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.
Real Salt Lake's travels to Portland force the league-topping side into a difficult position against a strong team, with the loss of Kyle Beckerman a particularly sore point.
No Captain (or is it "No, Captain!"?)
The returning Yordany Alvarez should step in for Kyle Beckerman, which, on the face of it, is a slightly terrifying prospect, but the reality of it is a bit less daunting. Alvarez is clearly no direct, one-for-one replacement, and I don't think anybody suspects he is. But he does present some valuable attributes, especially when we consider his passing game. He surely won't be getting forward in the same way, but he still manages to get himself into advanced positions quite readily.
Surprisingly, the thing we'll miss most from Beckerman is his creative play. Do we say that a year ago? Two years ago? I don't know, but he's had a distinct shift in his approach this season, and it's one that has benefited our play.
Our shifts in formation have startled opponents somewhat, as they now feel uncertain as to what we'll play on any given match day. This, despite very heavily playing in that 4-4-2 — so what's got them scared? Simply, it's the flexibility they thought we didn't have. In all honesty, our three core formations we've played this season — the 4-4-2 diamond, the 4-2-1-3, the 4-5-1 — all function in largely the same way: We maintain pressure with our forwards and attacking midfielders, we stretch play with midfield runs, and we maintain possession in the middle.
It's the understanding we've built in the squad over years of play that allows us to easily switch formations, and that, in its own right, is a bit unintuitive. By being dogged in our formational approach, we've enabled ourselves to be flexible in our … formational approach. Funny how these things turn out.
Maintaining midfield pressure
As we saw against Portland in the US Open Cup, it's important that, if we're to be successful again against this side, we have to maintain a similar approach. This means being systematic in our pressure from the midfield and the front, but we must do so without leaving substantial gaps between our defenders and our midfield. This is the difficulty of the approach, but key will be restricting the possession and passing of Portland Timbers in less dangerous areas. Less key is winning the ball back quickly, because as we've seen, they hardly thrive in deeper positions.
It all takes a degree of caution, but this is the sort of thing on which the result will pivot.
Real Salt Lake on Saturday faces perhaps their most bitter nemesis (rivalries not withstanding) in the form of LA Galaxy; one of the more potent sides in MLS, Real Salt Lake will have a difficult job maintaining approach and style without sacrificing defensive solidity.
Returning to the diamond
It's easy to imagine that facing off against LA Galaxy will require a more dynamic midfield than facing Houston required — which isn't a knock on the trio of Kyle Beckerman, Ned Grabavoy, and Javier Morales last week, nor on Houston particularly. But certainly we can agree that, when in form, LA Galaxy are a treacherous side to face, and containing them will require special attention. Stymying Robbie Keane and Landon Donovan is not particularly an easy task.
But it's equally important in attack: There was plenty of potency unfulfilled last week, and this isn't the sort of match to leave that on the table. Deploying with a more familiar formation for the squad could provide both attack and defense the best platform for success.
Defending the transition
It's a simple thing but difficult to execute: LA Galaxy will be quite good at picking up the ball in key areas and hitting us in our transitional states. We know this. With attacking players who can essentially turn the game on its head at any given moment — Robbie Keane and Landon Donovan the two obvious options — we have to be smart with the ball. We can't go losing it in the deeper parts of midfield on a silly pass, and we surely can't afford to lose the ball with a silly pass from a defender.
But surely we will give up the ball at times. Some of the world's greatest tactical managers, notably Pep Guardiola and Arsene Wenger, among others, had a method for mitigating the risk of a lost ball: Immediately after the ball is lost, put intense pressure on the opposition for somewhere between three (Wenger) and six seconds (Pep) in an attempt to win the ball back immediately. Once that time period has passed, if the ball is not forthcoming, retreat to a more stable defensive outlay and defend the attack. That sort of approach wouldn't go amiss for Real Salt Lake.
Maintain control of possession
There are some sides against which losing the possession battle is fine, or at least doesn't present any great trouble. LA Galaxy are not one of those sides. That's not to say that they don't present trouble when they lose that particular battle: On April 27, RSL lost 2-0 but had a 63-37 possession advantage. So, yes, it's not everything. Or most things. But it's something we can control, and if we're smart without the ball as well as with it, we'll be in a good position.
Because it's really what was on everybody's minds after the match, let's talk about the formation shift Jason Kreis rolled out and its effectiveness for this team.
To start, it was a fairly European 4-2-1-3 — or as some might term it, a 4-2-3-1 — but whatever way you describe it, there were two deeper midfielders, Ned Grabavoy and Kyle Beckerman; an attacking midfielder sitting essentially in the attacking half, Javier Morales; a central striker, Alvaro Saborio; and two wide players in attacking positions, Olmes Garcia and Joao Plata. The difference between the two formational descriptions rests on the roles of Garcia and Plata. Neither played exactly like a traditional winger, nor did they play exclusively like strikers in wide positions. In reality, the formation is somewhere betwixt the two.
