No matter which conference you happen to be in or facing, going up against a side in the thick of the playoff hunt is always going to provide some difficulties and question marks. DC United, standing on 41 points from 26 games, will be looking to put their best foot forward as they attempt to either move up in the standings or, at the very least, stay level with their fourth-place spot.
Stopping the slide
Jason Kreis may have pulled out all the stops to slow the slide into seeming despair (I don't contend it was, of course) to grab a draw against the Union, and it might seem he'll have to do it again. In this vital time of the season, rest becomes less and less an option as every point is valuable. With the Galaxy three behind us, and Whitecaps FC another three behind them, we'll want to ensure our standing doesn't slip too much. Dropping out of the playoff race is all but impossible now, but seeded standings are important.
But more than standings, Kreis will be worried about mentality going into the postseason. The matches are becoming more and more important to win, and with CONCACAF Champions League group play remaining a priority, our approach to these matches becomes all the more important.
Shots from distance
One of the issues that's affected Real Salt Lake is our reluctance to take shots from outside the box. Now, there could be a number of explanations about this: We prefer to work it in, or defenders tend to sit deeper against us, or we just don't have the long shot abilities we'd need to make it effective. I don't particularly buy any but the second.
To do this, we'll need to break into the final third a bit more regularly than we have been. We're averaging only 25 percent of our passing in the final third, and while this is down partly to our short passing options in the midfield, more thrust is essential. It is perhaps reassuring that United are only just ahead of us (25.5 percent) in this regard, but perhaps for different reasons. But both sides do put a large percentage of their shots on target — D.C. is at about 36 percent, while we're at about — wait for it — 36 percent.
We'll need more shots from our midfield, certainly. Of our 116 on-target scoring attempts, 54 percent have come from Alvaro Saborio (32), Fabian Espindola (22), and Paulo Junior (9). A further 25 percent come from Will Johnson (15), Javier Morales (8), and Kyle Beckerman (7). Between six players, we have 79 percent of our on-target shots, and that's certainly got to be spread a bit more. Luis Gil and Ned Grabavoy, in for a starting spot on plenty of occasions, will be looking to increase their shooting rate, accuracy be damned.
Goals -- and how they are conceded
It is interesting to see that we concede the third-fewest outside-the-box scoring attempts per match (4.7), while the Washingtonians (of the capital sort) concede the most (6.5). We also concede the fourth-fewest attempts from inside the box (6.3), while United concedes the third-most (8).
Here's where those two stats really break off, though: RSL is conceding the fifth-highest number of goals from attempts inside the box (30/169) – United, though conceding just as many inside the box, has faced 31 more shots (30/200). It balances things out in a fascinating way.
Friday's goalless draw against the Philadelphia Union was indeed a tactically fascinating one, but not for the reasons one would have expected going into the weekend. The draw — an uptick in RSL's road form — saw Jason Kreis presenting his side a little differently than it has been in some time. Exactly how different? That's another question altogether.
Briefly, though, let's go over some elements of the tactical preview: What did we see? What didn't we see?Goals, and how they make games
Right. Everybody knows that goals change games, but this was specifically about the timing of goals — when the Union found goals most frequently. That was, of course, in the 15 minute interval around either side of the half, as well as in the final 15 minutes. It is to our credit, then, that we didn't concede a goal, but it does make this point rather difficult to discuss.
Lacking for style
As discussed, the Union are rather lacking in, well, personality. On the pitch, I mean. And you know? That seemed to be the case again — at least in attack. But in defense, the side was relentless in their pressing action. It allowed RSL little time on the ball, disrupting attempts to really create a significant flow to proceedings.
The Union were in superb defensive form: 17/21 tackles won, 21 interceptions, and 24 clearances speak to that fact. Remarkably, they conceded only a single corner and committed only three fouls in their half (of nine total), none of which were within striking distance.
Consistency dismissed: a new look
RSL's revised approach to the match involved a surprising departure from Kreis's diamond 4-4-2 (or, if you will, a 4-1-2-1-2, as Opta records it). Some dubbed it a 4-1-4-1, but I'll dispute that just a bit. What we saw was our narrow diamond, as it usually is set out, but with an additional attacking midfielder flitting from spot to spot, looking for openings. Perhaps a more fitting label is a 4-4-1-1, or, if you follow from the 4-1-2-1-2, a 4-1-2-2-1.
