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 With Chris Schuler as a slightly withdrawn left back, Tony Beltran as an adventurous right back, and Kwame Watson-Siriboe in the middle, there was always a certain risk involved, and for a moment it did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 Devon Sandoval and Alvaro Saborio formed a double-target front line, while Joao Plata played in a slightly withdrawn forward role.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.
With the season heating up awfully early with Rivalry Week entering the fray in the third week of play, Real Salt Lake will face the slightly struggling Colorado Rapids. Jason Kreis will have decisions to make to counter the strong-passing Rapids.
Abdoulie Mansally is out after being (rightly) suspended for the match by the league, leaving a gaping hole at left back. Lovel Palmer is likely to step in, and with him comes some tactical uncertainty. For all Mansally's ails when he bursts forward on the left, his interceptions in advanced positions are vital to our tactical approach. With Palmer in the side, perhaps Tony Beltran pushes a bit higher up and we shift our attack a bit more to the right side.
Ned Grabavoy has a chance to make the lineup after returning to the squad this week, although there's a chance he wouldn't be starting, as he missed significant training minutes and two matches. If he does, expect Khari Stephenson to drop to the bench, as he and Grabavoy fill vaguely similar tactical roles in the side. Stephenson has fared reasonably well during his first two matches for the club, proving a good tackler and a nice link-up player, but Grabavoy brings more to the table, as well as a greater understanding with his teammates.
Desperately seeking balance
Perhaps it's not balance qua balance we're seeking, as we've got that already — the midfield is balanced but perhaps at the wrong spot. Luis Gil, Sebastian Velasquez, and Khari Stephenson have, in the first two matches, been excellent at maintaining possession, but none of the three has put in the attacking thrust we've really needed.
With Javier Morales still out with injury, somebody will need to step forward and really push play up the pitch. Grabavoy may not be the man to do that particularly, but he'll help. Velasquez can do it, but as he's generally on the side, won't influence play as much as a playmaker in the middle would. Gil's the best option, and judging by the final 30 minutes of his performance against D.C. United, it's one he's capable of. He simply needs to assert himself more out there — it'll come as a natural result.
Rapid passing patterns
Fascinatingly, Colorado has lost their first two matches having out passed the opponent by a considerable margin, in both matches completing nearly double the passes of their opponent. In both, they even took their fair share of shots. Jason Kreis's side will need to be aware of the danger here.
The solution seems simple: Don't allow Colorado to control the match. Though they haven't succeeded by doing so, they haven't been entirely far off. Stymying those passing rhythms and controlling the match in a safe, sensible manner should be of the highest priority.
A 1-0 loss on the road early in the season should never be a particularly devastating result; instead, it should be looked at as an opportunity to learn and correct mistakes. In comparing the first 60 minutes and the final 30 minutes of Saturday's match against D.C. United, Real Salt Lake has just that chance.
After conceding to D.C. United, Real Salt Lake upped their game considerably. As a quick statistical example, they completed more passes in the final third of the match than they did in the first two-thirds — and while we can certainly look to a more comfortable United side as a reason why, it can hardly be the only factor. Luis Gil was particularly improved after the goal, getting more readily involved in play and even dictating it a bit.
RSL took considerably more shots as well — to the tune of a whopping two in the first 60 minutes and seven in the final 30. Whether this was down to a tentative quality in attack or an inability to control possession in the midfield is difficult to say. When that goal was scored, though, the match changed. Although the right chance never really cropped up, the improvement rightly won praise from Jason Kreis after the match.
Midfield linking play
One issue that plagued RSL through the first 60 minutes was the lack of a distinct link between the forwards and the midfield. Under normal conditions, this would be Javier Morales, but given that he's not yet back with full fitness, Kreis looked toward Luis Gil for answers. Let's be clear about this: Leading up to the goal, most RSL players were fairly poor. Luis Gil had failed to get involved, Sebastian Velasquez had completed as many passes as he missed and Robbie Findley couldn't find the ball.
But Luis Gil has a certain responsibility — as do the midfielders next to him — to act as that connective piece and supply Alvaro Saborio and Robbie Findley. It's an approach Luis Gil will hopefully grow into as a midfielder: He needs to continue injecting himself in every aspect of play. In the long term, we can be hopeful, because in that final 30 minutes, we saw glimpses of that.
