such that playing through it would be the best option. Sebastian Velasquez has had some great moments on the ball, but he's still yet to find his first goal — although his parried shot on Wednesday saw a goal eventually scored. With Gil still in the side, we retain consistency and allow him more time to get back to his best. We also get a potent option in front of goal. With Velasquez in the side, we get a player who runs non-stop when he's on the pitch, fights for every ball, and has an uncanny knack for keeping possession. Gil is undeniably more direct as a player, and that affects his passing rates. Best option: continuity, Velasquez on the bench for an early second-half sub.
Who starts in back? Carlos Salcedo or Kwame Watson-Siriboe? Carlos Salcedo has had his red card rescinded and is eligible to play, making this an option at all. Kwame Watson-Siriboe has traveled to Montreal for the match after becoming a father recently. The weighing pan would seem to tip slightly toward Salcedo in this regard, as he's been training fully for the last week, but Watson-Siriboe is a more experienced defender with more playing time in the system — although the two joined at around the same time last year. This is probably the hardest question of the three facing Kreis. Salcedo proved himself capable on Wednesday and did nothing to deserve being dropped, but the nature of the game means he could step to the side while the more experienced player starts. But at the same time, Kreis let Palmer continue after Wingert came back from injury — until he had a poor match — and that speaks to a willingness to give new players a chance. Best option: Salcedo continues, Watson-Siriboe on the bench.
Real Salt Lake's late 2-1 win over New England on Wednesday and the drama involved boils down to three things: Attention to rebounds, substitutes, and a bit of defensive mayhem near the end that could have cost RSL a win.
If ever there was a match that illustrated the importance of following up on the shots of your teammates, it was this one. It's difficult to recall the number of times a shot was spilled by the goalkeeper, but it's easy to recount the two that saw goals. The first came after a rebound from a Sebastian Velasquez shot from the left side of the box, and it was a fine bit of skill in buildup that led to it. Devon Sandoval proved once again his ability to be in the right spot at the right time, and this time, his saw the back of the net.
The second came after a rebound from a Kyle Beckerman shot from distance, and my word — it was a fantastic shot. But fantastic or not, the rebound fell back to the defenders in the box, and Olmes Garcia wasted no time beating a defender to it and finishing desperately at the near post with a trickling shot. Neither goal was beautiful, but both were the product of hard work and a dedication to seeing out the play.
The first substitution of the match is the one that is always most telling: Sebastian Velasquez, in for Luis Gil, added the ability to maintain possession under the worst circumstances. In the process, he helped to change the dynamic of the match in the second half. He won free kicks in good positions and, importantly, got the shot off that rebounded to Devon Sandoval. Also a vital substitution was, of course, Olmes Garcia, who scored a fine goal and forced defenders to think about the match in a different way.
Those are inevitably the best substitutions a side can make: those that force a change in approach. Olmes Garcia always does just that, even when he doesn't score. Sebastian Velasquez, too, changed the approach of defenders, who now had to worry more keenly about the midfield keeping possession after being tackled.
It's hard tactically to account for poor decision making on the part of referees, but it's rather easy to account for clearances in dangerous areas. In the build-up to the late, late penalty decision, RSL failed to deal with a number of balls from New England, and as a result, a dangerous opportunity presented itself. Carlos Salcedo and Tony Beltran ended up getting mixed in with a group of Revs and the developing play invoked a decision from the referee, albeit an incorrect one. Had the ball been cleared earlier, there wouldn't have been an issue with which to deal.
Clearances weren't problematic after the penalty, though, and the awareness of Kyle Beckerman deserves all available plaudits alongside those of Nick Rimando. The save was good, and Rimando's uncanny knack for those even better, but Beckerman stepped in at the right moment and made no mistake with his clearance, preventing a clear opportunity for onrushing attackers.
Defensive questions reign ahead of today's match against New England Revolution, and with Nat Borchers having taken ill, those questions are sure to be more poignant and pressing.