How does that change matters? Will Johnson and Ned Grabavoy still very much operated in their own swathe of midfield, with Grabavoy taking up right-sided attacking positions and Johnson supporting Beckerman in ball-winning measures. Luis Gil, too, was a bit further forward, but still very much the systemic tip-of-the-diamond player.
Javier Morales — inevitably the one floating in that free role — found himself at times ahead of sole striker for the night, Alvaro Saborio, at times behind the midfield, and largely in the thick of things. Was it an inspired move? It's hard to say, really, as a three-point result didn't come along with the change. But with five midfielders in there, four of which were engaged in defensive responsibilities and one generally left out of it, RSL was certainly not overrun by the Union midfield.
Perhaps that was the goal: Contain the Union, ensure a shutout, and hope for a bit of magic from Javier Morales and Alvaro Saborio. By freeing up Morales from the pressing game, Kreis ensured he got at least a good half out of his playmaker — and after a grueling week, that might have been just the goal.
When RSL takes on the Philadelphia Union on Friday, they'll be looking at a side struggling to establish an identity. The Union, 16 points off a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, might look to RSL an alluring opponent: one, perhaps, that should present an easy three points.
As we've seen this season, that's so rarely the case.
Goals – And how they make games
For all the renewed belief from a strong CCL performance, RSL underestimating the Union would be perhaps fatal. Any lack of concentration is readily exploitable, with the lion's share of Union goals coming at vital times: 30 percent come in the final 15 minutes of the first half, while 25 percent come at the end of the second half. A lack of attention to detail is ripe for error here.
But RSL, too, hold similar numbers: 27 percent of their goals come in the 15-minute interval following the half (the Union sit at 25 percent) and 19 percent come in the final 15 minutes — the two most common intervals for goals from the Claret-and-Cobalt. If both sides put forth strong efforts in approaching the goal during these intervals, we might well see a bit of a goal-fest from two sides that haven't exactly been swimming in the goals as of late.
Lacking for style
As the team with the worst crossing record in MLS faces off against the team with the third-worst record — 19 percent of RSL's crosses were accurate, while 23 percent of the Union's crosses were accurate — spectators can rest relatively assured that an aerial battle isn't set to ensue.
But while the Claret-and-Cobalt present a strong on-the-ground passing game, having made the second-highest amount of passes in the league with 81 percent accuracy, the Union seem to be a side lacking in a distinctive playing style. They don't present a strong threat on the ground, either: The fewest key passes in the league, the fewest passes in the final third in the league, the third-fewest goals in the league, and the second-fewest shots taken seem to indicate a general lack of attacking threat from the Pennsylvanian side.
For a player like Alvaro Saborio, the Union must look a tasty meal. The striker, who has seven goals in his last seven games, won’t have to deal with talented outside back Sheanon Williams, who picked up a red card in Philly’s last game and will miss Friday’s contest due to suspension.
Typically a defensive midfielder, Amobi Okugo has been asked to fill a role at center back as the Union, unusually shallow in defensive depth, look to find their footing in MLS play. In their last three league matches, the Union has had three different combinations of their starting back four. Okugo at the back may seem a surprise, but the young player will be looking to combine well with Union captain Carlos Valdes.
But as the Nowak "allocation money is king" era unfolded, the Union dispensed of two-year-starting defender Danny Califf, their hand seemingly weakened — but the arrival of former Chicago Fire defender Bakary Soumare from French third division club US Boulogne could still be the solution to that particular puzzle.
While RSL's fortunes have, at times, been a bit unkind at the back, the rise of Kwame Watson-Siriboe and Nat Borchers as a veritable defensive pairing has been a revelation. With Chris Schuler marching toward a return, Watson-Siriboe will be looking to continue his strong statement that he's deserving of a starting spot — even with injury concerns out of the way.
A Champions League match is always an exciting thing: It affords an opportunity to see tactical approaches MLS coaches simply don't use. On Tuesday, Tauro rolled in with a defensively minded 3-5-2 lineup designed to win a point, but Real Salt Lake's tactical mindset was exactly what was needed for a refreshing win.
Building from possession
A consummate midfield performance allowed Real Salt Lake to really build attacks from effective spells of possession. The match was marked by strong efforts from Will Johnson (39/44 in passing), who was spread across the midfield; Ned Grabavoy (41/49 in passing, three key passes), who built on the right side and connected play expertly; Javier Morales (45/60, four key passes), who displayed that killer mentality and expert dribbling ability he's known for; and Kyle Beckerman (49/54), who, before his red, shunted a number of balls out left for Kenny Mansally, opening play and forcing the issue.
