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.
Essentially all sides in MLS (18, if we're to be precise) generally play with a four-man defense, and it's very much the accepted tactical outlay across world football. As such, modern attacking formations are based heavily on attempting to exploit the vulnerabilities and spaces between the two central defenders and the full backs. Chivas USA, as has been oft-discussed this season, has been playing with a three-man back line under Chelis, which presents some interesting options for Real Salt Lake.
The midfield attack
It becomes a rather simple equation — though not an entirely accurate one — when we talk about the three central defenders facing two strikers: 3v2 would seem to give an advantage to the defense, but not because of pure numbers. It simply allows for more defensive flexibility in covering an attacking midfielder — a Javier Morales, say — when he's playing centrally. In this case, you'd have both strikers covered and a third attacking player, and your wide midfielders are covering the flanks.
This is where it gets a bit tricky: If Javier Morales makes his diagonal runs toward touch on either flank, he opens up different sorts of space that the 3-5-2 might not accommodate readily. If the third central defender pulls off with him toward the channels on either side, a run is opened up for a deeper-lying midfielder. If the defender stays, he's forced to decide between covering for a wider central defender, who might peel off to cover Morales, or to simply cover dangerous spaces at the back. Whatever the defense does to attempt to cover the danger Morales provides, options should open up for midfielders.
The strikers might be more efficiently covered, doubling the importance of midfield attack. Any disruption that can be offered — while avoiding too much opportunity for Chivas USA to counter — will play into RSL's hands. A quick turn could see the defense presented with three, four or even five attacking options. Imagine, for example: Saborio, Findley, Gil, Morales and Grabavoy all moving toward goal, and rather narrowly at that. Quick runs past the defenders could see Findley perfectly poised to cause significant trouble.
The wide areas
Chivas USA are likely to control the wide areas with either wing-backs or wide midfielders patrolling the flanks. If Real Salt Lake surrenders them, as so often we do out of tactical necessity, our fullbacks will need to be actively communicating with the midfielders to handle any danger on the flanks. Obviously enough, this will require a bit more communication across the board, as it would be rather disastrous to allow free runs in the middle from a creative side.
Real Salt Lake relied heavily on Nick Rimando to take a result on the road despite taking heavy fire from Vancouver Whitecaps on Saturday, but the influence of Olmes Garcia is hard to forget.
On the road (again)
We could harp on about refereeing inconsistency and bad penalty calls, and maybe there's a place for that, but it stands to reason that allowing 16 shots on Saturday — 7 on-target, 7 off-target, 2 blocked — meant Real Salt Lake was dangerously closing to suffering from a less controversial decision. But for incredible goalkeeping from Nick Rimando, RSL would be walking away with zero points. Now, road matches are always going to be difficult in MLS, and there's plenty to be happy about from Saturday, but allowing repeated opportunities puts a side in real danger.
It's difficult to pinpoint a specific problem point, though — whether it's a problem that might be solved by the return of Chris Wingert is difficult to say, but playing a young center back in Chris Schuler alongside a young or inexperienced left back doesn't always lead to fantastic team defending. Wingert's arrival back to action — he went 90 minutes for the reserves — could add some essential stability.
Defending the flanks
It's fair to say that Real Salt Lake's weakest defensive position is left back, and as such, it stands to reason that teams will try to seek out any inconsistency in the position. Lovel Palmer was targeted — much as Mansally was last match — and did well, but not without the help of his teammates. Yordany Alvarez covered well when needed, Ned Grabavoy put in an efficient effort on the left, and Chris Schuler stepped over when Palmer went forward to build in attack.
Schuler's ability to step left and defend the flanks is perhaps in part a result of his deployment in 2011 and 2012; it's not his natural position, but when RSL is in possession and our left back pushes forward, having an able body to shore things up can make a world of difference.
Olmes Garcia's goal marked a lot of things: The sighting of potential, the excitement of youth, the unyearning need at Real Salt Lake for players who step up and make a difference. Jason Kreis will be delighted by what he saw: After only an hour of playing time with Real Salt Lake, the exciting kid from Colombia made his first major impact on a match.
