It's rare that two sides so perfectly matched meet, but with Real Salt Lake once again taking on Seattle Sounders, a tactical battle was inevitable. With Seattle focusing in wide areas and RSL creating through the middle, the match was more tactical than technical in its nature.
Stopping wide play
There are two sides to this coin: On one hand, we should consider how well Seattle was able to get crosses into the box. On the other, we should consider that those rarely had any real effect.
A six-for-38 crossing rate — about 16 percent success, including corners — speaks to the cross quality. It's a low mark for Seattle, but the number must be a little startling — allowing 38 crosses is a bit dangerous. But by and large, those were rushed, and the central defenders — Borchers and Watson-Siriboe, largely — were able to clear most of the danger.
Understandably, Seattle focused their crossing efforts on their right side. With Mauro Rosales and Christian Tiffert taking up positions there, RSL relied heavily on Chris Wingert, who performed well, especially given the glut of attack coming on that side.
Flipping the midfield
To clog up the passing lanes in Seattle's attack, Jason Kreis made an interesting decision to switch the sides Ned Grabavoy and Will Johnson operated on. With Grabavoy on the left, Rosales and Tiffert were able to pick up play a bit, but we more easily regained possession on that side.
Johnson on the right allowed an excellent partnership with Tony Beltran, forcing Seattle's play outside the final third. Combined with Seattle's generally right-sided play, the other flank was RSL's. With Johnson cutting in just a bit more central than he usually does when playing on the left, clogging passing lanes effectively.
With Grabavoy and Johnson switching sides and playing in channels, Kyle Beckerman was left to control the center of the park. His defensive contribution was largely acting as a body in the center — Seattle's penchant for avoiding the center of the park in attack meant he wasn't called on as he is against other MLS sides.
As a result, Beckerman acted more as a distributing central midfielder, occupying the middle third almost exclusively. It's a stark contrast from the occasions in which he's deployed in an anchoring role and acts as a third center back — on Friday, he was tasked with transitioning from defense to attack.
With Javier Morales taking up his typical wider positions, the connection between the two was strengthened: Beckerman picked the ball up in the middle of the park, pushed it off to Morales, and the attack moved forward. Additionally, Alvaro Saborio, in fine hold-up form, was a vital cog as RSL looked to build in attack.
It seems like it was only yesterday that Real Salt Lake was on their way to Seattle to take on the Sounders on Oct. 17. These two sides just can't seem to stop playing each other, and with that, another entertaining match is likely to ensue in the first leg of the MLS Western Conference Semifinal.
Stopping wide play
The Sounders are an interesting matchup for more reasons than just historical: With their flank play, they represent a distinct ideological shift from Real Salt Lake's through-the-middle approach. Will Johnson and Ned Grabavoy will be forced to step into wider areas to challenge Seattle's full backs, and Chris Wingert and Tony Beltran will be forced to push a bit higher than they would against most sides to challenge Seattle's wingers.
This puts a bit more of an onus on Kyle Beckerman to cut out passes when Seattle transitions from the wide areas to more central areas, focusing acutely on players like Christian Tiffert and Mauro Rosales, the two biggest sources of Seattle's key passes.
On the defensive
Going behind in the first leg of a playoff series makes the second leg more difficult. It is perhaps fortunate, then, that RSL is going into this match with a brilliant defensive record, having conceded only three goals in 990 minutes of play across all competitions. It's a remarkable measure, but it doesn't stop goals from occurring.
Performances on the road have at times been lacking, evidenced by the fact that RSL has conceded 20 goals and scored only 19, leaving them with a negative differential away from home. But going on goal differential can be a bit misleading: San Jose has conceded 21 (+8 GD), Seattle 22 (+2 GD), LA Galaxy 27 (+1 GD), and Vancouver Whitecaps 24 (-14 GD).
Seattle has conceded only 11 goals at home, the best mark in all of MLS. It makes the proposition a bit trickier: Does Real Salt Lake come out and try to nick a goal or two against the team with the best home defensive record? I'm inclined to think that Jason Kreis recognizes this and will instruct his players to worry first about defending — something they've been quite good at in the last month or two — and to look for goals through counter attacking play.