It was perhaps a little surprising that we lacked a real midfield presence on the left side of midfield. Will Johnson continued to play just in front of Kyle, closing down play, while Ned's positioning was almost entirely right-sided. It was a slightly lop-sided approach, but some balance was afforded in the bursting runs of defender Kenny Mansally, who filled the left side quite ably.
It was through sustained spells of possession that we kept the match on our side, but it was one good break that really set it alight. Paulo's evocative run into the box, showing the full height of his close control, and Saborio's instinctive finishing was exactly what we expect from the striker. The second goal came from possession, but it was a superb strike from distance, the box filling with players, that sealed matters for the evening.
Despite crafting chance after chance from midfield possession, the two that found the back of the net were found in other ways. It's a funny game, isn't it?
Compact without the ball
In the world stage, Barcelona stands above others when possession football is the goal. It is often said that their former manager, Pep Guardiola, enforced a strategic approach in which the side, when losing possession, would attempt to regain it within six seconds, and if they did not, they would form a very compact wall of players — often all 10 outfielders in an 18-yard bunch across the pitch — and contain play until they won the ball back through less grueling means.
We're no Barcelona. That much is obvious. But last night, we saw our side playing with that same mindset. Once we didn't immediately win the ball back — which did happen quite frequently — we simply dropped into wall just inside our half. This allowed us to prevent long balls from finding their targets through a concerted offside-line effort while keeping passing lanes awfully clogged.
Jason Kreis has often said that the goal is to be compact without the ball and expansive with, but last night, we saw that really ticking over. It's a tried-and-true strategy, and against a Tauro side that tried to hit us with midfield guile and craft, it was exactly what we needed. There's no better way to shut down a creative player than to afford them no space.
An affected red
Kyle Beckerman's red, thankfully, didn't change last night's result. The card, unlucky but perhaps deserved, gave Tauro the perfect opportunity to capitalize. It was a test for our defensive strength, but we passed with rather flying colors. They still had nary a real chance, which, all things considered, is a bit surprising. Some after-the-card stats — and keep in mind, these are all in about a 15-minute timespan:
- 25/46 passing, about 54% accuracy (361/428, about 84%, before the card).
- To contrast, Tauro was 107/127 passing after the red card, but only had one shot.
- 6/8 tackles won (13/16 before)
- 10 clearances (17 before)
- Four fouls, none in particularly dangerous positions (14 fouls before, none of which were in incredibly dangerous positions)
Goals change games. That's the saying. But as we saw, cards do, too. It was through a cohesive midfield performance that we made it out with only a few minor scratches.
As painful as Saturday's loss to FC Dallas was, it provided an interesting tactical matchup that ended almost predictably: Real Salt Lake attacked dutifully and nobly, while FC Dallas was rather content to sit back, soak up the pressure, and hit on the break.
Formations: Soaking Up the Pressure
As one might expect from a side that changes formation nearly every week, FC Dallas adapted to a possession-dominating side by sitting deep and allowing attacks to fly in. Of their 38 clearances through the match — one every 2.3 minutes — of which 17 were effective.
That approach saw RSL allowed somewhat in the attacking third, but with much of the action coming on the flanks. Of the home side's 498 passes and 84 percent pass accuracy, 154 were in the final third with 64 percent accuracy — a surprisingly typical final third passing rate. Before this weekend, only 24.63 percent of RSL's passes came in the final third (the lowest in the league), though the club holds the third spot in pass accuracy in the final third — 63 percent. Sound familiar?
Despite the eased pressure in the attacking half, FC Dallas kept RSL from working in the penalty box, by and large. Only six passes were attempted there, of which one was successful. However, 10 shots were found from inside the box — three headed shots, one of which was a goal — but with little real success.
The Ferreira Factor
David Ferreira's return from a long injury layoff — suffered on April 4, 2011, from which he returned on July 4, 2012 — has been remarkable and inspiring. He's grabbed two goals and six assists from ten matches — and one of each came against us on Saturday. That, too, might be inspiring if it hadn't sent us to our third straight defeat.
But all that came in spite of FC Dallas's lack of attacking play. He found two key passes, both of which were long balls from around the midfield stripe, and an assist on the counter to put us 1-0. That he ended us in stoppage time owed partly to his free role on the pitch, as he had plenty of room to work — especially with our defense pushing into the final third late on.
