Real Salt Lake and Portland Timbers square off again, and while the last match left this one teetering in RSL's favor, another 90 minutes are needed to protect the two-goal cushion leading to the MLS Cup final.
1. Don't allow Portland to build from wide positions
The Timbers thrive in wide positions cutting inside, and often, you'll find their most dangerous play emanating from channels between the flank and the center. If they're allowed time to build and either drive in a cross or play a ball across the face of the box, they'll be dangerous. Preventing the opposition from finding joy in those areas will be key, but it won't solve everything.
To accomplish this, Our midfielders will need to drop into deep positions in those channels, assisting the full backs in wide defense. If the forwards, too, drop back into defense when needed, two things happen: First, we're rendered more solid when defending without resorting to a line of six or seven players; second, we're put in a good position to exploit the inevitable pockets of space that will appear against an attacking Portland side, and to break forward apace.
2. Build through the middle
It's not that Portland possess any particular vulnerabilities through the middle, but this is how we know how to play. Abandoning that now, especially after it's given us so much joy throughout the season, would be folly. That approach also puts us in the strongest position to win set pieces, which are apparently our new favorite way to score (thank you, Chris Schuler.)
3. Utilize narrow strikers
In recent weeks, Jason Kreis has shifted his deployment of forwards somewhat: Where previously, one of the two was sent into a wide position (Robbie Findley or Joao Plata, typically) while the other was left in a more central position, Kreis is now setting out two strikers in more central positions. We saw this with Devon Sandoval and Robbie Findley against Portland in the first leg, and though it wasn't the first time we saw it, it surely brought us the most success. It seemed prior to the switch that we were attempting to shoehorn in some width to our innately narrow formation -- perhaps it is no surprise that when we returned to a more natural approach, we were successful. This also allows the strikers to combine a bit more, and when one of those isn't Alvaro Saborio, who can typically hold the ball until others join in attack, that could just be vital.
4. Don't give up silly free kicks in good positions
This goes without saying, really. Will Johnson scored from a free kick in a great position against us, and it's something we really should be aware of again. It will take a bit of confidence, but it's something of which we must be aware.
LA Galaxy trends toward a less creative midfield, and even from the flanks this is largely the case. This provides a platform for three or four attacking players to showcase their abilities in tonight's Western Conference Semifinal second leg, and when your primary attacking pair is Landon Donovan and Robbie Keane, there's plenty of that. But with the opponent in a more defensive midfield, RSL will have an opportunity to utilize their creative midfield to attempt a breakthrough.
Javier Morales will look toward finding the gaps between the midfield and the defense, which inevitably pushes back the LA Galaxy midfield a bit too as they attempt to cover his movement. This opens up space in other places, which proves vital. He'll also be important for set pieces, but our reluctancy to capitalize on set pieces won't help us there. He may instead look to go directly at goal with free kicks, and who could blame him? He's scored some screamers.
Sebastian Velasquez is likely to step into Ned Grabavoy's spot on the left, and this will give him room to make diagonal runs to and away from the flanks. He'll need to capitalize in spaces vacated by Morales as he embarks on runs with and without the ball.
Luis Gil will be tasked with a bit more defensive work than usual in Grabavoy's absence, but he too will need to embark on runs. With Tony Beltran to his right, he'll be involved in plenty of interchanges with the fullback as they look to move the ball forward from the right.
Kyle Beckerman will need to be as aware as ever but eminently willing to capitalize on opportunities to break forward. His passing is never in question, and that'll be vital tonight.
Tony Beltran, as above, will need to work with Luis Gil on the right flank to move the ball forward, but he'll also need to make those overlapping runs on the right side to be effective. But beyond that, he'll have to be ready to burst back in defense. He showed incredibly well against Landon Donovan last weekend, and he'll almost surely have to do so again.
Chris Schuler will, with any luck, not be forced into so many last-ditch tackles and clearances. Instead, we'll be hoping for some balance from Schuler as he steps forward to make an interception before splaying the ball to a full back.