It's been evident before (save in the most recent MLS match against them, though they did go down a man) that Seattle isn't afraid to commit players in attack. It could be an influential factor. I'm not saying RSL should bunker, mind — that's the sort of stuff the team’s never been great at. But if Seattle wants to swing crosses in with reckless abandon, RSL's back line — whoever it may be — will have the ability to deal with it. It's when wingers cut inside that there may be more worries.
Any time you've got 90 minutes with no goals, there's a chance the match was a bit on the boring side — Real Salt Lake’s scoreless draw against Vancouver on Saturday was no big exception. But with plenty of lineup changes and some interesting substitutions, there was plenty of tactical interest to be had.
With backup goalie Kyle Reynish on for regular ‘keeper Nick Rimando, and Chris Wingert and Kwame Watson-Siriboe as the central defenders in front of him, there was always a slight risk that continuity could be disrupted and defensive posturing rendered obsolete. Much to their credit, the slightly makeshift back line did well to snuff out chances before they started — all while both outside backs Tony Beltran and Kenny Mansally were both able to get forward with ease and aplomb.
With Javier Morales out and Will Johnson not starting, the midfield did struggle a bit to create clear chances, but Jonny Steele's defensive contribution (4/4 tackling, 3 interceptions) was a bright spot. Luis Gil failed to inject himself fully in the tip of the diamond, but Ned Grabavoy was in fine passing form and Kyle Beckerman was his usual strong self.
With the game bordering on boring through most of the first and second halves, late substitutions promised at least some sort of shift in momentum. For Real Salt Lake, the arrival on the scene of Sebastian Velasquez, Will Johnson and David Viana did just that.
The most notable was certainly Sebastian Velasquez, who took the opportunity, as they say, with both hands. With late runs into the box, exciting dribbling ability, and a demand for the ball, he showed a hunger and drive that set things alight late on.
Will Johnson, on the other hand, didn't have too much to do — set up as a right back in a shift from his usual left back spot (when moving into a defensive position), with Tony Beltran going to the left, he got forward well but wasn't able to really change the affair in a substantial way. With only 12 minutes on the pitch, that wasn't entirely surprising.
David Viana came on and played 19 minutes in his home debut, but he, like most, didn't show anything entirely too exciting. As a newcomer to the system, the fact that he's getting minutes at all speaks well of his ability, but if he is handed another chance in 2012, he'll want to be more of an impact.
Heading into the playoffs, RSL has done as well in the last five games of the season, gaining more points in the last five matches of the regular season (11) than in any other season. Whether this affects the long-term viability of the playoff campaign is difficult to say definitively, but Jason Kreis is a firm believer that form carries over. It's hard to see it not having at least some impact.
Bouncing back from a painful cup exit is a difficult thing to do for any side, but the Claret-and-Cobalt will want to avoid the "continental hangover" effect against Vancouver Whitecaps FC at Rio Tinto Stadium on Saturday.
With the match the final regular season contest before the start of MLS Cup playoffs, three questions will be on the top of Jason Kreis's mind: How does RSL approach the match? What personnel should be used, and who is available? And, finally: How does regular season form sit in the priority?
As detailed in Thursday's post on The Sovereign, there's plenty left to play for, even when we're just talking about the regular season. The pain of losing against Herediano is still there, but as it so often does, time marches on and the Claret-and-Cobalt are being pushed into another meaningful match. Despite the subdued build-up — it's hard to imagine it's easy to escalate after this week — it could still potentially affect RSL's ability to host the MLS Cup and to qualify for CONCACAF Champions League.
As such, finding the right balance will be critical for Jason Kreis. As much as fans have had a hard week, the players will feel it doubly so, and whether that's best solved by putting them in a high-pressure scenario or by having them relax a bit and just play is hard to really say effectively. This is, as they say, why he's paid the big bucks.
With two additional injury concerns coming out of the Herediano match, Jason Kreis has more than the approach to the match to worry about. Both Will Johnson and Chris Schuler came out of the match because of injury, and with Jamison Olave and Ned Grabavoy kept out of proceedings altogether on Tuesday, pickings are looking slim.