But Kreis is continually faced with one bigger thing: Who starts, and who makes the bench? Once Robbie Findley returns to fitness, the fight for minutes starts in earnest: Alongside the speed demon, Plata, Garcia and Sandoval have each shown well; Plata has two assists and has looked dangerous, Garcia scored that brilliant goal and has looked freakishly talented otherwise, and Sandoval seems to be shaping into a real rookie surprise.
Both Real Salt Lake and Vancouver are battling poor form heading into Saturday's matchup (2 p.m. MT; ABC4), but if Jason Kreis's side doesn't adapt and learn from recent failures, they'll be getting in just enough of a mess as to be irritating.
With the news that Sebastian Velasquez is set to miss the match after suffering a broken hand, Real Salt Lake is certain to see yet another altered starting midfield four. It'll be the fourth different midfield lineup — in seven matches. This lack of continuity is inevitably difficult for a side to deal with, but if Javier Morales is ready to start, it'll start to take on a more definitive appearance.
A disjointed midfield makes Kyle Beckerman's job as captain and general midfield organizer that much more difficult, and the list of fully fit players is small: Beckerman, Grabavoy, Gil, Alvarez, Martinez, Stertzer. Three of those players would expect to start most matches; the drop-off toward the end is a bit severe as experience is concerned.
Individual mistakes have proven costly for Real Salt Lake in 2013, which is likely a function of the relatively low cooperative inexperience of the group, which is to say that they haven't been together for long enough. Extra focus to cut out these mistakes will be essential, especially as Martin Rennie might be instructing his players to target those specific weaknesses. Clearing balls on first opportunity, stepping up during the offside trap, and making immediate, simple passes will be necessary if RSL is interested in clearing up the errors that have plagued these early matches.
We saw last week that Colorado took very specific aim at RSL's left side and Abdoulie Mansally; whether he is a defensive liability or not — and that's very much up for discussion — it's hard to deny that other coaches seem to think so. When one player is targeted frequently, they're more likely to make costly mistakes; Mansally and his teammates will need to be wary of the modes of attack employed.
Despite the uncertainty created by an ever-rotating cast of midfielders, Jason Kreis's side have made creating chances look a bit easy. His squad's averaged a surprising 14 shots per match in the early weeks and attempting more forward passes per match (175, if you're wondering) than any side, excepting Portland.
Robbie Findley's still out, so he doesn't get a chance to finish; Joao Plata may be close to a return, and Alvaro Saborio is still recovering from knee swelling. With the two fully healthy forwards remaining — Devon Sandoval and Olmes Garcia — rather untested and still learning the system, the midfield will need to step up in creation to an extent not seen in some time.
Real Salt Lake's errors against Colorado were many and frequent, but the sole goal scored was less a tactical failure and more a series of individual mistakes.
Aside from the fairly obvious answer — Real Salt Lake conceded an early goal and couldn't recover — there's something more interesting to be taken from the goal scored. Three things happened, and only one of those could rightly be blamed on Abdoulie Mansally. Nat Borchers allowed Edson Buddle to hold up the ball deep in the box, Schuler slipped, allowing his man through and disrupting the defense, and Mansally left his man to attempt to correct for the individual mistake, giving former RSL man Atiba Harris a clear opportunity.
Why'd it happen?
Does Abdoulie Mansally allow for a weakness in Real Salt Lake's defense? Mansally is obviously an attacking full back, and as such, sides may feel they have good opportunities at RSL's wide left position. This seems fairly obvious, the slightly left-leaning bent of RSL's central defenders corrects for that in some important ways. Although he — and plenty of others — were culpable in that early goal from Colorado, it was because of several individual failures in defending and less because of a systemic tactical failure.
How can it be corrected?
It's difficult to tactically correct for individual errors, save for a defensive strategy that provides more defensive cover in all areas. This is fundamentally in conflict with Jason Kreis's strategy for the side, although certain sorts of players can provide some types of fixes. Take, for example, Jamison Olave, whose ability to recover and prevent an attack was used as a solution to this problem. But without a player like Olave, the defense is often left in a situation where a greater responsibility from everyone is required. Single mistakes are inherently more likely to be punished.
Real Salt Lake faces Colorado on Saturday for the second time in less than a month, and although most of the squad is returning to fitness, there remain questions across the board.