Alvaro Saborio pushes the side forward in important ways, but his biggest role will be in helping the midfield transition into the attack. It's a role that is masked by his goalscoring contributions (which are equally important and follow as a result of this play) — his distributive properties may not lead to high-percentage passing, but he is a chance creator.
His mystery partner remains in question. Robbie Findley offers speed, which is an obviously important factor, but he also offers a willingness to track back and at pace. Joao Plata, on the other hand, offers more finesse in attack but less counterattacking opportunity. In most factors, they end up at about sixes. Olmes Garcia offers a more mysterious option, but it's hard to see him starting, as he hasn't made the bench for the last few matches.
Stopping LA Galaxy — Robbie Keane and Landon Donovan are the chief targets, but others remain dangerous — is not a simple task. But that's exactly the task Real Salt Lake will be tasked with on Sunday when they launch their playoff campaign.
It's of real importance that the opposition midfielders be allowed minimal time on the ball. The more time Galaxy midfielders (and forwards dropping into deep positions) are given to find a killer pass, the greater the likelihood that we'll concede a goal. This doesn't necessitate the high pressure one might expect from other sides in MLS — instead, we can keep the same pressuring tactics we normally deploy, with our pressure increasing as the opponent nears our half. By approaching it in this way, we can avoid problems stemming from late overcommitment.
Following from that, we must also avoid getting hit in transition phases: We're facing a side that finds great joy in those moments. As a relevant example, three of their four goals they scored in a 4-2 win against us came with few of their players even in our half, let alone involved in the attack. It's a style that's afforded to them by the great individual skill of a few players and the willingness by others to remain in defensive positions during those moments. When your counterattack runs essentially three or four on six opposition players and ends in a goal scored, you're likely to find greater success.
Because of the threat offered by LA Galaxy on set pieces, RSL will need to be slightly more cautious when playing in the opposition half than they'd prefer to be. Creativity is a must, but an awareness of danger and willingness to sprint back to recover — from all players and not just those with more defensive roles — is necessary. As such, we must be willing to exercise patience in the opposition half, and in the final third we must take our chances quickly. Anything else presents too much risk for an unlikely reward.
Saturday's match against FC Dallas pits a team desperate for a win and a chance at making the playoffs, the Texas side, and a team with one last chance to push for a chance at the Supporters' Shield, the Utah side. The difference becomes rather moot: Both are going to be fighting tooth and nail for a chance.
Jason Kreis told reporters after Tuesday's loss that he had to consider recent results when concocting the group that will take us into the playoffs. That won't be an easy task. Some have been very, very good; others have been poor at best. But when some of those excellent players are young and inconsistent, and some of those poor players are veterans and generally more consistent than not, you've got to wonder if the world has simply gone topsy-turvy for a month.
But it remains the case that we have a deep squad, and we have little reason to not use it now. We may as well throw all of the noodles at the wall to see what sticks, and Jason Kreis undoubtedly recognizes that. So who might he play on Saturday?
Chris Schuler will certainly get another run out, and maybe he'll be partnered by Brandon McDonald again. Both players showed well a week ago, and the calm with which they steadied the back line was admirable. Abdoulie Mansally might get a run on the left, and Lovel Palmer might get a run on the right. (I'd wager one or the other and not both.) Robbie Findley might be back in contention after a knee problem seemed to have kept him out of Tuesday. Finally, Luis Gil will almost assuredly be back in the lineup after having an emergency appendectomy on Sunday. (I mean, really — can't these kids keep their appendixes (appendices?) under control for a day?)
Speed demons, and how to slay them
The immediate options are thus: 1) Run an offside trap, or 2) Play a deeper defensive line to halt opportunities.
If we're playing a less experienced defensive setup, the offside trap seems an unwise gambit. A deeper defensive line, though, would create greater gaps between the defense and the midfield, which brings with it its own set of tactical issues.