Now, this may be because they weren't entirely effective in their positions. Jason Kreis was critical of the two in his post-match press conference, saying of the formation's future for RSL: "…If we’re going to continue forward ... we’ve got to get those players moving more. I don’t like them standing on their outside backs and getting themselves marked." Now, this doesn't necessarily mean either deserve blame for this, as it was a new approach for the squad and one that requires a great deal of understanding for proper execution. It did present some promise.
What, exactly, does the future hold for Real Salt Lake's formational approach? In the short-term, it's hard to see us moving away from the diamond, on which we have built our core. It's an excellent fit for many reasons — from Javier Morales's consistent mobility to the ability of deeper midfielders to impact play with dynamic runs, there's a lot to be positive about. The diamond may not be here long-term — two, three years down the road, say — but it's hard to see a distinct shift now.
Still, the tactical flexibility afforded by the change in approach is indisputable. If we are able to sufficiently gain an understand in another system, and we're able to utilize it effectively in the attack — not just in defense — we'll be better able to counteract the stale defensive outlays teams send out to put a stopper on us. Should we be able to effectively shift to a three-forward setup, we can instantly widen play in a significant way; should we shift back, we could attack down the middle more effectively. Both systems afford defensive width, and both systems allow for quality play in transition, so we don't lose any particular advantage as a result.
Should Real Salt Lake continue down this road? It would seem a good one to at least venture down a little further. We have wide attacking players who can make a significant impact, and we have a collection of midfielders who will fight for every ball and cover as much ground as anyone in the league. It's a good fit — but it has to work in a sustainable, long-term sense. And given we haven't seen it work fully yet, there remain questions aplenty
Real Salt Lake has been in mixed form in MLS play, but with a tremendous US Open Cup win on Wednesday, there's a sense that the dip could recover well. The tactical pieces are there — but as so often this season, injuries and fitness could throw a bit of a wrench into the best-laid plans.
Real Salt Lake has been unwavering this season in the desire to play essentially the same style from match to match. Remarkably, this is the case despite several formation shifts, forced personnel changes, and indeed, an understanding that controlling the pace of the match constantly is not always possible or wise.
As a result, we've seen RSL surrender possession at times; this often comes in the form of allowing the opposition to simply pass the ball around the back line while they probe for an opening. Our general strategy — short build-up play and balls sent to either flank to release pressure and stretch play — remains the same regardless. I don't know that Jason Kreis is setting his side out to surrender some attacking control in exchange for another sort, but the ability of our side to adapt to changes in the pace of the game has been an important factor in our successes.
Defending from the front
If one thing can be said about Wednesday's win over Portland Timbers, it's that Real Salt Lake displayed an encouraging ability to defend from the front lines. With Alvaro Saborio and Robbie Findley both dropping deep to defend when not in possession, Real Salt Lake pushed Portland attackers into wide positions, where they were ineffectual at best.
Houston Dynamo won't quite present the same challenge, but that mentality is one that we've pushed forward with through the season. It's paid dividends. Indeed, it's been the case almost to the point that Findley has been deployed as something approaching a winger who will burst forward during counters. This is more than him simply stretching play: He's been important from wide positions and has helped create goals from those positions.
Jason Kreis's side has been in a bit of a minutes crunch this season, and for some, pushing them to play both Saturday and Wednesday stretched their fitness thin. As such, players like Javier Morales and Kyle Beckerman are both in positions where playing again Saturday is probably too soon. A bit of a rest for the two of them, who are rarely afforded them, will be essential in the long-term, but in the short term, we have to wonder about replacements.
On Wednesday, Ned Grabavoy played at the top of the diamond, and he was fairly effective doing so. Last Saturday, he played in the side of the diamond. This Saturday, he might play at the base of the diamond. The remarkable part is that he can play those three distinct positions effectively.
Real Salt Lake's magical Open Cup run is nearing its culmination: Whether that end-point is a final at Rio Tinto Stadium or a semifinal against Portland Timbers tonight is difficult to predict.
Stay aware of opportunities created in the middle
Real Salt Lake must be entirely aware of opportunities being created through the middle; while most opportunities created against us are from the flanks, Portland Timbers are clearly not like most sides in MLS. They'll pass along the ground, move the ball, and exercise a modicum of patience. It's a bit like we are, and we've not really faced a side like that to this point.
One good look in the mirror
Playing against Portland Timbers will bring to light some of our positive qualities and, indeed, some of our more negative ones. Our weakness in set piece organization is in line with the issues Timbers have displayed with set pieces, while our propensity for attacking through creativity and passing movement will be mirrored by Timbers. This is surely the first time we've faced a side this season that mirrors that desire. The battles will be as physical as ever, but we shouldn't count on Portland resorting to simply lumping the ball long out of the back. That it's taken until August to see this opposition — and not even in league play at this point — is regrettable, given we will now play them in a more condensed period.