We're likely to see Chris Wingert out there again, and there's something refreshing about that. Wingert is, as we know by now, an important defensive piece. While he may not be the most attacking full back in the league — we probably have that piece available, too, with Abdoulie Mansally — he brings organization and positional awareness to the side. With a more attacking midfield group this season, Wingert's calming presence is helpful. We saw the very palpable benefits of his presence on Saturday, and if he plays again, we'll be in a strong position.
With news that Nat Borchers could be out for the match with illness, Wingert's presence could be essential. He'd be a stabilizing presence at the back — and with a young center back likely to start, that could be the difference between conceding a handful and keeping a clean sheet.
The question then turns to who starts at the back alongside Chris Schuler: The most immediate option is Kwame Watson-Siriboe, but given that he's a new father as of Friday, there's a thought that he may be unavailable. Watson-Siriboe presents himself as a player similar to Borchers, though he's not to that level. He's as capable athletically as anyone, and he can step into the right positions to win the ball. Perhaps more importantly, he's very good in the air, and against a New England side that's still unsure what their attacking style looks like, that could be essential.
Carlos Salcedo, who was handed his debut on Saturday, has a chance as well. The young academy graduate a bit more of an unknown quantity, but he's been impressive for RSL's reserves and is an immaculate worker. He cuts an aggressive figure, and though he's inexperienced, he wouldn't necessarily be out of his depth in the lineup. Again, though, he presents plenty of unknowns and has a lot to prove. Interestingly, Salcedo is more likely to cary the ball out of defense when the options are open, and he's very good in the pass. This gives us a look we haven't really seen — both Schuler and Borchers are capable, but more frequently they pass the ball off to a full back or to Kyle Beckerman.
Chris Wingert could also move centrally, which he did at times last year with some success. He played centrally frequently early in his career, but he's been a full back with us for long enough that it's easy to forget that. He's not a perfect option, but you know what you get with Wingert in the middle. More pressingly, missing him at left back could be troubling.
Two goals built on counterattacking play against Vancouver Whitecaps display an understanding between the pieces of the side — a blurring of the lines, if you will.
The power of counterattacking
When RSL and Fabian Espindola split, so too did the majority of our counterattacking style: He was always ready to burst when an opportunity was presented. Robbie Findley and Joao Plata are both assumed to bring that back a bit, and we have every reason to think that they could. Saturday is a good example.
But while Plata was vitally involved in both goals as the man who made the final pass, the contributions of the attacking midfielders can't be forgotten. For the first, Luis Gil has embarked on a nearly 100-yard run before scoring the goal. This long of a run speaks incredibly well of Gil's physical attributes, but it also speaks to his ability to spot a chance developing well before it starts to develop. On the second, Javier Morales makes his run from the middle of the park.
Long runs from midfielders serve to disrupt the defense, as even in a zonal marking system, their markers are more likely to simply lose track of the player and desperately try to recover, or open gaps in the midfield, leaving their marker for another and setting out a cascading reaction.
The power of foresight
It wasn't even necessarily the skill sets of Gil and Morales that made their goals possible, but rather their ability to spot potential holes and gaps in the defense. It's not a clear-cut process, of course, and there's always a pretty good chance nothing will come of it. There's a simple beauty in this: It's the dedication to getting into these dangerous positions, even if it comes to naught, that sets the clever players apart from those who simply find themselves in good positions and score as a result.
Before the match, I touched on the disruptive factor Devon Sandoval provides, but it's arguably more important that the midfielders are disrupting things by simply not being where defenders expect them. It's not necessarily always a long, darting run that does it — sometimes it's just the quick sidestep, the exchanging and rotation of positions, or not making a run where one is expected.
The power of service
The difficulty here is in teammates knowing what a player intends: Those clever runs are nothing without service that's built on an understanding. Joao Plata has excelled with this, and one has to think that a consistent tactical approach helps in this regard. Rather than shifting players around every match and attempting to control each game as an individual entity, the Kreis diamond treats each match as a part of a larger whole. The specifics may change every 90 minutes or even more frequently, but the development of that understanding is a process that takes time, and it's got to come in competitive matches.