Abdoulie (née Kenny) Mansally has attracted some negative attention in the past two matches for being a defensive liability, but Saturday was more positive than perhaps indicated by his substitution. To the eye, he seemed slightly poor — perhaps even a little panicked. But he brings something most full backs can't. A tactically fascinating player, Mansally's marauding runs on the left allow him to intercept the ball in dangerous positions and spring play.
Although he's very quick, Mansally encounters trouble at times when play comes down his side after he's committed higher up the pitch. This is somewhat inevitable give his playing style, but it also underlines a certain tactical naivety that Jason Kreis and company will be hoping Mansally develops away from.
Looking to push on from Sunday's season opening road win at San Jose Earthquakes, Real Salt Lake will be pressed into battle at D.C. United on Saturday. At stake: the flanks.
Defending the flanks
It's no secret that attacks from wide areas are dangerous for Real Salt Lake's positional setup, and D.C. United is likely to come out looking for space on the flanks. Players like Chris Pontius could provide dangerous options, and Nick DeLeon and potentially Marcos Sanchez provide real threat from the wings.
As ever, D.C. will look to bypass Kyle Beckerman and swing some crosses in for strikers, but the presence of Chris Schuler and Kwame Watson-Siriboe, both strong in the air, could be an important factor. But before crosses can be swung in, Tony Beltran and Abdoulie (née Kenny) Mansally will need to be in good positions to prevent easy, unmarked crossing. It will be a difficult match from a defensive perspective.
Further, Khari Stephenson and Sebastian Velasquez will need to be at their defensive bests, mopping up possession wide and retaining possession in attacking positions to prevent counterattacks with the flanks left wide open. Robbie Findley, too, will need to drop into wider positions in defense to help prevent significant issues.
Consistency in the midfield
With Ned Grabavoy and Javier Morales absent and no new injuries creeping in, the midfield four is likely to be the same as deployed against San Jose: Kyle Beckerman deep with Sebastian Velasquez, Luis Gil and Khari Stephenson further up the pitch. Velasquez was last deployed primarily on the right but with plenty of room to move about the pitch, while Stephenson was deployed on the left and offered a more defensive approach. Luis Gil was more central, though he, too, moved about frequently.
I suspect that may be switched against D.C. United, with Stephenson on the right and Velasquez on the left, but that the same four will play. Given that they all showed well, there's no reason for change. Where last season our midfield look a bit like a double-pivot with a high playmaker up top, the last match looked more traditional, with a deep-lying midfielder (I struggle with the term 'defensive' here) and three rotating attacking midfielders.
After a disrupted season in 2012 where the starting lineup was very rarely the same from match to match, a start with the same lineup in the first two matches is a refreshing thought. There's no guarantee it'll be the case, of course, but it's something worth hoping for — and perhaps even expecting.
In their season opener against Houston Dynamo, D.C. United struggled to deal with pressure high up the pitch, giving up a slew of interceptions at the base of their defensive third. Although one of their conceded goals was through a corner and the other almost immediately following a throw-in, conceding possession in their own half is always likely to produce chances. RSL will need to be aware of this possibility and alive to opportunities that are presented as a result.
That high pressure will be benefited by the three-man attacking line in the midfield. With Alvaro Saborio and Robbie Findley pushing high up the pitch, Gil, Velasquez and Stephenson will be in good positions to distribute possession for quick counterattacking play.
Two goals on the road saw Real Salt Lake victorious on Sunday night over last season's Supporters' Shield winners in San Jose Earthquakes. The key pieces: a top-class midfield performance and a relatively straightforward second-half switch.
Taking a glance at the chalkboards for Sunday's victory shows a distinctly Kyle Beckerman-shaped hole just ahead of our defense. Real Salt Lake's captain impressed not through intense tackling, hard challenges or your typical defensive midfielder attributes, but as a disruptor of movement. The subtlety of his performance saw Beckerman putting the right pressure on the San Jose attack at the right times, leaving them to attack through other channels — all of them harder to profit from.
Disruption without the tackling one normally associates with an anchor man is a difficult ask. Beckerman handled it with aplomb. Of course, even for all his defensive contributions, who can forget that outside-of-the-foot, no-look pass for Alvaro Saborio's second goal?