But at this point in the season, the only direction in which we can really travel is upward, and only if we string together a great run of results. Our playoff spot is very nearly secured, and a proactive approach is necessary if we're to aim for a Supporters' Shield surprise.
It's a risky thing, but when you need a win, you really have to play for a win, consequences be damned. Let's move the defenders forward, be prepared for Dallas to break with pace, and let the match be its inevitably open self.
Real Salt Lake faces D.C. United in what is perhaps the most anticipated match of the last two years, and it's one Jason Kreis and his team will be hoping to put to bed easily. But that's rarely as simple as it seems, despite their opposition's wholly dismal form in MLS.
Form: What is it good for?
If you've guessed that the answer is something close to "absolutely nothing," then you're right on track. It's not really that form means nothing, but that when we're talking about the biggest matches, form won't dictate anything on a grand scale. Quality players step up for games of this nature. There's nothing controversial about that. We've had trouble in the past in these circumstances, but again: Form, even over the longer term, doesn't mean a thing.
Who plays? One major choice remains
If Saturday's defeat of Vancouver Whitecaps (which, I might add, was quite nice) is any indication, and it surely is, then we'll see as strong a lineup as we've seen all season. The only player who would seem a real doubt, Alvaro Saborio, is back, having trained for at least a week now.
But there remains one question: Who plays in the midfield alongside the Beckerman, Grabavoy and Morales trio? Luis Gil has just come off a superb 90-minute performance on the weekend; Sebastian Velasquez the same. Both played heavily in the Reserve League game during the week. This leaves Khari Stephenson as the obvious choice, but as we've seen so often, the obvious choice is so often the one not taken. Luis Gil is hardly out of the running.
Stephenson adds some great work, a calm head, and a great long shot. It perhaps should be noted that he's won an Open Cup before — a champion with Kansas City in 2004.
Gil adds more attacking movement and combination, which is essential to the way we play. He also would come into the match with some renewed confidence, having been the midfield boss throughout Saturday.
The pass-and-move fabric of our side is an important factor: Stephenson is decidedly less mobile (owing in part to his stature and in part to his style of play) than Gil. He isn't a player that fits neatly into our system the way Gil does at current — a testament to Gil's development at Real Salt Lake, surely.
But that, on its own, isn't the determining factor: Stephenson adds new variables to the equation, and it's tempting to deploy that business buzzword, disruption, to the element he would bring. And maybe we should: By allowing us another type of option, Stephenson disrupts the tendency we have to end up in a desperate spot on the flank, flinging ball after ball into the box. He'll stick more centrally, he'll stay calm, and he'll try to find a sane — if not spectacular — pass.
Setting out on the front foot
If there's one thing that's universally agreed upon about this D.C. United side, it's that allowing them to play their game yields dividends for the opposition. The "inevitable mistake," as a group of United podcasters and bloggers described it during a conversation I had with them tonight, will come, and it'll push their chances to something approaching zero.
We won't give them the opportunity to make that mistake. Not easily, at least. At home, with Jason Kreis as our manager, we aim to control nearly everything that comes our way. We lead the league in passes per possession. We make the game ours and not the opponents. Even with the weakness of our opponent, there's little chance we break from that. This is who we are, and we'll continue our unabashed approach.
That's of course to our benefit. There's little point in completely changing the way we play. Responding to our opponents is one thing; playing to exploit one specific weakness is another. We'll play to exploit multiple weaknesses in the midfield and defense, and if it works out, we'll have a very strong chance of coming out victorious on the other side.
We didn't get here by not being us. It's been a difficult road, and the final won't be easy. But we're not going to abandon that road now — not right at the end.
Real Salt Lake faces Vancouver Whitecaps on Saturday with a bit of a quandary on their hands: Play a weakened side and risk a loss, or play a strong side and risk losing the U.S. Open Cup Final on Tuesday?