RSL and Rotation
With Tuesday's match looming, some rotation was necessary, but we're always looking to win at home. A strong squad was the statement perhaps needed — for fans and for the league — but it backfired in spectacular fashion. We'll be marching on to Tuesday with some rested players: Alvaro Saborio and Fabian Espindola, both likely to start in the Champions League, each played a half, Will Johnson was kept out, and Kyle Beckerman played just 15 minutes at the end of the match.
Those four are almost assured to start against Tauro, while a 90 minute effort from Javier Morales may put slight question marks over the likelihood that he starts. Despite Grabavoy, Beltran, Wingert and Watson-Siriboe going 90, those four are all likely to start as well.
It's a quick turnaround, but without intensive travel involved, Real Salt Lake could be in pole position to gain some footing in the CONCACAF Champions League — it is, after all, the competition for which the club has kept their core group of players together, and a loss here would be a bitter, bitter blow to all that.
FC Dallas is coming into this one on a bit of a hot note, having just defeated Vancouver 2-0 and Colorado 3-2. While those results have somewhat helped us maintain our position in the table, that sort of form coming into the Rio Tinto is slightly daunting.
Formations: Switching things up
This is an FC Dallas side that quite actively adapts their formation to the match at hand and their playing personnel available. They've ranged this season from playing a traditional 4-4-2 to, more recently, a 4-2-3-1 — all of this more recent action seems to have worked somewhat, as their form and results have improved significantly.
Their most recent two match ups illustrate clearly the different approaches they've taken (although they have technically played in the same formation, the differences are clear.) In their 3-2 win over Colorado a week ago (a win for which it is hard to not have some affection for the Texans) they employed a flank-heavy look and managed two goals from long shots. In Wednesday's result against Vancouver (staving off the wolves from RSL's backs, perhaps?), they played a bit deeper in the midfield and entirely surrendered the right flank. Indeed, in general, FC Dallas has proved a more left-sided team than most others.
For Real Salt Lake, who have been one of the most consistent sides — if not the singly most consistent — in approach and formation over the last four seasons (with varying levels of success, although I'd point quite firmly at RSL's generally excellent results), FC Dallas could employ a fairly static two-banks-of-four approach to stifle creativity in the final third.
But if the two matches we played earlier this season are any indication, RSL fans could be subject to some further late drama, having found the Claret-and-Cobalt already not lacking at all in that sort of flair.
The Ferreira Factor
All these tactical and strategic switches seem to be focused on getting the best out of returning attacking midfielder David Ferreira — the victim of a broken ankle from a bad tackle only weeks before Javier Morales was taken out of contention for most of 2011. His return has already seen him gather 707 minutes of play, during which he's found 26 key passes — giving him the second-best rate in MLS at one every 27.2 minutes — just over 3 per match on average. Of course, Javier Morales isn't far behind in fourth place, at 28.3 minutes per key pass.
With that excellent key pass rate come assists: Five assists from nine matches is nothing to shake a stick at. Ferreira is one of the major heartbeats of this Dallas side, and their uptick in form could be attributed almost directly to him. But having gone 90 minutes twice in the last 7 days, Schellas Hyndman may be inclined to rest his playmaker rather than risk fatigue so early after returning from a horrific injury.
RSL and Rotation
After three of RSL's four established international players went 90 minutes in midweek, changes are almost assuredly set to be rung in, especially with Tuesday's CONCACAF Champions League matchup against FC Tauro looming. Chances for Yordany Alvarez, Jonny Steele and perhaps Justin Braun seem to be coming, and given Kreis's recent comments, it would be hard to not imagine further changes. Whoever comes out, they'll need to watch for David Ferreira and his magical passing abilities. Further, a concentrated focus on attacking down the right side while remaining defensively solid on the left could lead to some very interesting switches in personnel.
It is worth considering that FC Dallas will be playing their third game in 8 days: Will this give RSL a chance to capitalize on tired legs without burning out their own? Suddenly, these Western Conference match-ups are looking very juicy indeed.
RSL started last Saturday's 2-1 loss at Vancouver well. Tactically, there was nothing to be upset about, despite a lack of goals: Vancouver's speed on the wings was never particularly threatening before the 56th minute. But a simple clearance scuffed into the back of Chris Wingert (the wrong place at the wrong time if there ever was one) rebounded to Camilo, who slotted home with ease. Tactical error? Hardly.
But from that point forward, the shape changed. Chris Wingert and Tony Beltran emerged from their deeper positions, the midfielders dropped a little deeper, and Nat Borchers began pushing even further forward than most strikers.
