Lower-league opponents in the U.S. are nearly always a tricky bag, and Charleston Battery further exemplified this rule. Compact, decisive, and quick, the Battery gave everyone a good scare when they scored the first two goals of the match. The question, then: How did Real Salt Lake adjust for their comeback?
Everyone got better. This is easy to say and hard to do, and it doesn't say much of anything from a tactical perspective. That said, it's difficult to execute any tactical decisions when you're looking at the worst you've been in some time. Everybody stepped up their quality in the second half.
A center back was removed. With the impetus on Real Salt Lake to get back into the affair, and with the Battery quite rightly sitting very deep and hoping to fend off an undoubtedly inevitable onslaught, two defenders almost seemed extraneous. Making his first club appearance — an admittedly poor one at that — Aaron Maund stepped off shortly into the second half and Jason Kreis switched the formation.
It took a quintessential attacking 3-4-3 to really break down the Battery defense. Joao Plata and Robbie Findley occupied the attacking flanks, with Devon Sandoval serving as a target man and grabbing two headed goals along the way. Javier Morales and Ned Grabavoy served as the more-attacking midfielders (they really did all attack) and Khari Stephenson and Kyle Beckerman sat deeper and more centrally. Chris Wingert tucked in slightly centrally to position himself better for runs down the middle, and Tony Beltran bombed forward from right back to stretch play.
We stretched play superbly. When we face a hyper-defensive side — and again, there's not an ounce of blame in that for Charleston in their strategy — we have historically struggled to break them down. With Findley and Plata wide to stretch play laterally and Devon Sandoval to stretch along the vertical axis, it became difficult for Charleston to ignore any of those three players up top. Given their proclivity for staying in central positions, this opened room for Plata and Findley to receive clever passes from the midfield and cut inside. Even when they weren't involved in goalscoring movement like that, both players were important to the fightback.
Real Salt Lake's continued run in the US Open Cup presents its own tactical problems, from the need for rotation to questions about how both the defense and attack will deal with a certain-to-be-resolute Charleston Battery defense.
There are two well-balanced opinions that play into a match like this: In one, the impetus on Kreis should be about rotation and ensuring squad fitness; in the other, the impetus is the opposite, and he should roll out a squad best-fitted to win. The point of balance lies somewhere between the two, but with a weekend off for once, it's difficult to argue if veterans play all 90 (and hopefully a positive 90 and not a negative 90 or a nail-biting 120) against Charleston Battery.
But some rotation will happen naturally. Sebastian Velasquez is a sure-starter in the midfield, and he may just take the place of Luis Gil with no other general changes to the setup. Devon Sandoval might get another chance to start up top after a fine performance in the last round of the Cup. Carlos Salcedo and Kwame Watson-Siriboe, too, may get another chance to partner, allowing Nat Borchers a rest.
Push and Pull
Real Salt Lake has been incredibly successful in moments of transition this season (when, of course, the transition if rom defense to attack) and one might attribute a number of our goals to that fact. But this becomes difficult to manage effectively when the opposition plays withdrawn, and our mode of scoring has to shift. With a tricky midfielder or two — Velasquez and the ever-effective Javier Morales — Charleston's midfield and defense will be kept busy; this leaves important spaces for forwards to run into.
Devon Sandoval could be incredibly effective against this level of side, as well. He's still adjusting to MLS play (though remarkably well, it must be said) but he has a golden opportunity to get in the heads of the Battery defense. With midfield runs occupying some attention, the remainder might be shifted to him, leaving a free forward. His uncanny ability to retain the ball and make a safe if unexciting pass can sometimes be an effect of tentative play, but it's this sort of passing and movement that will have the biggest impact on a less-able defense. He'll push and pull defenders out of position — it's important that he makes the right decisions in that regard.
How many times have we conceded an unnecessary goal at some point in the match simply because it looked like our collective minds were elsewhere? We saw it in the last round of the Open Cup: We can't go around conceding cheap goals and risking a loss or even another overtime excursion. With bodies bursting forward in efforts to score and unlock what may be a staunch defense, the match becomes more difficult to manage.
It'll be vital that, when everyone is forward, the three or so defenders that have stayed back are in good positions to recover and can communicate danger to their teammates. Otherwise, we may be looking at another match where we're on the cusp of something great, but mistakes see us caught out.
