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.
The biggest win of the season, at least if we're talking in pure numbers, came on Saturday when RSL hit Chivas USA for a dominant 4-0 victory. It was the first sight of the RSL we know and love in weeks — months, maybe. The killer instinct, the eye for a pass: It was all there on display.
Fabian Espindola and the Assist Hat Trick
If you'd told me we'd see a player grab the first "assist hat trick" in RSL history, I'd have nodded knowingly. "Yes, yes. Javier Morales is quite amazing, isn't he?" And while my specific statement wouldn't be untrue — he is quite amazing — I wouldn't be quite right. So I do a double take: Fabian Espindola. The long-haired, mercurial striker sometimes accused of being too "selfish" with three assists? Say it ain't so.
It was perhaps one of Espindola's brightest games in an RSL kit. He was darting to and fro, popping up on the left and on the right, serving as the immaculate second striker. Of course, he was helped along by a poacher's performance from Alvaro Saborio, who made the perfect runs, and Javier Morales, who pulled defenders to and fro as he is known to do.
Was it something tactical that enabled this? It's hard to say — but with Luis Gil pushing forward, Javier Morales was given a bit more room to create, Chivas USA defenders were forced to scramble and defend — and most importantly, Espindola constantly drew two or three defenders. As such, his ability to get good passes off meant Chivas was short defenders, as they were drawn wide. It's what I call the Fabi Effect.
One for the record books
Two big records were set on Saturday. The first: Fabian Espindola's three assists are the most assists recorded for an RSL player in a single match. The second: Alvaro Saborio became the first RSL player to score multiple hat tricks. It was the club's fourth overall, and if you are to look at the players who helped transform the club, he's one of them.
Even cooler: With his 17th goal of the season, Alvaro Saborio has now scored more goals in a single season than any other Real Salt Lake player, beating out Jeff Cunningham's 2006 record of 16. He's unlikely to win the Golden Boot (very unlikely, even) with San Jose’s Chris Wondolowski a remarkable five goals ahead at 22.
Absentees and Replacements
Ned out, Gil in: With Ned Grabavoy out through injury, Jason Kreis handed Luis Gil an opportunity to impress. Impress he did, although in the miserable 25 minutes — from 20 to 45, by my count — he wasn't tracking back properly. It wasn't what caused problems for the side, but it didn't help. We saw a hugely improved performance on that side in the second half, and if he can continue to make performances like those final 45 minutes, he has a bright future yet.
Olave out, Schuler in: With Jamison Olave out with yellow card suspension, Chris Schuler stepped in and ably handled what came his way. Still, what came his way — and Nat Borchers' way, for that matter — wasn't much, and there was nothing entirely too dangerous about the Chivas attack on Saturday.
Conference opponents and expansion compatriots Chivas USA currently has the worst record in the West — and Real Salt Lake wants to keep it that way. With four games remaining in the regular season, the third-place Claret-and-Cobalt will be looking to improve its standing in its battle for a top-three seed in the West before the playoffs begin in just over a month’s time.
Familiar foes failing to find their feet
Having met Chivas twice already in 2012, you'd think Real Salt Lake would be in a strong position to predict the Goats outlay and approach. But the hapless Southern California side – which, despite expectations that they were in a position to improve this year, has barely a half-chance to reach the points total achieved in 2011 – seems to not quite know itself.
That makes for a tetchy occasion, with Chivas USA’s unpredictable nature likely to create some concerns. Robin Fraser, former RSL assistant coach and second-year Chivas head coach, knows Jason Kreis's persuasions like few others in the league; while this may give a slight tactical advantage to the Goats, they have found tactical execution a difficult concern.
Jason Kreis, as is his wont, will undoubtedly roll out in the same narrow-diamond-midfield approach — his single deviation from it in several years coming this season, though it wasn't a significant shift — and the onus will be on Fraser and company to deal with it. That proactive approach defines Jason Kreis.
Who replaces Grabavoy?
With carrilero Ned Grabavoy apparently out for the contest with a quad injury, the right-sided box-to-box role is up for grabs. In recent contests, Jason Kreis has shown a penchant for picking Luis Gil there — his attacking play perhaps the tipping factor — but Jonny Steele will be hopeful to get a look in.
The position, a possession-based one that requires a unique combination of calm and bite, has been perhaps transforming into something less one-sided in recent months, leaving the biggest shout for Luis Gil, who has a knack for finding the right spots at the right times.