The diamond, flattened
The midfield, anchored as usual by Beckerman, saw three nominally attacking players in the thick of it. Luis Gil, Khari Stephenson and Sebastian Velasquez played in a relative flat line just behind the attacking third, with Gil ostensibly in the center, Stephenson on the left, and Velasquez on the right. Of course, all three switched spots throughout.
As a result, San Jose's midfield was pushed and pulled across the pitch, with Velasquez and Stephenson stretching play both horizontally and vertically. All three are quite capable of darting around the pitch and sending inventive passes to forwards, which surely played on the minds of the opposition — particularly with former Earthquakes midfielder Khari Stephenson pulling the strings from the left side.
By keeping the San Jose midfield and back line busy through the first half, spaces were opened in the second half as both sides tired. One substitution saw Real Salt Lake take advantage of that: Joao Plata's entrance in the 65th minute, on for Robbie Findley, changed the match.
Findley's efforts saw the field stretched and defenders pulled around, but San Jose generally coped well. Plata's arrival saw the (quite) diminutive striker deeper in play than Findley, and his potential kinetic energy (er, his speed, should he have used it) undoubtedly frightened defenders. In the end, though, it wasn't his speed that changed the match but his propensity for popping up in deeper unmarked positions.
Plata for Findley is a relatively straightforward substitution on the face of things: Both are quick, crafty players and will stretch play. San Jose didn't cope with the switch, Plata was able to sneak into an unmarked spot to receive a long ball from Kenny Mansally, and with a deft pass, released the always-surprisingly-quick Alvaro Saborio for the goal. The rest, as they say, is history.
Sunday's season opener is the first chance Real Salt Lake has to seek revenge on last year's three bitter losses to San Jose Earthquakes, but with both sides suffering from significant injury problems, the season opener is filled with question marks — and opportunity.
Defending long balls
San Jose is — shall we say — not the most sophisticated team in the league. They aren't known for swashbuckling play, nor for inventive attacking. There's nothing particularly wrong with this: They have an effective style for the players in their group, and their 2012 Supporters' Shield speaks toward that. A style of play involving long balls over the top — perhaps service for newly DP-ized Chris Wondolowski, perhaps to one Steven Lenhart — requires attention from the central defenders.
Chris Schuler and Kwame Watson-Siriboe, likely the starting pair on Sunday, are both very good in the air, but they'll need to ensure they're alive to things coming at them. A veteran head like Nat Borchers would be useful here, but these two are more than capable — it's just a matter of proper communication and defensive understanding. Additionally, RSL captain Kyle Beckerman's likely to be called upon heavily to retrieve loose balls knocked down, then he'll need to quickly distribute to wider areas to push play forward.
Top of the diamond
With Luis Gil returning to camp — no, wait — the team (a glorious feeling not having to use preseason terms!), Jason Kreis's decision about who to play at the top of the diamond became a bit more complicated. With Javier Morales out, the immediate choice for a replacement isn't entirely clear.
Gil hasn't trained much with the team as yet, but fitness isn't a concern, and he knows the side well. Some would say he represents a better option on the side of the diamond; that may be true in relation to the players on hand, but the coaching staff — and Tab Ramos, US U-20s coach — value him as a more traditional playmaker in the number 10 spot.
Sebastian Velasquez presents perhaps the best on-the-ball option to replace Morales's skill set, and he's shown well there in preseason. He's grown substantially since he came into this side a year ago, and that he's in contention for a starting spot when there are more veteran players available speaks very well to his progress.
Ned Grabavoy offers something there, but his natural position is perhaps a bit deeper. Khari Stephenson can play there, but it's perhaps not the spot where we'd see him, should he play Sunday. Even John Stertzer saw a bit of time there, but he's very much an outside shot here.
Avoiding red cards
It hardly seems like it needs spelling out, but avoiding inopportune red cards (as if there's ever an opportune one) is essential. Sendings off to Kyle Beckerman, Jamison Olave, and Fabian Espindola last season spelled "doom" in the sky with prominent contrail letters.
When key members of the squad are pulled from matches at key moments, the entire dynamic of a match is changed rather forcibly. It's an obvious thing, but discipline and attention to the refereeing style on hand will be crucial.
Real Salt Lake lost the Desert Diamond Cup Final 0-1 to Seattle Sounders FC on Saturday, giving up a goal from a counterattacking ball over the top. In a match in which the Claret-and-Cobalt dominated early proceedings and should have put at least a goal or two on the board, the story is less about winning and losing and more about preparation for the season's opener, now less than a week away.