And as Saturday proved, it's not just the attacking players that need this: Nick Rimando's assist was ridden with foresight, and his long thrown pass — as immaculate as it was — would've been nothing if he hadn't been aware of the chance building.
With Vancouver coming to Rio Tinto Stadium tomorrow, Real Salt Lake will be looking to establish a strike partnership to carry forward with Alvaro Saborio out with injury.
Striking up a partnership: Olmes at the core
Leading scorer Alvaro Saborio is out for at least a few weeks, and that's certain to add a bit of stress to the RSL strike force. As a result, it's important that a partnership be struck up between the strikers available — whether this is Olmes Garcia and Devon Sandoval or Olmes Garcia and Joao Plata is difficult to say. It seems likely, though, that Olmes Garcia is at the center of considerations at this point, such have been his displays in this still-early season.
He presents different advantages with each option: Alongside Sandoval, Garcia could play a little deeper and more central, picking up on balls shook loose by the big man. Sandoval's also a disruptive figure, and we've seen him getting some joy with his ability to hold off an opponent. Alongside Plata, Garcia could be a more central figure around which Plata would pivot. The options are boundless.
There's always a chance Garcia doesn't get the start, but if he's fit, the odds seem pretty good. He's the most flexible option of the three potentially available, and with RSL's attack still developing and building anew, that flexibility may be enough to sway considerations. He's also the only one of the three with a goal, and in every match he's played, he's looked dangerous and likely to score further goals.
We're not unfamiliar with how Vancouver Whitecaps FC is looking this season, largely because we played against them only — what — three weeks ago? It's a funny thing, this somewhat-randomized intra-conference play. As a result, there shouldn't be any real surprises — and hopefully no strangely decided penalty kicks with which to contend. This should be particularly useful when considering Vancouver's attacking options. Truth be told, RSL looked pretty good against Vancouver, but improving on that will be a high priority.
First to the gates
Something like that, right? The onus is on Real Salt Lake to control the proceedings and to score first. It's an obviously desirable thing, but as we've seen, this side has trouble breaking down teams defending deep. Particularly without Alvaro Saborio out there to disrupt defenders through hold-up play, there's an inherent difficulty in breaking down those walls — unparking the bus, as it were. Scoring first and early forces Vancouver to abandon any designs to sit back and defend.
It would be painfully easy to focus on the very poor start to the 2-0 loss against LA Galaxy on Saturday night, but what's tactically more interesting (and less depressing) is the nature of RSL's response to the challenge.
Three at the back
It's not the first time we've seen Jason Kreis shift things around for a three-man back line, and there's something slightly worrying about the necessity of that trend — but when it came time for, as he called them, "desperate measures," there wasn't a moment of hesitation.
But if we look at the Opta chalkboards, we see that it might be more accurate to call it two at the back — Tony Beltran essentially played as an attacking winger, mirroring Ned Grabavoy on the pitch and getting involved in much action. Of course, it's difficult to derive positional arguments out of the late harried action on Saturday night, but there's something to be said for your right back dictating play on the attacking flank.
Beckerman pushed up
Rather than looking toward a nominally more attacking 3-4-3, Kreis went toward a 3-5-2 that saw Kyle Beckerman pushed further up the pitch than usual. Yordany Alvarez came on — essentially for Lovel Palmer, although the order of substitutions speaks ever-so-slightly differently — and was deployed centrally in a vaguely anchoring role. Beckerman moved further up, and given his work rate and energy on the night, it's hard to fault Kreis. It was a strong response late on from the captain, and he covered an immense amount of ground as desperation set in and LA Galaxy sat deeper and deeper.
Dealing with the bus
Real Salt Lake have obviously problems when 11 opponents are sat in the defensive end of the midfield, but they're hardly alone in this. Breaking down a well-organized side like LA Galaxy is difficult on any given match day, but it's rendered tougher when the opposition is handed an early lead to protect.