With Will Johnson on the left, the need for another high-energy defensively minded player is abated, leaving Jonny Steele with less of a chance to start: The Northern Irish midfielder has bite to his game and gets across the pitch well, but is sometimes found lacking in possession — all told, he is simply too similar to Will Johnson, and this hurts his starting chances.
Olave out, Schuler back
With Jamison Olave out through yellow card accumulation, a new defensive pairing emerges again. Chris Schuler is set to make his second start since an unfortunate foot injury, this time playing in the middle – he went the full 90 at left back in his first game back from injury on Sept. 6 – alongside experienced head Nat Borchers. Schuler, a prodigious talent himself, shouldn't find it difficult alongside the veteran.
With Schuler returning, Olave approaching full fitness, and Nat Borchers remaining a steadying influence at the back, Kwame Watson-Siriboe, upon his return from injury, will find competition for places a challenging task. Until then, Kreis can count himself slightly lucky: Every time one of his center backs has gone injured or absent through suspension — save for a spell when Chris Wingert was played there — another has made a step up to fitness (or, in the case of Kwame Watson-Siriboe, arrived at the club in the first place.)
Saturday saw Real Salt Lake facing a Portland Timbers side desperate to grab a win on the road, but a renewed attacking approach and a rediscovered killer instinct from set pieces saw the Claret-and-Cobalt exit with the honors.
Javier Morales scored RSL's first set piece goal since a 2-1 home loss to San Jose on June 23. It is no coincidence that the free-kick-goal scorer that night was Javier Morales — and before that, you won't find another free kick goal from RSL in 2012.
But on Saturday, the team scored two of those, and both of them had a distinct Morales influence to them. The first free kick, a perfect display of the connection between Morales and Fabian Espindola, was laid off by the playmaker for the mercurial striker, who spotted the smallest of holes forming in the wall. With the instincts of a samurai, Espindola slammed the ball through, leaving second-string Timbers keeper Joe Bendik with nary a chance of saving.
The second, Morales’s magnificent strike from 25 yards out, dipped just under the crossbar, and it was clear from the Argentine's celebrations that he'd been waiting some time for that.
The Beckerman Influence
As shown in their 2-2 draw with San Jose earlier in the week, Portland has a penchant for quality counterattacking play. Against RSL on Saturday, though, there was little of that to be seen. Three of the big attacking names were ineffectual at best: Franck Songo'o, Danny Mwanga and Darlington Nagbe were mere ghostly images of their swashbuckling selves.
What kept the triumvirate quiet? A subtle but strong performance from Kyle Beckerman, plain and simple. RSL's captain was always taking up the right positions, removing any need for last-ditch tackles and strong pressure — he made his stead in front of the back four, cut out the passing lanes, and prevented forward-moving progress.
Of course, Beckerman was hardly alone in the endeavor: Fellow midfielders Will Johnson and Ned Grabavoy also got back efficiently when RSL wasn't in possession. As a result, Mwanga and Nagbe were forced largely into making backward passes, and attacks were continually pushed away from the final third.
Not every attack was scuppered, of course, and Nick Rimando was forced into making a few stellar saves — but these came largely through set pieces and quick counter attacks, and it was only when the midfield was almost entirely bypassed that the Timbers looked dangerous. Those are a different issue, but that RSL didn't concede many chances through the middle of the park will lift Jason Kreis and the team's collective spirits.
Real Salt Lake is set to take on the somewhat-resurgent Portland Timbers on Saturday at Rio Tinto Stadium. Portland’s been an awful road team – they don’t have an away win this season – and RSL will be looking to take advantage of the Timbers poor road form and pick up a crucial three points in the Utah side’s last match at Rio Tinto for a month.
Here are three tactical keys to Saturday night’s match:
If there's one thing to be learned from Portland's 2-2 draw with San Jose on Wednesday which saw the Timbers blow a two-goal lead late in the match, it's that the Cascadia side is susceptible to a special sort of panic that – oftentimes – dooms the team to a fiery demise.
Whatever the cause, Portland has a knack for the panicky type of defending that plays right into opponents' hands. It's not the sort of thing that can be fixed overnight and – considering we saw it during Portland’s match at San Jose on Wednesday – RSL might rightly expect to see it Saturday night. With Claret-and-Cobalt leading scorer Alvaro Saborio likely out, the Portland back line will be dealing with a bit more speed up front and perhaps a bit more guile. Whatever the case, ensuing panic plays into RSL's hands, and darting runs are always likely to produce that.