If Schuler and Olave are both out, it seems likely that Kwame Watson-Siriboe would be used if fit — but at this point, that may be a fairly substantial "if." The only other immediate option would be to push Chris Wingert inside, dropping Kenny Mansally in at left back.
If Grabavoy is indeed out, Luis Gil (if sufficiently recovered from mid-week and from illness) would almost certainly take his place; if Will Johnson is out, it's hard to look past Jonny Steele — if just for defensive contribution. Steele has, to my mind, received a lot of criticism for his play, some of it justified — but his work rate and defensive ability are the closest available in midfield next to Will Johnson's.
It's often bandied about that form is the deciding factor moving into playoffs, sometimes with some evidence, other times with significantly less than that. Regardless, RSL will want to keep Vancouver's form spotty — in their last nine matches, they've won just once, a solitary 4-0 victory over Western Conference whipping boys Chivas USA. Further, it seems odd, but with a win, RSL could find their best form since June.
After Real Salt Lake failed to win their last six matches to end 2011, there were concerns about the ability of the squad to respond positively in the playoffs. A strong win at home against Seattle aside, there wasn't much momentum to carry forward.
Regardless of the statistical realities (or irrealities, as the case may be) of form leading into playoffs, it stands to reckon that keeping his troops injury-free will be high on the priority list for Jason Kreis. If he's to go into playoffs with only one recognized center back available, an overwhelming sense of deja vu will pass over all of Utah. That may be as much an influencing factor as anything.
Tactics are only a piece of the puzzle in a soccer match, but in the case of Real Salt Lake’s scoreless draw with Herediano on Tuesday that eliminated the Claret-and-Cobalt from the CONCACAF Champions League, they were perhaps the most important piece.
The first 45
The first half of the match was riddled with shots from RSL. Forward Fabian Espindola had golden opportunity bounce off the crossbar for the team’s most prominent chance. It was perhaps frustrating that none of the seven shots on target translated into goals, but that's less a tactical concern and more an execution concern.
Herediano had left RSL with space around the outside of the box, and with this, they were able to make connecting passes and burst inside. More than half of RSL's passes were in the attack half, and from this, a plethora of shots were on hand. Six of the 12 shots came from inside the box, and four of those were on the left side. Fabian Espindola was having a screamer, despite his crossbar-struck shot.
Additionally, RSL did really well to pick up on any danger provided by Herediano, who hadn't yet begun the bunkering process. Aware that a goal would do them well, they got forward, sometimes in numbers. But eight interceptions and 20 clearances in the first half alone is indicative of a home side playing to its defensive strengths.
The second 45
The second half saw the entire dynamic of the match shift. Herediano tucked into an even more narrow shape, surrendered possession until very late, and resorted to a bunkering approach. With anywhere between six and ten men in the box at any given moment, they had a distinct advantage in defending approach play.
When RSL's options were limited by injury — Will Johnson and Chris Schuler both exiting — Kreis's substitution options were significantly limited. Sebastian Velasquez was the sole truly attacking substitution, and while he was able to work into some excellent positions, one or two more attacking subs would have certainly helped.
As time started to run out, Herediano shifted its approach slightly: The players took opportunity to retain possession and move toward the corner flags. It was very much a standard approach of a side looking to retain a scoreline, and it certainly played into their hands. RSL was forced to send men back to regain possession, and from there, the attacking setup was broken up.
By the time RSL could transition back into attack, Herediano had eaten valuable time off the clock. It was a strong way for the visitors to end the match, and it scuppered any thought of a late goal from the home side, ending RSL’s CCL dream.
Real Salt Lake faces an absolute must-win on Tuesday night, when it will take on C.S. Herediano in a decisive CONCACAF Champions League Group 2 match. Of course, few things lead to a loss of tactical cohesion quite like these must-win games. RSL will have to stay supremely focused in several areas if it's to get the result it needs at Rio Tinto Stadium on Tuesday.
Posturing: Defensive or offensive
In order to progress, Jason Kreis's side must win by either a 1-0 scoreline or by two clear goals. It's one of those tough scenarios that requires some intense concentration from all involved. It raises questions about the approach to the match.