Pacing the match
The first half saw both Real Salt Lake and Seattle creating chance after chance, with Marcus Hahnemann demonstrating that perhaps 40 isn't too old to play in goal in this league. Those chances came from across the field of play, with long shots nearly again making the difference. It's funny how that works.
The early pace of the game was frenetic, but it also saw three clear-cut chances for Real Salt Lake. Two of those were created from hopeful shots — one from Sebastian Velasquez and one from Kyle Beckerman — and the other was created from an Alvaro Saborio header. Inevitably, the side tired late on as many of them played their first consecutive 90 minutes of preseason — with the season roaring into view, that's essential.
The pacing suffered as a result, but the more important consideration was getting a fit group of players ready for a match on Sunday. Losing the Desert Diamond Cup stung ever-so-slightly — to our oft-repeated foes, no less — but in the end, the most important thing wasn't winning.
Defending the counter attack
Once again, we've seen this side fall to a counterattacking goal by Seattle, caught on the break with our defenders rather left to dry. A long ball over the top sprung Seattle, a spate of individual errors gave them an opportunity, and a good finish sealed the match.
It's a storyline that's been told and retold over the last few years. It's the danger of pushing men forward in attack, the inevitable downside of high-line defenses and high pressure. A little switch, perhaps, that would cue fullbacks in to those very dangerous moments would be magnificent here, but that hardly seems forthcoming. A bit more recognition of the danger posed by Seattle on the counter would have gone a long way.
Stepping up: The Velasquez 45
Sebastian Velasquez had perhaps the strongest 45 minutes of preseason he had so far — a good sign considering it was his final 45 of the preseason, and improvement over time is never a bad thing — impressing throughout with his ability on the ball and his still-developing vision.
Playing at the top of the diamond, where he's likely to start on Sunday, Velasquez ran the show. Plain and simple, he controlled the tempo, pacing and direction of Real Salt Lake's attack. His departure at the half gutted the side — a statement that speaks well of him and perhaps less so of the players who remained.
A late surge saw a vaguely veteran Real Salt Lake side eke out a 3-2 win over New England Revolution on Wednesday night, earning a spot in the Desert Diamond Cup Final.
The First Team Resurgence
Late resurgences are always a joy to watch, but deconstructing how exactly they came into being can be a bit difficult. It's easy to point at New England Revolution last night and accuse them of not seeing out the match, but that largely ignores the quality of the play that led to the goals.
The first of the two in the late surge came about through fantastic play by Alvaro Saborio, whose maneuvering on the edge of the box from a Ned Grabavoy pass positioned him to score a fantastic goal. The second came from Khari Stephenson — again from a Ned Grabavoy pass from the right channel. Grabavoy's ability to find space on the right flank was crucial, though perhaps a bit subtle.
Certainly New England could have defended the build-up more effectively, but their inability to hold on to the lead was down more to Real Salt Lake's first-team quality than other concerns.
The Viana Free Role
David Viana was deployed in the first half in a nominally striking role — a position which he's been dropped into at times later on in matches, but starting as a striker is a different sort of affair.
Viana came out in a quintessential free role role, with his primary roles on the pitch as a second-striker role behind Devon Sandoval and — more often — as a winger, primarily on the left flank. However, with this move, his influence was cut substantially: He saw less of the ball in dangerous attacking areas than in previous Desert Diamond Cup matches, serving more in build-up play from deeper positions.
The Velasquez Diamond
Sebastian Velasquez was handed his first real opportunity at the top of the diamond in preseason, filling a role played by Grabavoy, Viana and Stephenson so far, among others. It's a more natural position for the youngster, but I suspect he's being given more time in the outside of the diamond simply because it's where he'll undoubtedly see the most time in 2013.
He was effective in attack, and it was his shot from distance which led to the tap-in for Devon Sandoval. He also showed flashes of absolute brilliance on the ball, dribbling around players with the utmost of ease, cutting through the mess of midfield and creating opportunities. He didn't run the show as a playmaker, but he was incredibly bright on the ball.
Although Saturday's 1-2 loss to Seattle in the FC Tucson Desert Diamond Cup was perhaps a bit disappointing, there are some interesting points to be taken from the deployments of RSL's midfielders and forwards.