Fullbacks bombing forward
A trademark of the Real Salt Lake style involves the team’s two full backs - Chris Wingert and Tony Beltran in most cases - bursting into the final third and pulling opposing fullbacks wide. It's not necessarily a move designed to lead to swung-in crosses – although it may appear such on its face. With Wingert and Beltran far up the pitch - though usually only one at a time - the opposing defense is stretched, leaving gaps for channel-running forwards like Fabian Espindola and Paulo Jr. and late-running midfielders like Will Johnson and Ned Grabavoy to get into the box and cause some chaos.
When the full backs don't get forward, RSL doesn't get any joy in this way — leaving Espindola to run without much chance of finding the ball and the midfielders stuck a little further back — just on the edge of the final third. It's a tough one, though — when said pieces of the puzzle get caught up front during a counter, it's easier to give up goals.
The throes of tentativeness
When RSL started leaking goals earlier this season, something was clearly amiss: A leaky defense isn't on an island, and as a result, the box-to-box midfielders (Johnson and Grabavoy, typically) stepped a bit further back and joined holding mid Kyle Beckerman in protecting the defense. They may have swung too far in that direction.
As a result, the Claret-and-Cobalt has lacked killer instinct, cutting edge play and hasn’t scored many goals. Jason Kreis's side lives and dies by the midfield, and when it's not working perfectly, the whole of the side tends to fall around it.
The easiest way to solve that problem? Quit being tentative. Just get out there, bomb forward, get back, and don't stress so much about the counter. Portland may be fast — but they lack in a lot of other factors, and if this side doesn't start scoring goals, there will be bigger problems. Timbers attackers Darlington Nagbe, Danny Mwanga and Franck Songo'o — they all matter very little when RSL is in possession.
Facing a do-or-die scenario, RSL kept things tight until the death: The game-winning goal from Alvaro Saborio (how many times has that phrase been uttered, I wonder?) was the result of hard work from the whole side. That, in itself, wasn't entirely interesting from a tactical perspective, but like so many low-scoring battles, there was so much more to it than that.
No Kyle? No problem
Despite not seeing Kyle Beckerman or Yordany Alvarez, RSL never looked too troubled through the center of the pitch. Ned Grabavoy stepped up to the plate, serving up some good positioning and defensive awareness to scupper attacks through the middle.
Neither Beckerman's absence through yellow card suspension nor Alvarez's through continued troubles with the ever-tricky immigration process ensuing from his refugee status ended up troubling RSL too greatly. Against a bigger, more physically oriented side — the sort seen week-in, week-out in MLS — RSL may have been troubled, but Grabavoy's aerial abilities weren't much tested.
Grabavoy constantly kept RSL ticking, distributing short passes reliably – he was 40/41 passing on Tuesday – and picking up five interceptions.
Shifting sands of defense
Once again, Tauro rolled forward with a fascinating approach to their defending. Perhaps more defensively minded than they might be against lesser opponents, Gonzalo Soto's side ostensibly came out with three center backs and two wing backs, with one of the center backs generally pushing a bit higher in possession — but never beyond the ad hoc line created by the wing backs.
It is an odd system to face for a club like RSL that plays in a league whose sides all basically ape the indelibly British 4-4-2, with wingers and two forwards, one more creative and one more bruising. Although RSL certainly saw a little trouble defensively, that was more down to individual abilities and good combinations from Tauro players.
The heart of Tauro's system on Tuesday night rested in their coping with attacks; a relatively high line at times — one that was at times composed of two outright central defenders and three defensive midfielders (two quite wide), and at other times saw three center backs bound up tightly to prevent runs into channels from Fabian Espindola and Javier Morales.
It was, all told, a fantastic tactical performance that nearly denied RSL the win they so badly needed. But when they were pushed further and further back, gaps emerged. It was those gaps that saw RSL making its best chances of the night, but when Saborio received the ball on the right side of the penalty area in much the same manner as those chances, it came down to an individual mistake from Vladimir Villareal, Tauro's 19-year-old goalkeeper, who had been strong nearly all night.
Lacking in attack
It was in part down to a strong tactical outlay from Tauro and in part down to an odd reluctance to attack from deep, but RSL was found lacking in attack throughout the proceedings — save the last ten or so minutes, during which things took a positive turn and, in the end, produced a positive result.
