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.
Going to Texas and notching a win on our belt is no easy feat, but a 3-0 win over FC Dallas while deploying an untested formation? It's the stuff of dreams for Real Salt Lake, and we can point to tactics if we're looking for a cause.
At least on paper, it looked like was rolling out a 4-2-3-1, and parts of it made a good deal of sense. Luis Gil and Sebastian Velasquez played in wide attacking roles on either side of Javier Morales, and Robbie Findley operated as the lone forward. The attacking midfielders, on paper, seemed a fantastic use of personnel, while Findley's operating up top on his lonesome seemed a strange decision.
It didn't quite work out that way. Velasquez and Gil struggled to get heavily involved, and perhaps it was the unfamiliarity of the role that was problematic for the pair. Both thrive when they have passing options closer to them, and that simply wasn't the case. To connect well, Ned Grabavoy and Yordany Alvarez both had to push higher up the pitch, and Morales would have to swing to either side.
While both youngsters are capable of picking up the ball and running at players, it's not exactly a trait that fits the system — we thrive moving the ball from the inside-out while high up the pitch, then back in again to create danger — Saturday was a case of moving the ball outside deeper, then attempting to bring it back in again. This allowed defending wide players to stop the movement before any momentum could be had.
It was perhaps telling that Javier Morales had one of his finer games of the last three years, and his goal and assist (or, if you're including second assists, then he had two) were a mark of his work. Perhaps this came from the wider players occupying defenders more, giving Morales more time and space on the ball.
On a surface level, it would appear the formation worked, but it's difficult to say to what extent. A single win — or loss — doesn't speak to a formation's worth. But it is encouraging that Jason Kreis, typically a stalwart of the diamond 4-4-2, has significantly experimented with other formations this season. The tactical flexibility this affords should keep opponents guessing a bit more and less able to deploy a stymying tactical plan.
A discussion of the match wouldn't be complete without a note on Jason Kreis's key substitutions, as they really shifted the match in RSL's favor. By stepping back into the 4-4-2 and bringing Joao Plata on for Velasquez, the defense was forced to adapt; Plata's ability to run at players has wide impact.
And Olmes Garcia on for Robbie Findley really sounded the death knells for Dallas — with Findley having tired the defense for 70 minutes, Garcia came on and was handed an exhausted defense. With Dallas looking to recover a bit, they wanted to push players forward: Garcia didn't allow that. He picked up the ball in key positions and ran at defenders, he closed down superbly, and by and large, he was a player that impacted the game in a significant way.
Missing a handful of top players, Real Salt Lake travels this Saturday to FC Dallas, where they've never found a win. Absences won't make it impossible, but expecting it to get easier as a result would be a bit of madness.
A whole host of players will be rather notably absent for this one: Alvaro Saborio, Kyle Beckerman, Tony Beltran, and Nick Rimando will all be busy in Salt Lake City (funny thing, fate), and Lovel Palmer is out through suspension after his dubious red card against Philadelphia. That doesn't exactly make the occasion easier, particularly with Kwame Watson-Siriboe and Chris Schuler out with injury. Shifting players around will be a tricky task.
The key position that might throw things off: right back. Beltran's absence is conspicuous, and Palmer's hurts in light of that. Perhaps Jason Kreis will opt to move Chris Wingert to the right side, deploying Abdoulie Mansally on the left — that would seem the most reasonable of options. But Carlos Salcedo and Enzo Martinez have both played significant minutes for the reserves at right back, and perhaps this is an opportunity to test things a bit.
Strike pairs and absences
We've played more pairs of strikers than one would expect, but Robbie Findley and Joao Plata may just get the nod with Saborio's international duty cutting into things — but not significantly more than usual, as the Costa Rican has played fewer than half the available matches this season. The debate rages on about RSL's best pairing: Plata and Findley are not just the speed demon options, but something more intricate that requires the entirety of the midfield be ticking over.
Throwing an Olmes Garcia into the mix obviates that a bit, as he'll run at players and pick up possession all over the pitch, creating dangerous moments along the way. At this point, he's less a system player than he is a fantastic one, though it should be noted that is essentially the goal with him — to exist outside of the system, or at least to stretch and bend it, perhaps nearly to the point of breaking. That sort of disruption is essential in finding the best on-the-field solutions.
Devon Sandoval offers something altogether different, and that's an approximation of our playing style with Saborio in the side. He's clearly a different player, but his playing style is as close as we can come without the veteran striker in the side. As he develops into a stronger, more efficient player, perhaps the best pairing will involve Sandoval.
But for now, Garcia and Plata paired together — especially considering the absences in the side — might make the most sense. Garcia's raw skill and desire to control play from the flanks lessens the impact of Beltran's absence at right back, and it affords an opportunity to combine with Abdoulie Mansally up the left side, should he make the starting lineup.
Demons in Dallas
This is less a tactical adjustment as, say, one that's rather intuitive. We must be acutely focused on the task at hand, and with the numerous replacements to be featured, that's not going to be the easiest of feats. With Dallas struggling after a strong start, having now only two wins from their last 10 matches (having won six of their first 9), the opportunity might just be there for the taking.