In what will surely be one of the key story lines of the night, both sides have young managers who are passionate about their methodology, and that's not likely to change on the night. Jason Kreis and Caleb Porter squaring off should be a thing of broadcasters' dreams. The unpredictability of both managers — combined with the relative predictability of both sides' approaches — will be part of an ever-intensifying evening.
But what could change?
Jason Kreis's side has displayed some very encouraging signs that they're capable of being deployed in multiple formations, and the boss has used that to good effect. Whether it's rolling out a third forward late in the match to maintain high pressure or to contain the high pressure of the opposition, or deploying five midfielders to focus on building attacks in wider positions, there is a newfound element of unpredictability that only helps the general effectiveness of our tried-and-true midfield diamond.
Magic of the cup?
Managing a single-leg knockout competition is rather different than managing a league match or even a double-leg knockout series. Every mistake will be under the microscope after the fact. It's difficult to really make it through on luck alone, but stymying the opposition — perhaps with the aid of one unbelievably good goalkeeper — will be key to securing a U.S. Open Cup Final at Rio Tinto Stadium.
Real Salt Lake's Rocky Mountain Cup-losing 2-2 draw at Colorado on Saturday was not the result of lackadaisical output, nor was it the result of injuries, nor of worrying fissures within the side's tactical makeup. What, then, was the cause?
Once again, Real Salt Lake conceded a game-tying goal from a hopeful cross; it is something we've seen repeatedly over the last three matches. In these cases, it's easy to point at the quality of defenders on display, but poor defenders in good positions are less likely to allow those sorts of goals. No, it's not an issue of the quality of defenders, but of the quality of defending take place. Nick Rimando rightly pointed at organization as an issue in the draw and the losses that preceded it. He's not at all wrong.
Goals in transition
Again, this is in part down to organization, but the issue starts further up the pitch. When the ball is lost cheaply at any position, the opposition is handed an opportunity to counter in numbers. They're also given an opportunity to send in hopeful crosses, as with the defense on the back foot, they are less capable of defending crosses into the box. We keep seeing it, and it's difficult to really solve with one fell swoop, but it's hurt us before, it hurt us this time, and it will hurt us again — even if we solve the issue.
It's a function, in part, of the way in which we play that we allow chances. As an attacking side that puts numbers forward — a tactical risk Jason Kreis admits — we must find the best way to deal with the transition, because it's going to happen.
A lack of defensive identity
This one perhaps is the cause of the preceding two points. When your defenders are unable to build rapport through playing time, understanding who exactly is where becomes a difficult proposition. A difficult question to answer: When last did we play the same defensive line in consecutive matches? The question boggles the mind. This season, we've seen Nat Borchers paired with Chris Schuler, Kwame Watson-Siriboe, Carlos Salcedo, Aaron Maund, and now Brandon McDonald. And we're only halfway through the season. Now, much of that change has been forced, but to go from having a genuine pairing that started the majority of matches in Borchers and Jamison Olave to this? There should be no surprise that we lack identity.
The question now: How do we create it? Who is closest? And will a pairing galvanize before the playoffs?
Two of the best sides in recent MLS memory face each other when RSL takes on Sporting Kansas City this weekend, and that we're involved in that is a testament to the progress we've made this season — but playing SKC always presents some difficult considerations.
Watching some of the more positive moments — those that resulted in goals and those that didn't — against FC Dallas last weekend, the importance of the ever-vaunted pass-and-move strategy came to bear. By forcing defenders and midfielders to follow the ball consistently, quick, dangerous players like Olmes Garcia and Joao Plata can come in late in the match and tear the opposition apart. It should also be noted that Real Salt Lake's goals on the break this season — of which there have been a fair few — have come as a result of that movement. When five, six, even seven attackers end up in the attacking third, the odds of a goal should naturally increase.
Despite conceding some chances while dominating matches, Jason Kreis's side have displayed an undeniable desire to win the ball quickly after turning it over, particularly outside of the defensive third. Being caught of position there is dangerous, while being caught out of position as an attacking midfielder is generally less so. Though there is a bit of danger associated with a high pressure system, the risks are outweighed by the gains. Against a strong defensive side like Sporting Kansas City, it will be imminently important to apply that sort of pressure. They'll have a result to expose the Kansas City defense to holes emanating from the absence of Matt Besler — and to expose the whole squad to the oft-discussed altitude consideration in Salt Lake City.
I feel as though I've written this little bit about 100 times this season already, but it bears repeating: RSL will have to deal with rotating due to injury. This time, we'll be without central defender Carlos Salcedo (although next time we're with him, we'll have Carlos Salcedo without his gallbladder, and perhaps that's good) and goalkeeper Josh Saunders. That's slightly problematic, but their replacements already have time: Both Aaron Maund and Jeff Attinella have seen a bit of time — Maund a bit more — and that's got to help the nerves.