Flattening the diamond
With Ned Grabavoy as the point man in the midfield diamond, the look changes rather significantly. This is, I think, by design. The wider players in the diamond — in this case, Sebastian Velasquez and Yordany Alvarez — pushed up to be nearly level with Grabavoy.
This enforced a more flat top of the diamond — especially in comparison to a Javier Morales, Will Johnson, Ned Grabavoy triumvirate in front of Kyle Beckerman. Creativity came from all three players in basically equal measure. With Grabavoy at times dropping deeper than Velasquez and Alvarez, the system almost took on a less diamond-looking approach, too.
It's notable because it helps destabilize the notion that Jason Kreis is a strict tactician who refuses to vary his approach. It was a bit subtle, but we see something a bit more untested with Grabavoy up top there.
Alongside the flattening of the diamond come some interesting decisions on player placement. It starts of course with Grabavoy in the top of the diamond, where he plays well as a linking distributor and less that magician. It continues: Yordany Alvarez on the side of the diamond, where he looked surprisingly creative, and Enzo Martinez in the deep-lying role, where he looks more of a playmaker than a destroyer, are the two standouts.
But tossing David Viana up top in the 75th minute is interesting, too: Robbie Findley, still being rested, remains uninvolved, and getting at least a player in the forward position was necessary. It's clearly not Viana's best position, but his ability to run at players with the ball at his feet and beat them on the dribble changes the dynamic of matches. It's something that, after the departure of Fabian Espindola, our current group of forwards lacks — except maybe Olmes Garcia, the unknown quantity — and having that tactical flexibility is essential.
It's a bit strange when the ostensibly first-team players are having trouble scoring goals, but it's what's out there right now. With that set of players — or something resembling that set — we've scored just once since since Oct. 6 against the LA Galaxy, and that was from Ned Grabavoy against the … LA Galaxy in a preseason match on Feb. 8. It's not a pressing issue, but it's one to scratch one's head about. If it continues into the season, there will be trouble, but that's a rather big "if" at this point.
It is worth noting that some of these younger guys have looked particularly bright: John Stertzer, Cole Grossman, Joao Plata — they've all looked better than perhaps first expected, and all three have scored goals.
It's always difficult to take too much away from a preseason match without making profound leaps of logic, but two goals in the first five minutes of play certainly says something. Real Salt Lake came racing out of the gates and, while New York was unprepared, quickly put two goals in the back of the net before the Red Bulls fought back to tie 2-2. The factors that shaped the game are numerous, but let's focus on three of them.
RSL's two quick goals surely had something to do with the speed of the players involved, but the playmaking efforts of rookie midfielder John Stertzer and midfielder David Viana created quick opportunities. Viana's pass for the second goal was particularly sublime. The efforts of Viana were made slightly less effective as New York pushed further forward, with the midfield area becoming increasingly clogged. RSL's primary areas of safe possession shifted further back the pitch, leaving less room for midfielders to move the ball around the pitch.
You could almost see the cogs moving in Real Salt Lake's less-than-cohesive first-half back line: Carlos Salcedo and Aaron Maund worked well together, Lovel Palmer stayed back and kept things tidy on the left, and Josh Saunders made some fantastic stops when necessary. Rather than pushing forward, the defense looked to retain the ball rather safely. It's important they do that, but it did make for an incomplete showing.
The defending for the first goal conceded — a corner finished by former RSL defender Jamison Olave — was unorganized, though, while a failure to deal with a cross saw the second goal hammered in.
Plata's speed and acceleration
As important as the playmaking was for RSL's two goals, equally important was the speed of thought and speed of motion involved. Joao Plata, vital in both, showed not top pace over distance as one might see in a breakaway, but top acceleration in tight areas. This gave him a distinct advantage in pulling away from defenders, drifting wide in the box, and firing home. He had one goal and nearly had another, in part because of his speed.
Veteran heads shine through
When RSL's lineup switched over to a more widely experienced group, the match was drawn at 2-2 — that didn't change. But what did shift was the approach: Real Salt Lake went from being on the back foot to controlling play, from stopping chances to creating them.
It's difficult to definitively say whether this change in play was entirely down to the lineup shift for Real Salt Lake, given the half saw wholesale changes for New York, but it certainly can't have hurt. Real Salt Lake nearly instantly started looking like the creative, dominant team again — even if a few chances went begging and things didn't quite fire on all cylinders.