Three key absences for Real Salt Lake sounds a difficult proposition to handle, but options for each position — in the midfield, in defense, and up front — could mean RSL is in a better tactical position than one might readily imagine ahead of Saturday's home match against LA.
No Luis Gil means we'll be looking for a midfielder to take his place. Two options readily present themselves: Sebastian Velasquez has shown well this season and is stepping up in the system, but Khari Stephenson provides veteran experience and looked strong last week. The most reasonable approach, to my mind: Stephenson starts, Velasquez comes off the bench. Stephenson can manage the game well in midfield and provide a safe outlet; Velasquez can come on late and be his creative, spark self.
No Chris Schuler leads to a continuation with either Kwame Watson-Siriboe or Carlos Salcedo. Both have showed well so far, and Watson-Siriboe was massive against a pesky San Jose side. Watson-Siriboe had a rocky start to his season, but should he continue to impress, worries about an injured Chris Schuler might ease somewhat. Carlos Salcedo is a natural bench option with an eye on a Wednesday start.
No Alvaro Saborio leaves us again wondering about a tactical scenario. Is the Plata-Findley pairing for real? Can it work? It's hard to deny that chances have been created, and Saturday saw us looking somewhat near very, very good. Olmes Garcia could be an option but is likely to be eased back from injury, while Devon Sandoval might not yet be the sort of player that can dominate the Galaxy defense. But Plata-Findley presents its own challenges from a tactical perspective, but if those can be overcome, it's hard to argue with the selection.
It all leaves Real Salt Lake in an interesting position against one of MLS's better sides, but it leaves a good tactical position open. With the tendencies of Plata and Findley to drift wide, opportunities for midfielders emerge. Javier Morales is in fine form, Ned Grabavoy is in the best goalscoring form of his career, Khari Stephenson has a cannon of a foot and Kyle Beckerman can swing in the late shots himself.
The surprise? The Findley-Plata pairing could be one of our better options up front, regardless of injury concerns and international duty. The win against San Jose, however poor they've been this season, is partly owed to the results of effective movement up top, drawing defenders into poor positions and creating channels for midfield runs. Seeing more of that on Saturday would be precisely the sort of thing RSL needs to handle the Galaxy.
Fundamentals. If there's one thing that can be said about RSL's 3-0 win over San Jose on Saturday, it's that the fundamentals were there, and all three goals scored that day can be attributed to proper attention to those.
Finishing: Three goals were scored from eight on-target shots — a conversion rate of about 38 percent. On the season, we've averaged 22 percent conversion; clearly, this is an improvement. There was a good deal of talk last week about finishing and the fact that it needed improvement, and this was a good starting point for marked improvement. This sort of rate will need to be sustained over time.
One player who deserves a good deal of credit for improvement in finishing is Robbie Findley, whose well-taken shot from the left flank saw him with his first non-poached goal of the season. That isn't to say that there's a problem with poached goals, but finishing from a variety of positions is important. Javier Morales, too, deserves credit for his well-taken finish, and there's so much to be said about Ned Grabavoy's goalscoring exploits this season that it's difficult to start.
Defending: San Jose may be underperforming thus far this season, but attributing RSL's success to that fact belies the defensive effort involved. It was an interception by Tony Beltran that fell to Javier Morales that set in motion the first goal. The second goal came about after a long pass was won by Nat Borchers, and Tony Beltran set the movement in motion with a pass won fantastically well by Robbie Findley. A good combination from the ever-aware pair of Javier Morales and Ned Grabavoy to pick up possession after a heavy touch, starting the run that led to Findley's goal.
All three moments saw RSL win the ball at the edge of the defensive half and move forward dangerously, putting San Jose on the back foot. It's yet another reminder that sometimes, creating chances is down to picking up the ball and moving forward in numbers.
Counterattacking play: It's hard to separate the counterattack from defense. It's perhaps the beautiful intermingling of defense and attack — the thing that ties the two together and makes the game really tick. All three goals were scored from the counter.
Three passes took place before the first goal, and five passes led to the second and third goals. The first and third both came about as a result of rebounds from the defense, and they can be in part attributed to the fact that they were very much on the back foot. This is what the counterattack brings, and RSL capitalized on it well.