With Javier Morales approaching full fitness, Jason Kreis is set to make his first big decision of the new-look 2013 lineup. WIll Luis Gil drop to the bench, with Morales taking his place? Or will Velasquez go to the bench, with Gil dropping deeper in midfield? Will Javier Morales even start on Saturday? While that one seems a bit of a doubt, but it's worth consideration.
Let's talk hypothetically. If Gil stays on, he drops into a position he hasn't played yet this season, but RSL gets a more seasoned player on the pitch. If Velasquez stays on, he continues in his position, building on strong performances there. Experience with Jason Kreis might lead one to believe that Gil stays on, given Kreis's preference for continuing with veteran players, but the fight for places is as big as RSL has had in a while.
Robbie Findley is likely to miss Saturday, which means Alvaro Saborio will again be partnered by somebody in the rotating cast of characters that is the RSL forward line. Joao Plata, should he recover sufficiently, is the most natural big-man-little-man fit, but he's apparently been struggling with a hamstring strain. Devon Sandoval has worked hard, presents some interesting options, but might not be the most natural fit next to Saborio. Olmes Garcia is full of raw, unmistakable talent, but he's just that: Raw.
Sandoval seems the most likely pick: Risking Joao Plata at this point might not be the most unreasonable thing in the world, but there's little chance he goes for a full 90 minutes with injury concerns close by.
Sandoval up top alongside Saborio would be a tactically interesting move. The two are both in a strong mold, work well with their backs to goal, and will help bring the midfield into attack; with two hold-up players, more attacking opportunities for players like Velasquez, Gil, Morales and Grabavoy emerge. Likewise, with two stronger forwards, defenders are forced out of their "cover Saborio endlessly" mentality, and when he he's got room, goals are scored. Additionally, the opportunities at set pieces — at least to distract the defending side — emerge with two dangerous players in the box.
Last time we played Colorado — a scant few weeks ago — Deshorn Brown found himself breaking past the defense time after time after time. Chris Schuler and Kwame Watson-Siriboe struggled as a pair that night. With Colorado at their home ground, they're likely to be continuing on a more attacking bent, but having Nat Borchers back in the side could make a bit of difference.
The fullbacks will need to be extra aware: Mansally and Beltran should continue to trade attacking moments, with one of the two deeper at any given moment. This will allow them to tuck in a bit (but not much) more centrally to help defend the counter.
CCL-bound Seattle Sounders FC is in town (7:00 p.m. on Saturday; CW30), and once again, the nascent rivalry looks set to continue its growth. Managing the match presents a tricky puzzle — how will Jason Kreis adapt his squad to the challenge?
Reintegrating full-back width
Working the international players back into the side will be an undoubtedly easy endeavor: Beckerman, Beltran and Rimando each step in for their backup counterparts, and the roles don't change significantly.
Abdoulie Mansally should step in at left back, and he does present something different and perhaps important. Along with Beltran, Mansally certainly gets up the pitch — we could talk about attack all we wanted — but as important as that is the ability to win the ball in the midfield on the flank, squashing attacks early. Certainly there's a risk in pushing both of your full backs up the pitch: Expect one of Beltran and Mansally to drop back while the other goes forward. It allows the defense to adapt more easily to threats.
Javier Morales is back! Well, maybe. Jason Kreis has indicated that Real Salt Lake's playmaker-in-chief could be set for an appearance, and whether this is off the bench or a start depends on highly on his fitness levels. Kreis — as most reasonable managers would — won't start Morales if there's a chance he'll have to take him off for fitness issues. It rather forces the hand of the coach, and when things may be going well, that's a tough thing to take.
Regardless, should Javier get in, it means a significant shift in the midfield. The sort-of-wide midfielders in the lineup and the central playmaker have been playing a relatively flat line, with the attacking midfielder — Luis Gil, say — dropping a little more than Morales, and with the wide midfielders — Grabavoy and Velasquez, perhaps — pushing up a little further. Morales would certainly play centrally, but he'd get the normal latitude to move in other attacking areas. The rotation among the midfielders would serve him well.
As a starter, Morales generally presents an opportunity to assert himself on the match early; as a substitute, he presents a spark and a chance to find joy late in the match. He'd be very unlikely to go 90 minutes, so either option will be working its away around Kreis's head.