Perhaps it was reluctance on the part of Wingert and Beltran to get forward — prompting the midfield to move with it — or perhaps it was an imbalance in the midfield's workings. It is difficult to exactly pinpoint where things went wrong, or perhaps it is that many smaller things went slightly wrong, provoking a confluence of concerns that saw RSL struggle.
With Morales struggling to distribute from the edge of the box, where he ostensibly does his finest work, and Espindola blocked from his runs in channels between defenders, the attack was weakened. Further, the full backs and central midfielders couldn't push as far forward, owing to the presence of wing backs, or, if you will, wide defensive midfielders.
Again, part of that was because Tauro were fantastic tactically, and part was just a slightly wary approach from the midfield.
A CONCACAF Champions League tie is once again upon Jason Kreis's RSL, and a trip off to the canal-laden land of Panama sees the Claret-and-Cobalt taking on Tauro FC. A win for the MLS side leaves them in the running for the top spot in — and the only one to escape from — Group 2, while anything less could well see angst-furrowed brows along the sidelines.
Tauro sat back and defended during RSL's 2-0 win over the Panamanian champs at Rio Tinto Stadium on Aug. 21. They'll need be more positive if they want to thwart RSL's plans on Tuesday and potentially move forward out of the group.
RSL will be doing it all on Tuesday without the services of their captain, Kyle Beckerman, who will miss the match due to a red card suspension picked up in that Aug. 21 win.
When last RSL met Tauro FC, they entered proceedings with a slightly unusual defensive — and offensive — twist, serving up a defensive line that at times held anywhere from three to five players, with overlaps in zones and midfield confusion erupting.
The unpredictability was brought into effect by midfielders dropping deeper and playing just in front of the defense, and in its wake, it disrupted any fluency the Panamanians tried to construct in the midfield. RSL, as a result, bossed the match without much issue — save, of course, creating goals from the run of play, which has been a spot of bother in recent weeks.
Whether those question marks will pop back into the picture may depend largely on Tauro's form and their ability to adjust formation properly and not haphazardly. It doesn't look encouraging for the Panamanians: They've notched only one win from five across all competitions since losing in Utah. Still, they've showed some goal scoring ability during those times, and RSL will need to be as defensively strong as ever.
Who will play holding mid?
After Kyle Beckerman's ejection in the home match with Tauro, RSL is left a little shorthanded in the middle of the park. With the club's captain absent, a replacement for one of the key positions will be essential — but just who that replacement will be throws out a question or two.
Under most circumstances, one might expect Yordany Alvarez to deputize; this season, he's done so with understanding and nous, save some shaky moments. Those shaky moments may be enough to push Jason Kreis toward someone with a bit more consistency in the form of Ned Grabavoy, who has been vaunted as the man for the job.
Grabavoy — more a link-up player than a defensive midfielder — has featured as holding mid a remarkable 12 times since joining the club, with RSL posting a 5-3-4 record when he plays in Beckerman's usual spot. He would offer more emphasis on attack than someone like Alvarez, who serves more as a hard-tackling, ball-winning midfielder. Of course, a side can't attack without first winning the ball — that simple fact may play into Kreis's decision.
Whoever lands at holding mid, the impetus will undoubtedly be on attack: A draw would inch RSL ever closer to a group stage exit, and a loss would certainly seal their fate. Kreis will certainly play all his cards looking for all three points.
It's always a frustrating night when an expected tactical approach from the opponent is abandoned in favor of something more, say, negative. Last night's match against Houston saw RSL facing up to a side abandoning their controlled style, making an already difficult job even more so.
Passing and Possession
Coming into the match, Kreis and company might have been expecting to face a Houston Dynamo team that tried to play in their possession-oriented style, but what they instead saw was a team reticent to pressure outside their own half. As a result, RSL was allowed huge swathes of possession, with the Dynamo rather content to sit back, clog the lanes, and watch their opponent pass the ball around the back line.
As a result, RSL's defensive passing measures are stellar: Neither Kwame Watson-Siriboe nor Nat Borchers put a pass wrong all night, with 95/95 passing between the two of them. That bears repeating: 95 for 95. No, it didn't cause RSL to win the match, and no, it didn't cause anyone to score a goal, but these things should be applauded.
In fact, it wouldn't be a stretch to say that most of RSL's players completed more passes in this single game than they have in any other game this season. Houston were entirely content letting play just sort of pass them by, which, given their predilection for control, was almost a shocker.