San Jose Earthquakes are back in town for the first time since they knocked Real Salt Lake out of the Western Conference lead in June 2012, but this time, the visitors are struggling to find even the faintest of footing.
Shots fired: Real Salt Lake are leading the league in shots taken and shots on goal, and while that's nice, it's interesting that San Jose is not far behind in either metric. They've taken 10 fewer shots, so one has to wonder why they haven't been scoring. Indeed, it would be worrying if Jason Kreis wasn't paying attention to that fact — though one should be sure he is. There's a palpable feeling that San Jose are dangerous — one needs only look at shot charts to see why. This necessitates the defense protects Nick Rimando as capably as possible.
Speaking of defense, deciding between Kwame Watson-Siriboe and Carlos Salcedo for the partnership with Nat Borchers can't be easy. After 120 minutes on Tuesday and 90 minutes on Saturday, Carlos Salcedo might miss out. That's simply a lot of time out there, and he's worked hard the entire time. But he has acquitted himself well in the early days of the season, and Jason Kreis has shown a penchant for retaining players in form. With Chris Schuler likely to miss out, the decision comes down to today and how well the two recovered from a grueling Open Cup match.
Recovery will be a big consideration for Kreis everywhere on the pitch. Kyle Beckerman, Javier Morales and Carlos Salcedo all played full minutes in both recent matches, and some rotation might necessarily take place. Sebastian Velasquez, Luis Gil, and perhaps some faces less often seen could be in line for minutes. But once again, inconsistency in play is a natural extension of inconsistent lineups.
Lineup concerns are one thing, but considering RSL's relative success despite those inconsistencies, there's not much reason for grave concern. The rotation might even be a good thing for those players who haven't seen as much time — but who exactly that might be is up for debate.
Less-used players might end up with time. Enzo Martinez and David Viana haven't played any matches yet in 2013 (and Enzo not at all), Khari Stephenson has only started a third of the matches he's played in, and Kwame Watson-Siriboe has played in only a handful of matches. Should some of the players with less experience play against San Jose, they'll have to be extra aware — especially considering that San Jose's not afraid to shoot.
Real Salt Lake finds themselves at a bit of a crossroads for Saturday's match against Chicago Fire, and with that, coach Jason Kreis is forced into making some less-than-easy decisions.
Decision: With Chris Schuler set to miss out, Jason Kreis has a big decision on his hands: Does Carlos Salcedo, the young, relatively un-tested center back, start in his place, as he did against Chivas USA? Or does he opt for Kwame Watson-Siriboe, who has more experience but was suspended on Sunday? Salcedo is a solid defender despite his age, and he's showed well in his two full matches — well enough that handing him a start doesn't seem a particularly risky maneuver, and one which could well pay dividends in both the long and short term.
Decision: Alvaro Saborio has been training, but does that mean he's in line for a start? Devon Sandoval has proven a fine backup considering his relative inexperience and allows for a bit less impetus in bringing Saborio back into the fold. If precautions need to be taken, Kreis can rest a bit easier knowing Sandoval can step in.
Decision: Does RSL play with the typically high-line defense often seen at home? RSL's passing has been a bit more wayward than in 2012, and perhaps naturally so considering the more attacking bent of the midfield. This can be slightly problematic when playing with your defenders high up the pitch, as simple mistakes can lead to clear opportunities on goal. (For further reference, please see Chivas USA defending, May 19) With Salcedo in the mix, RSL would have a quick center back to partner Borchers.
Decision: With the US Open Cup home match against the Atlanta Silverbacks approaching on Tuesday, Kreis will be forced to think about rotation and approach. Chicago Fire are an opponent that might be tempting to rest players against. Winning in the Cup is a stated priority for the club, particularly as it paves a road back to CONCACAF Champions League, and ensuring that some players are available for it — or at least doing our best to do so — could weigh in the decision-making process.
Decision: Even with rotation taken into consideration, a question of who sits on the bench remains. It's a question that will plague Kreis for the remainder of the season: Who is the central backup? Who sits ready to enter midfield? Which strikers have done enough to make the bench? While the question is difficult now, it will only get more difficult as fitness improves.
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.