Seattle and CCL
Remember when Real Salt Lake was in the CONCACAF Champions League? Yeah, so do I. Seattle Sounders are, and good for them, I suppose. They've got Santos Laguna on Tuesday and could well put out a weakened lineup in preparation for one of the bigger matches in their history. While jealousy does sometimes get the better of me, I suppose it's hard to fault them. It might give us a better chance at a win — but as we've seen before, young, eager guys can sometimes get the better of a more experienced side.
Coming off the back of a rough patch, RSL will need to be ready for Seattle to fling essentially everything at them; if they do roll out a young side, there'll be no huge expectation of winning, and those circumstances are notoriously difficult to manage.
Real Salt Lake's struggles in Texas continued on Saturday with a 2-0 loss at FC Dallas, but it was hardly the state that was their downfall: Rather, it was the state of the squad, and naturally, the state of the attack.
Ringing in the changes
With a bit of surprise, Real Salt Lake didn't have many issues that occurred directly as a result of the changes in lineup. None of the individual pieces were particularly woeful, and indeed, most showed reasonably well for themselves. That is, of course, not to say that their first-choice counterparts wouldn't have been better options — particularly when it came to overall creativity.
Ned Grabavoy led the attack in the midfield, grabbing four key passes; Yordany Alvarez was largely effective as a defensive midfielder despite his late red card, leading the team in passing (56/66) and generally breaking up play. Both goals came from other areas of the pitch — one a long ball over the top, the other a long ball sent wide — leaving Alvarez relatively blameless, excepting his dismissal that made a comeback more difficult for Real Salt Lake.
Of the players who stepped in from the start without having seen action this season, Cole Grossman looked acceptable in the midfield, Nat Borchers looked magnificent in defense, and Josh Saunders, barring his big error, was a solid goalkeeper.
Speed without strength
Jason Kreis opted for a speedier front line than Real Salt Lake has seen in some time, and the acceleration of Joao Plata combined with the top speed of Robbie Findley created some interesting opportunities in front of goal. Indeed, it was Plata's quickness that created the first RSL shot of the match as he burst past a line of defenders. Still, without the hold-up play of Alvaro Saborio, Real Salt Lake lacked an efficient out when pressured, and this led to some dangerous moments in which FC Dallas looked likely to score.
It hammers home an important point: Alvaro Saborio is an important part of the tactical makeup of Real Salt Lake — or at least a player who can hold the ball in congested areas, deflecting attention from other areas of the pitch. With two speedy strikers and a relatively compact midfield sticking further back on the pitch, the defending side can place effective pressure on the midfield without having to cover forwards with multiple players. How many times have we seen Saborio with three players at his heels, only for him to make a pass back to an open midfield? It's illustrative of his influence, and when it's not there, Real Salt Lake quite naturally struggles in attack.
If there's one thing to be said about this Real Salt Lake side early on, it's that when they've conceded, they've had a response. Once again, after conceding a goal, RSL out-passed (77/97 to 45/61; 27/38 to 10/17 in the attacking half) their opponents. But with this late pressure, RSL's efforts backfired a bit, as they conceded another goal, and though the manner of it was hardly a tactical flaw, the three other shots FC Dallas took were not. Should this mentality continue, dividends will certainly be paid. Of greater concern should be the situations in which they concede.
Real Salt Lake will be missing more than a handful of players as they travel to take on FC Dallas. Dealing with absence after absence will be the highest priority on Jason Kreis’s mind — how, exactly, does one go without ten-plus players, anyhow?
Managing expectations and approach
Let’s be clear about things: Real Salt Lake is likely to be missing upwards of 10 players on Saturday. It makes things very difficult. It could well be the case that to fill the seven-man bench, there will be two goalkeepers on there — it’s no certainty, but there should be no surprises if that’s the case.
As such, this match is a very difficult one for Jason Kreis’s crew. Our loyal leader will need to have his side prepared for what could be a tough match. At this early point in the season, the goal should be to avoid a blowout loss, to understand expectations, and to simply work hard on and off the ball. Anything more than that will, I suspect, be a bonus.