Return to approach
The first and perhaps foremost thing Real Salt Lake must focus on for Saturday's match is returning to the approach that's brought them so much joy through the season. Too often, they've set out to do something, but, after finding themselves down a goal, looked to force the occasion. It's not what they train week-in, week-out to do, and as a result, they're not particularly good at it.
So at the top of Jason Kreis's list will be convincing his side that, if the going gets tough, they must continue to attack in sane, non-panicky ways: Keep the ball on the ground, build connective play, and work as a unit. The individualistic approaches showcased last weekend was not the solution to our ills, and though they might be natural and somewhat sane reactions to the compact defense we saw, they were ineffective.
The necessity of rotation
This is no time in the season to be rotating, but we've found ourselves in a situation where it's necessary. That's a good thing, as the impetus is the U.S. Open Cup Final on Tuesday (ahem, buy tickets, et cetera), which, we'll all agree, is a good thing to have happen. And it's at home, which is even better, as you won't be able to watch it otherwise. But with Saturday on the road, a two-games-in-three-day stretch might be too much to ask of even the most seasoned of players.
Should we lose Saturday, we're in a precarious position for the playoffs. Should we lose Tuesday, we'll have missed another chance at a trophy. Obviously enough, the goal is to lose at neither asking, but the approach required is difficult. We can't put too many of those likely to start Tuesday out there on Saturday — or indeed, even on the plane today — lest we risk tiring them out prematurely.
So a much-changed lineup is inevitable. Balancing those players who might be able to play in both matches with those who might be on the bench is a difficult task. But sending Nick Rimando, Nat Borchers, Kyle Beckerman, Alvaro Saborio, Ned Grabavoy, and Javier Morales? I wouldn't count on that. Those players are ostensibly the core of our soccer identity, but we'll need to rely on our much-vaunted depth to make it through this difficult stretch.
It's a funny thing when a future match dictates a match immediately at hand, but that's the nature of playing for trophies. It's difficult, it's arduous, and it comes bundled with a great deal of risk. But if we want to stand a fighting chance to continue in both, it will take some real work.
Briefly, a slew of young players will likely see the pitch on Saturday. Sebastian Velasquez can be expected to play at the top of the diamond, where he's continually impressed for the reserves. Yordany Alvarez should be at the base of the diamond, and his strong passing and breakup play will be strongly needed against this Whitecaps side hunting for a playoff spot. Brandon McDonald could be called into action for the first time since the 3-3 draw against Portland (particularly as he's cup-tied and can't play Tuesday).
It'll be a mixed lineup, no doubt, but one imminently capable of putting a two-game losing streak behind this side. It's all about depth, isn't it?
With a nearly full-strength side, Real Salt Lake travels to Seattle for a match that could tilt the scales in MLS, with effects cascading down the table should RSL lose out. Jason Kreis's side, then, has a difficult task in front of them, in a difficult stadium, against a difficult side.
It is important for RSL to notch a win against Seattle, but this will be one of the more difficult MLS matches for Kreis to manage. Should his side adopt an overly defensive posture, it might be difficult to grab that win — constitutionally, we're not a side that thrives when sitting back in an organized fashion. Should they adopt an overly offensive posture, it might be difficult to preserve any goalscoring advantage maintained. Thus, striking that balance will be the impetus laid before Kreis.
This largely becomes the role of the midfield to maintain that balance: The match ebbs and flows by the actions they take. The forwards are important in that they must follow the lead of the midfield and adapt their play, and the defenders are important in that they must respond to the threats that emerge as a result of the balance. But it is the role of the midfield to dictate it, and with three veterans certain to start, that shouldn't be too difficult.
Kyle Beckerman: He is the player through which all things must pass, whether it is directly (passes to and from him) or indirectly (play being dictated by him, whether by literal communication or by his movement). He'll be important in relaying play to wide players, and ensuring that play circulates through the midfield.