As a first option, RSL could score a goal then opt for a more defensive posture, as a single goal by Herediano brings the necessary scoreline to 3-1 — it could be a big ask against a defensively resolute side. With Jamison Olave a doubt, a usually solid partnership of Nat Borchers of Chris Schuler could be tested significantly.
As a second option, RSL could go in guns blazing, secure in the knowledge that regardless, they'll need at least a goal to go forward — and there are few better ways to get a goal than to simply go for it.
Defender Nat Borchers — unsurprisingly — would choose the first option: "We're going to have some patience, just make sure everything's switched on defensively, and the goals are going to come."
Missing puzzle pieces
With Alvaro Saborio out through yellow card accumulation, and Fabian Espindola and Jamison Olave in doubt for Tuesday, Jason Kreis will certainly be wringing his hands over the decisions he'll soon be forced to make.
Saborio's absence is perhaps the biggest: RSL's leading goalscorer — this season, in CONCACAF Champions League, and overall — is certain to be missed, as there are no other real hold-up players on the team. Justin Braun will be hoping to fill that role, but until his on-ball ability reaches a higher level, he may struggle for minutes.
Fabian Espindola's potential absence, compounded with Saborio's, would be doubly concerning: Already, Paulo Jr. is likely to start, but having him in as the available-first-choice striker would necessitate a potential shift in approach. With both Saborio and Espindola absent, RSL would be forced into either changing shape, continuing with Emiliano Bonfigli, or giving Justin Braun a chance.
An absence to Olave would be the easiest to solve: Chris Schuler has shown well since returning from his foot injury, and I suspect if called upon, he'd continue that fine form.
Approach play from the midfield
With some shift in personnel inevitable, the key will likely be in the play of Will Johnson and, should he be deemed fit, Ned Grabavoy. Both would need to get forward at will, burst into the box, and connect with Javier Morales.
This would abdicate some responsibility on the forwards, leaving less need to swing long balls in and providing more work for Herediano's defensive line. As they'll be secure with a draw, RSL will need to apply significant pressure there.
Kyle Beckerman and Nick Rimando were back. Paulo Jr. was withdrawn from the lineup through injury. Emiliano Bonfigli was handed his first start. With the story lines set in motion, one fell swoop of a red card changed everything.
Cards change games
It's pretty obvious, of course, that a red card changes the dynamic of a match. When Zach Scott was sent off in the 30th minute, Seattle went from thrusting forward in attack with aplomb but losing out in tempo to being further and further packed into its own half, with two reasonably flat lines of four players providing a difficult wall to break down.
Despite throwing on a second and third attacking midfielder (first Sebastian Velasquez, then David Viana), Kreis's side couldn't cut through the mess of players. Sebastian Velasquez had some good moments on the ball and nearly had a goal and David Viana had some great approach play, but without a big man in the box to hoist crosses toward, RSL had to attack on the ground, and Seattle did just enough to get by.
Despite the complaints of Seattle coach Sigi Schmid, the two yellows and subsequent red were both justified. The first came for Scott’s takedown of Fabian Espindola on the flank during a breakaway, and the second came when he crunched into Javier Morales from the back.
Breaking down the walls
It's easy to disparage the team after failing to capitalize on a man advantage, but that stream of thought tends to ignore the surprising defensive solidity of Seattle. By packing eight outfielders into a tight area, Seattle was able to effectively clog the passing lanes and restrict the movement of RSL's midfield.
As a result, Javier Morales was forced to drop deep, and Luis Gil and Jonny Steele were both pushed wide as they tried to break through. The introduction of Velasquez and Viana wasn't decisive, but with three players on the pitch capable of invention and close control, RSL looked significantly more likely to find the gaps. It's no coincidence that the best chances came after the 80th minute, when the method of approach was changed significantly.
Playing in a free role, Velasquez was able to take up positions both deep and in the box, confusing markers and disrupting continuity. It nearly paid off when he had a shot bobble off Michael Gspurning deep into stoppage time.
Kyle Beckerman the pass master
RSL's captain and chief deep-lying playmaker hardly put a foot wrong against Seattle. His efforts can be boiled down into one statistic: 123 passes accurately completed, 137 attempted. It's the first time this season that any one player has completed 100 or more passes in one MLS match this year.