It should be said, though, that RSL had a great response to that defensive challenge, and with two players hitting the woodwork in the final 30 minutes and five shots blocked — three of which were in the box — it doesn't seem so much a matter of figuring out how best to break down a deep, dedicated defensive line, but how to finish around them. There's certainly some reason for encouragement in that respect.
LA Galaxy have started their season off with some style, but there's plenty of opportunity for RSL to find success against them on Saturday night like they have so often before.
Stopping the midfield
First, the midfield's got to be stopped — Juninho and Marcelo Sarvas are an efficient pairing in the middle of the park for LA. Snuffing out their threat means we've got to keep our outside midfielders narrow, ready to pick off passes and prevent chances from being created. Additionally, they'll need to be aware of the defensive strength of Sarvas in particular. It's illustrative that he was successful in 10 of 13 tackles against Sporting KC last week. Stopping the midfield means both preventing attacking threats and avoiding defensive threats.
Second, the defense has to be constantly vigilant with Robbie Keane and Landon Donovan, should they play — and it's hard to imagine they wouldn't for a match like this. Donovan has wasted no time since returning to action, grabbing a goal and an assist last week. Still, the options LA Galaxy have up top aren't endless, and without both Keane and Donovan, it could be tempting for the defense to relax. This would be a mistake, especially with the set piece and long shot prowess of Juninho and the persistence of one Mike Magee.
Being afforded possession
Third, the whole of the side has to be prepared for a team that's willing to sit back a bit and let play develop. LA defeated last season's defensive standouts Sporting KC last week, winning 2-0 — this, despite completing considerably fewer passes and losing the possession battle. It's surprising for a team that has generally controlled possession in 2013, but it shows a willingness to adapt to the opposition that makes them a dangerous side to face. It's easy to imagine the Galaxy sitting back a little bit, picking their chances, and snuffing out ours — it wouldn't be the first time, and it won't be their last time. Playing around them will require some real control and skill on the ball — and it'll take our best passing and possession-oriented skills to ensure we don't allow silly chances.
Two similar sides faced off at Rio Tinto Stadium on Saturday when Real Salt Lake defeated Chivas USA 1-0, with a crowded midfield dominating the match's narrative.
Yordany Alvarez, in for Kyle Beckerman and his dislocated rib, had a fine night as a defensive midfielder, breaking up play — evidenced by his five interceptions — but also making a delible impact on the match with efficient passing. His only unsuccessful passes (he went 42/51 on the night) were either long or at the edge of the Chivas box.
Where Alvarez controlled the defensive portion of the midfield, Javier Morales controlled the attacking end. His goal made the biggest impact on the match, but with four key passes, he had some real success as a distributor. Of course, it's hard to look past that goal — a fine effort he started off with a 60-yard run into the area.
Considering the midfield glut present throughout the match, the successes of these two is of real note.
It goes rather without saying that there were some areas in which Real Salt Lake looked less than optimal. Chief among those was failing to deal with the high amounts of pressure being put on the midfield.
The players who started on the side of the diamond fared with the pressure differently: Luis Gil wasn't heavily involved (13/15 in passing), while Ned Grabavoy completed only just over half of his passes (19/37) through the match. It would seem to be down to the opposition and the high pressure, but it's also worth noting that Chivas USA had a hard go of things in their midfield as well, completing only two-thirds of their passes in the middle third. Of course, 75 percent of Chivas's passes came in the middle third.
It was a match described most readily by a crowded midfield — when two remarkably similar dominant-midfield sides are up against each other, perhaps that's inevitable.
After all the talk of Chivas USA deploying in a 3-5-2 or something approaching it, we were left with something that looked more akin to a more defensive diamond 4-4-2 — imagine Real Salt Lake's approach with Kyle Beckerman more readily dropping into a center back role rather than pushing forward. It's a matter of semantics, and not an entirely important one, but it's worth discussing.