Ned Grabavoy: He is the player tasked with perhaps the most work of the three veterans, and he'll be required to both help out defending against wide players and to push play through the midfield. His ability to maintain possession will be vital here, particularly against the Sounders midfield; this will give all other players more time to adapt off-the-ball and to provide new outlets.
Javier Morales: He is the player responsible for creating the deadliest of chances and to stretch play laterally both through his movement and through his distribution to forwards. This will open room for the other midfielders — Grabavoy and the other central midfielder in the diamond, perhaps Luis Gil — and the forwards in the areas in which they can do the most damage.
No player has an easier job than any other on the night, but by ensuring that their responsibilities are fulfilled, the collective burden will be lifted, and the wall of 55,000 fans in Seattle can be disappointed once again.
It seems like only yesterday that we faced Portland Timbers, and indeed, it sort of was. Or last week, but that's somewhat like yesterday.
Timbers have assumed relatively the same approach match-by-match, and that they do is a testament to Caleb Porter's belief in tactical consistency. By and large, that's a belief shared by Jason Kreis, who has been one of the most consistent coaches in MLS in recent memory. But Jason Kreis has this season showed a newfound tactical flexibility without sacrificing that belief, and he's changed the shape with relative frequency. The beauty, though, is that no matter how he's changed the shape, the approach and philosophy has remained the same.
With that in mind, Jason Kreis could deploy his side with a different shape to make more difficult the jobs of Porter and crew.
4-2-1-3: Rimando; Beltran, Borchers, Salcedo, Wingert; Beckerman, Grabavoy; Morales; Plata, Saborio, Findley
Good: In this shape, we'd see Plata and Findley tasked with keeping busy Portland's fullbacks, Harrington and Powell, on the left and the right, respectively. Those two generally are important players, as Porter is well aware of the same thing as Kreis: To succeed in an attacking system with no focus on long ball antics, getting one or even both full backs involved in the attack is essential. By pushing back on those two, a big part of the Portland attack is mitigated.
Bad: We lose something in midfield pressure, leaving Grabavoy and Beckerman to carry more of the pressing weight than they otherwise would. If Portland plays a packed midfield, there's a risk this could get overrun.
4-3-2-1: Rimando, Beltran, Borchers, Salcedo, Wingert; Beckerman, Grabavoy, Grossman; Gil, Morales; Saborio
Good: Here, we have introduced an additional midfielder to the mix. I've pointed to Cole Grossman as the option, because we have here three midfielders involved in defending. This would mitigate any risk of the midfield being overrun. Gil and Morales would both play in a wider arrangement, and perhaps Grabavoy would step further forward to fill in the gaps. Saborio is left as the sole striker, largely to play the midfield into the attack, which would be essential.
Bad: We lose a wide man in attack, which has been important for us. When we have a striker on the wing, we introduce a more dynamic attacking option that forces the defense to rethink their plans. Against an attacking Portland Timbers side, there should be space there — it would be good for us to take advantage of that.
4-4-2: Rimando, Beltran, Borchers, Salcedo, Wingert; Beckerman, Grabavoy, Gil, Morales; Plata, Findley
Good: Rather than taking the hold-up approach with Saborio, which brings us plenty of joy, we could give him a rest and allow him an opportunity off the bench, leaving Plata and Findley as the starting strikers. Those two would be tasked with both going wide, leaving the center for the midfield to run into — perhaps they'd start in a central position and move wide. It's difficult to say. This would give us plenty of attacking width and would surely be strong in transition.
Bad: Well, we'd lack a player to hold up the ball, which we've done before. If, as I picture it, we push Plata and Findley into wide positions, we'd be found sorely lacking in the middle, too, I'm afraid. In essence, it could end up looking like a poor parody of a strikerless system.
A 4-0 win over Columbus Crew for Real Salt Lake will surely have everyone in good spirits, and with good reason: Never did RSL look like anything other than the far better side. There is no exaggeration when Jason Kreis called it his side's "most complete performance" of the year.