It wasn't that new tactical approach that faltered when Dane Richards found the net: Chris Wingert (again, though I don't' hold him accountable in the least for the first goal, and with this second goal, it's a tough scenario) stood off the winger, and Richards took a long, curling shot that fizzed past Nick Rimando. Again, not a tactical error, but an error nonetheless.
Though the tactical approach had us set up well, abandoning it made it seem that we initially hadn't set up to find a goal. It wasn't, I suppose, a comfortable approach for RSL's full backs, sitting back like they did. The attack was somewhat neutered: To compensate for the lack of width, Johnson and Grabavoy took up wider positions and stayed a bit more on their sides — while recently, Johnson has been seen darting around the midfield picking up loose balls and making vital tackles, he was a bit more left-sided today, providing more emphasis on attack. But the simple, easy balls played from the full backs just inside were missing, and as a result, we didn't have much chance to build up play on the outside.
As a result, too many times, Espindola was forced to drop deep or very, very wide to help build play, leaving Saborio on a bit of an island. It is hard to say if Javier Morales remaining in the game for 60, 70 or even 90 minutes might have helped rescue something from the match. An ineffable bit of magic from Javier Morales, absent from the proceedings after the half, might have been enough.
The goal to close things out from Nat Borchers provided an interesting piece of the story, though, as Paulo Jr. — in his first match back from loan — found space efficiently and neatly, and further swung in a rather brilliant cross for the defender to get a head on. As they say, there is a silver lining. The other big silver lining? Kwame Watson-Siriboe, who was tidy, strong and safe the whole match. And to think, we picked him up for only just more than the cost of a loaf of bread (or something to that effect, right?) Watching this kid grow in our system has been exciting, and it promises to continue in that direction.tgo
It's not often a side is so privileged as to face the same opponent two weeks in row, but with an unbalanced schedule, there was an air of inevitability to this sort of meeting. Though last time around, RSL took their chances well thanks, in part, to a fine striking performance from Alvaro Saborio, the tables so often turn on the road.
Vancouver Whitecaps, sitting in fourth place in the Western Conference, have been one of the most improved sides in MLS this year, rocketing up from their last-place finish in 2011. With eleven games remaining in the season, they've picked up six more points than in the whole of the previous campaign. Clearer a stronger foe now, the Whitecaps have lost but a single match at home, and our road form hasn't set to world alight. It all shapes up to be a noteworthy occasion.
The statistical run of RSL's road fortunes is bandied about with some regularity, there hasn't been much disparity from last season, when a paltry five games were won on the road. Two more road wins would see the Claret and Cobalt best their road results from last season.
But for all the talk of form, the Caps will be without the services of first-choice goalkeeper Joe Cannon, whose performances have contributed in no small way to Vancouver's successes. His 68 saves this season — enough to put him in third place in the category — won't come into play after his sending off just two weeks ago.
Before talk of threatening a backup keeper can take off — Brad Knighton's not a slouch, though he's never won a regular spot for an MLS side — it should be considered that Real Salt Lake play less in the final third than any other side in MLS relative to total passes. Only 24 percent of RSL's passing comes in the final third, and while that seems to indicate a lack of threat to play, it can be tempered: For every 46.8 successful final third passes, the side finds a goal — an indicator that there is more threat in that vital area of possession.
Keeping the Whitecaps at bay is a difficult task: They're a side that thrives without extensive possession: When they've won, they've averaged only 43 percent possession. With speedy players like Darren Mattocks and Dane Richards — both among the fastest in the league — catching sides on the break has become a routine affair. Strangely, Vancouver has averaged more possession when they lose matches — 51 percent — which won't dictate RSL's playing style, but should inform an awareness of counterattacking threat.
It's certain to be a real test for Kwame Watson-Siriboe — it's one he fared well with last time out against this side — early performances for RSL have been impressive. Having won two-thirds of his duels (a rate that tops the team) and showing an impressive ability to keep possession with safe passing play (92.8 percent — the best rate in the league), the young center back has eased the worries about the missing Olave.
With Jamison Olave falling to a hamstring strain and Chris Schuler still out with a foot bone stress response, the Watson-Siriboe-Borchers connection looks to be one that'll continue for at least the next month, supposing the nasty injury bug floating around the squad doesn't claim either of the two. Knock on wood and all that, right?
The trip off to Canada presents RSL with an opportunity to reclaim some road form, and while things aren't as bad as they may seem at times, there is a real sense floating around that there must be improvement away from the relative comforts of the Rio Tinto. Saturday presents a very real opportunity.
-- Matt Montgomery