That he did this all after flying into Seattle late Tuesday night after a national team camp is even more remarkable. He may not have played, but match preparation isn't exactly a zero-effort thing.
The captain can hold his head high after that performance. He was in rare form.
Real Salt Lake and Seattle Sounders are two sides of the same coin: Both are known in MLS for their attacking play, but the former represents a build-through-the-middle mentality, and the latter one more focused on building from wide. As it has so many times since Seattle came into the league, this clash of styles is sure to result in some scintillating play.
But for all the attacking mentality in the world, though, both sides will be suffering from international absences — RSL unarguably more so than the Western Conference rivals.
Coping with absences
The first and most important question is likely how Jason Kreis will deal with the absences of Will Johnson, Alvaro Saborio, Ned Grabavoy, and likely Nick Rimando and Kyle Beckerman. It becomes a difficult proposition, replacing five key players, and it leaves the club facing yet another match with a depleted core. It's a far cry from the one missing piece from Kreis's "best eleven," which is sure to create some frustration.
Grabavoy and Johnson are both noted "two-way" players with strengths in attack and defense as well as possession maintenance. Their likely replacements, Luis Gil and Jonny Steele, are less balanced — Gil is a better attacker than a defender, and Steele the opposite. With Beckerman very unlikely to start (though it does depend on USMNT coach Jurgen Klinsmann's use of him against Guatemala), Yordany Alvarez will need to be doubly aware of the threats presented.
No Eddie, No Cry
However, Seattle will be dealing with absences of their own. Eddie Johnson — a vital cog in Friday's U.S. win over Antigua and Barbuda — gets a free pass from RSL fans for a day, particularly as he's likely to feature against Guatemala, and thus would be doubtful for a Seattle match. Super doubtful. Incredibly doubtful. We're giving him a ride home — a classy move, to be sure — but it's not as if he'll be expected to play.
Without Eddie Johnson's quality on headers and goalscoring ability (he's sitting at 14 goals), Seattle's typically strong crossing (excepting corners) — tied for the best accuracy with Colorado Rapids at 26.4 percent — will undoubtedly suffer. With RSL's Borlave contingent in contention, expect that rate to be a distant goal.
Seattle's passing accuracy, 76.9 percent, compared to RSL's 81.4 percent, and general passing statistics are illustrative of a team that doesn't necessarily build through possession in the same way as Kreis's side. But with passing lanes a bit more open than usual, the flank-heavy Seattle side may be given an opportunity to play a bit more centrally.
Seattle also lists slightly to its right side — 11 percent of its passes move left, 15 percent right (RSL is essentially flipped), but without Adam Johansson, who is away with Sweden, they could struggle to build on that side.
Real Salt Lake’s 2-1 win at L.A. on Saturday was a bit strange in that all three goals – all scored before the 28th minute – didn’t suggest much tactically. All of the goals were nicely taken, but they were in such close proximity to each other that a natural lull in defending might be as much the culprit as anything else.
Tactically, it was in the remaining 75 minutes in which the match really played out. Indeed, the more tactically fascinating portion of the match was the second set of 45 minutes. It is, as always, a funny game.
Saturday's match was a chippy affair, with RSL conceding 12 fouls and possession changing hands at times rapidly. Despite the foul count (surprisingly just below RSL's season average of 13), they were all basically in the middle third. This had two practical effects: 1) Play was broken up and the Galaxy didn't have a chance to build toward goal. 2) David Beckham and Juninho, when taking free kicks, were too far off to really put them toward goal, so they were limited to lofted free kicks into the box. RSL had no particular problem dealing with these, though there were a few tight moments.
The Galaxy still got off plenty of shots, 20 to be exact. But seven of those were outside the box, well above even their average of three; of those, three were blocked, two were saved by Nick Rimando, and two were off target entirely. A further seven shots inside the box were blocked.