Columbus's biggest threats on the night were surely Dominic Oduro and Federico Higuain. Neither were particularly threatening to RSL's dominance on the night, with Higuain's impact frustrated to the point that he opted to get sent off instead of continuing in the match. Throughout, Columbus Crew took only a single on-target shot and but three off-target shots. There will be plenty of talk about the attack, and rightly so, but just as vital as the speed with which we re-won possession.
Patience is a virtue, I think
That first goal for Real Salt Lake was one which seemed it would never come. Columbus Crew were resolute in their defending and more than content to let us keep the ball, and but for a deflection, they would have gone into the half having not conceded. What the first half saw, then, was two sides demonstrating immense patience: RSL continued their attack without panicking, and Crew continued their defense without wavering.
And by and large, there was something nice about that — perhaps because Real Salt Lake had breached the defense once, it was made more palatable. But once the Crew decided that, should they desire any result at all, they'd have to be at least slightly more adventurous. The second goal came perhaps as a result, more or less, of that: It was not so much that they had pushed too far forward, but that they failed to track any sort of run. It was as static as the Crew could have looked.
For a team playing — again — its third game in an eight-day stretch, it was encouraging to see those who played full matches in the two preceding matches — Tony Beltran, Nat Borchers, Ned Grabavoy, and Javier Morales, with Chris Wingert close behind — making constant attacking runs. The players who came in looked not just fresh, but eager to be involved. That sort of attitude is difficult to teach and is surely a testament to the squad that has been built.
That movement led to dangerous opportunities throughout the first half, and when the second half rolled around, it led to a further three goals for the home side. Running out winners has rarely been so literal a phrase. A special word should be reserved for Olmes Garcia and Devon Sandoval, who formed a strong, solid partnership, with both players making those essential runs.
With one of the Eastern Conference's playoff somewhat-hopefuls coming to town in the form of Columbus Crew, the impetus is on Real Salt Lake to continue improving in all areas.
Momentum may or may not be a myth, but if we're talking about what Real Salt Lake should do to ensure victory, it certainly is something to consider. But this isn't the sort of momentum maintained in a frictionless system; instead, RSL must continue applying force to keep on the right path. Things have slowed in recent weeks, and maintaining speed is of the essence as the race for the Supporters Shield heats up once again.
Getting players like Kyle Beckerman and Nick Rimando back into the side will be of the utmost importance, but it ought be remembered that we've also struggled with them in there. Should we hope to get back to our best, those two — as well as everyone else out there, but especially those two — will have to ensure that they remain defensively aware.
Without a doubt, this has been the biggest sticking point for Real Salt Lake in the last month. Too often we have done tremendously to find a lead, only to surrender it at first asking, often on a set piece or a cross into the box. Our physical attributes are not particularly problematic, and the ability of our defenders is difficult to question. But it must be remembered that defensive awareness starts at the front and trickles to the back.
This is particularly poignant when we're talking about the midfield; while we've surely improved in the attack over last year, we sometimes lack some important qualities that players like Will Johnson brought to the field. We lack the workhorse in the middle, and while Ned Grabavoy somewhat fills that role, more important has been his attacking thrust. But similarly, I've been quick to criticize players like Luis Gil for not getting far enough into the attack — it's clearly a difficult problem to solve. Whatever we find as our best solution it will involve preventing long unprotected passes from deep in the midfield — those will hurt us over and over.
Higuain v. Morales
The two Argentines are notably among the most ruthlessly efficient playmakers in MLS, and Saturday is a perfect opportunity to see them square off. Both have similar histories, and both are doing quite the providers for their team — but the two aren't exactly the same player. It's difficult to bear those statistics out without watching the match — which renders it all the more interesting. Both are near the top of the league in key passes and assists, and both chip in with a fair few goals for their side — Morales with 6, Higuain with 9.