Given that Jason Kreis is hardly a madman, even if he is obsessive about winning, it’s hard to see him upset with a loss — excepting perhaps some anger directed at MLS for scheduling a match during World Cup qualifiers.
Coping with changes
Continuity’s a funny thing. We’re not likely to have, well, any. Or at least not much. Of the players who started last match, only a handful are likely to start again: Chris Schuler, Kwame Watson-Siriboe, Lovel Palmer (albeit on the opposite side), Luis Gil and Robbie Findley. That’s right: Only five players who played one week ago are likely to start. Should Khari Stephenson be deemed start-ready, that number will be boosted to slightly more than half of the starting lineup at six.
Dealing with those changes is going to be difficult, but Kreis should focus his side on playing a more reserved style, wherein they look to control possession with safe, unadventurous passing. It’s not promising to be a pretty match — but should they get pegged back, the physical presence of Devon Sandoval, likely in for Alvaro Saborio, combined with the kinetic potential of Robbie Findley could see RSL playing prototypical “Plan B” football.
Solidifying the defense
Jason Kreis will surely be looking to solidify his defensive line ahead of Saturday’s match, but given the seemingly imminent return of one Nat Borchers (who will undoubtedly take the captain’s armband for the day, should he start), the task may not be so mammoth.
Of course, an untested midfield grouping, owing to the absence of several players, is likely to see that backline tested. With Palmer on the right and Schuler on the left, expecting much attacking thrust from the defensive group is unreasonable; but that may play into RSL’s hands. Indeed, three of the four that started in defense last week are expected to be starting again. I suppose it could be worse.
It's not often that a Real Salt Lake goal is the direct result of a tactical decision, but Jason Kreis's move to a 3-4-3 late in the second half of Saturday's 1-1 draw against the Colorado Rapids falls into that category.
Changing shape: 3-4-3
When he pulled Lovel Palmer from the match and dropped in Devon Sandoval, Jason Kreis pushed Real Salt Lake into a near-desperate 3-4-3 formation, and he did it with some success. With Chris Schuler as a slightly withdrawn left back, Tony Beltran as an adventurous right back, and Kwame Watson-Siriboe in the middle, there was always a certain risk involved, and for a moment it did seem as if Colorado would find a goal. If not for a fine performance from Nick Rimando, they would have.
The midfield was where the more interesting movement took place; with a largely right-sided attack, owing to Beltran's runs on that side of the pitch, swathes of the midfield were left rather empty. With Luis Gil on the right flank and Sebastian Velasquez on the left, Ned Grabavoy and Kyle Beckerman were left largely to patrol the midfield; the former was inevitably pushed higher up the pitch than the latter. Devon Sandoval and Alvaro Saborio formed a double-target front line, while Joao Plata played in a slightly withdrawn forward role.
Through Beltran's runs down the right, Luis Gil was given a greater opportunity to influence the match, and it's telling that it was through his hard work on the edge of the box that the goal arose. Joao Plata's awareness again proved crucial as well, and it's increasingly hard to fault Saborio's finishing prowess. Subtly important and easy to ignore, though, was the run by Sandoval, which drew one of two defenders away from Saborio, opening the shooting opportunity, which Saborio took with immaculate poise.
Unsurprisingly, Kyle Beckerman domineered the midfield, leaving Colorado with scant few opportunities to control possession; of course, given their long-ball counterattacking strategy (incredibly effective as it was), this was perhaps no surprise. Beckerman — nor any other RSL midfielder — wasn't forced into tackles or even interceptions, leaving the player free to spray passes across the pitch. With 83 of 101 passes successful, it's clear who controlled the affair. Sebastian Velasquez, too, had a fantastic night in the pass, completing 68 of 77 passes and maintaining possession.
It's hard to tactically account for errors when a player like Jamison Olave isn't in the side to plow through everyone. With this in mind, several Real Salt Lake players will rather be kicking themselves after allowing Colorado Rapids a number of chances simply from mistakes on the ball. Chris Schuler was guilty during the conceded goal, but errors fell in most areas and weren't confined to a single player. Whether this is down to nervousness or concentration or some third factor is difficult to say with any definitive voice. Whatever the case, Jason Kreis and company will be looking for those to be erased moving forward.