How do you solve a problem like Javier?
Javier Morales, generally the key to unlocking tight defenses plaguing RSL, needs to be on-song when those passing lanes are clogged — or, at the very least, other midfielders need to step up. But when two of four starting midfielders are absent, the weight bears down a little more on Javier's shoulders, and it's not always going to work out perfectly.
So without a massively creative midfield, RSL was always likely to struggle — but one of the options that can start to correct that is more thrust from the full backs. This doesn't always play out as a "swing crosses in" sort of thing, but the amount of space created when wide options are present is a difference-maker. Opposing full backs are pulled out, midfielders get a little extra space, and those vital runs are ever-so-slightly easier.
With only one veritable full back on the pitch in Tony Beltran and the opposite flank filled by a center back only just returning from a 117-day layoff, attacking up the flanks was a bit harder. Beltran got forward well on occasion but showed a bit of reluctance to step too far, perhaps as he was wary of a counterattacking threat, and Chris Schuler's attacking effort was metered to put forward a 90-minute effort.
As such, without huge amounts of midfield creativity, and without much attack from the flanks, RSL found it difficult to get past the two banks of Houston players and through on goal. That may well have come down to one major factor: Absences.
Absences and what they meant
Without Kyle Beckerman's deep-lying playmaking abilities and Chris Wingert's flank work, RSL was found a bit lacking in two vital areas. Throw in absences to Alvaro Saborio and Will Johnson, and you're out finishing and a bit of drive. It's not as if RSL was particularly lacking drive, but the other three absences made a difference — maybe one of a scant few percentage points, but sometimes, that's all that's needed to push on.
If a body meets a body, and those two bodies happen to play effective possession and passing soccer, such an affair might be considering scintillating. With Real Salt Lake arriving in Houston to take on the Dynamo, the two sides, neither of which are lacking in personality on the pitch, are sitting atop some interesting statistical tables.
These two teams, while both insisting on high rates of possession and passing, exemplify the diversity of styles of play. RSL are the forceful, hard-tackling side, while the Dynamo may look to move the ball around a bit more.
Passing and possession
Houston Dynamo have perhaps been found lacking in cutting thrust at times (evidenced by their 9 draws and 7 losses), which is surprising given their domineering possession, which sits at a lofty 56.6 percent on average. To further make things interesting, their possession average goes up even more when they win (57.5 percent) and down when they lose (54.1 percent) but they always remain quite high up there.
RSL is currently sitting at 53.8 percent on average, with greater possession averages clocking up during losses (55 percent) than wins (53 percent). Given the nature of possession (when one side has it, the other does not), one of these two sides will come out with a lower-than-average possession percentage.
Houston is also the safest-passing side in the league, with 82 percent of their passes finding their target and an average pass count of 478 per match. RSL isn't too far behind, with 81 percent pass accuracy and 441 passes per match.
While this doesn't speak heavily to a claim about the efficacy of such techniques, the fact that the amount of passing on average doesn't change much between wins and losses speaks to a certain dogged commitment to a style. Houston is flying under the radar a bit for this, while RSL has that particular approach bandied about both positively and negatively.
Fouls and bookings
The Dynamo, for all their possession, are one of the least-fouling sides in the league — third from the bottom with 10.7 per match. RSL is sitting a bit higher at 13 per match on average. But that's all made a bit more fascinating by yellow cards issued: Houston have — by some number — seen the fewest yellow cards this season, with 23 being shown. As a point of counterbalance, RSL has seen 51 this season; San Jose, 50; and Vancouver, 57.
This leaves the Dynamo at 12.6 fouls averaged per yellow card shown. Whether this is owing to better tackling technique (although the tackle-won percentage isn't significantly higher than RSL's — 82 percent to 80 percent) or some other factor is hard to easily say. RSL's reverse of that, with 7.2 fouls per yellow card issued, will certainly be a consideration for Jason Kreis.
Absences and returns
Any hope for a boost in form pushed along by RSL's starting contingent will have gone out the window by now, with Kyle Beckerman, Will Johnson and Alvaro Saborio absent through international duty, and Chris Wingert out with yellow card accumulation. It will likely be another one of those depth-tests.
It could also lead to some shifts in the defense, with Chris Schuler inching closer to a full return, Kenny Mansally recovering quickly, and Jamison Olave working his way back. Though Olave seems likely to rest in a bid for full fitness following the long break, the lanky Schuler may well be handed a start on the left defensive flank.