Excepting the goal by Robbie Keane, RSL did quite well to sniff out those chances with timely blocks. It was a fine performance on the defensive side of the ball: Nat Borchers had three blocks, Jamison Olave had two, and Tony Beltran and Alvaro Saborio each had two. It's particularly illustrative that Saborio had a couple: The man's always back on set pieces, and one or two instances aside, he's been vital there throughout 2012.
Closing out the match
When Jason Kreis used his final substitution to send Paulo Jr. on for Javier Morales, questions inevitably popped up about Kreis's game management. His first two subs were more defensively minded: Chris Schuler on for Tony Beltran and Yordany Alvarez on for Jonny Steele had the distinct feeling of Kreis battening down the hatches.
But when Paulo came on, he brought with him pace, energy and a desire to unleash attacks. He wasn't brought in to keep everyone sitting back — he brought with him an impetus to get forward and challenge the Galaxy defense alongside Espindola and Saborio. Four key passes (passes leading directly to shots) following his arrival in the 89th minute speaks to his impact.
It was not an intuitive substitution by Jason Kreis, but that elusive ability to spot a weakness in defenses seen in his playing and managerial careers requires an especially keen mind. At times, Kreis has been criticized for his substitutions, but this time, he got it quite right. Late on, when one would expect the Galaxy to be issuing their final thrusts at Real Salt Lake, they were worried about conceding a third. A goal didn't result — but at that point, all RSL needed was to distract their opponent.
The Los Angeles Galaxy is a tough side to play, not least because they've dumped huge amounts of money into their attacking front. But money doesn't exactly win matches — scoring goals does.
A remarkable division of responsibilities has seen the Galaxy spread the bulk of their scoring between four players: Robbie Keane, Landon Donovan, Juninho, and David Beckham. The latter two are known for their distance shooting, so let's start there.
Long shots: Juninho & Beckham
Juninho is one of those elusive midfielders who has a killer long-range shot. He's the Galaxy's leading passer, with his stats clocking in at about 56 passes per match with 87 percent accuracy, but nearly as important to the team is his ability to smash the ball from well outside the box. Five of his seven goals this season have come from beyond the 18, a rate only bested by his English comrade Beckham.
David Beckham, complaints about hair, hype and histrionics aside, has been one of the best players in MLS over the last few years. Whatever complaints are made about him, a quick reference to his seven goals — all from distance, four from free kicks — shows him as a frightening character to face off against.
To shut down the two, Real Salt Lake – which has only allowed two goals from beyond the 18 this year – will need to continue its fine efforts at closing players down from outside the box. This is where the absence of injured midfielder Ned Grabavoy will hurt. Likely fill-in Luis Gil – as much as he provides good attacking movement – isn’t always going to be in the right defensive positions.
It will take some excellent coaching, both from Jason Kreis and from the players on the pitch, to stop the pair from being overtly dangerous. Shut them down, and half of the worry is gone, so long as RSL isn’t busy conceding fouls near the edge of the box, or, as the area’s known in some circles, the Beckham Free Kick Zone.
In the box: Keane & Donovan
Robbie Keane is a striker proven at a high level, and that's largely because he's constantly working toward scoring. His 13 goals this season are no fluke: the man has a killer instinct. Of all MLS players this season to have taken at least five shots inside the box, he is the most accurate at 72 percent shot accuracy and a 62 percent goal conversion rate.
He's fed in two ways: the first is by David Beckham (another reason to afford the long-pass-maestro little space on the ball), but the second is by Landon Donovan. The attacking midfielder or forward — depending on the match and who you ask — who has scored nine goals this season and found a key pass for every 13 passes he makes. He's made more key passes (74) than all but two players: Javier Morales (75) and Graham Zusi (92).
Allowing Donovan too much time to work his magic would be disastrous, and with Robbie Keane lurking about, the defense will need to be on their best behavior. With Jamison Olave back in the side after a yellow card accumulation suspension, Kreis may opt to play a higher defensive line, with the Colombian defender's closing speed hopefully proving decisive.
Weakened ranks: No DeLaGarza
LA Galaxy won't be at their best: Central Defender AJ DeLaGarza is out (and perhaps for some time), leaving a gaping defensive hole. David Beckham is also a doubt — but if there's one thing to expect, it's for David Beckham to play through it to face off against Real Salt Lake.