Two similar sides faced off at Rio Tinto Stadium on Saturday when Real Salt Lake defeated Chivas USA 1-0, with a crowded midfield dominating the match's narrative.
Yordany Alvarez, in for Kyle Beckerman and his dislocated rib, had a fine night as a defensive midfielder, breaking up play — evidenced by his five interceptions — but also making a delible impact on the match with efficient passing. His only unsuccessful passes (he went 42/51 on the night) were either long or at the edge of the Chivas box.
Where Alvarez controlled the defensive portion of the midfield, Javier Morales controlled the attacking end. His goal made the biggest impact on the match, but with four key passes, he had some real success as a distributor. Of course, it's hard to look past that goal — a fine effort he started off with a 60-yard run into the area.
Considering the midfield glut present throughout the match, the successes of these two is of real note.
It goes rather without saying that there were some areas in which Real Salt Lake looked less than optimal. Chief among those was failing to deal with the high amounts of pressure being put on the midfield.
The players who started on the side of the diamond fared with the pressure differently: Luis Gil wasn't heavily involved (13/15 in passing), while Ned Grabavoy completed only just over half of his passes (19/37) through the match. It would seem to be down to the opposition and the high pressure, but it's also worth noting that Chivas USA had a hard go of things in their midfield as well, completing only two-thirds of their passes in the middle third. Of course, 75 percent of Chivas's passes came in the middle third.
It was a match described most readily by a crowded midfield — when two remarkably similar dominant-midfield sides are up against each other, perhaps that's inevitable.
After all the talk of Chivas USA deploying in a 3-5-2 or something approaching it, we were left with something that looked more akin to a more defensive diamond 4-4-2 — imagine Real Salt Lake's approach with Kyle Beckerman more readily dropping into a center back role rather than pushing forward. It's a matter of semantics, and not an entirely important one, but it's worth discussing.
RSL kicked off its three-game home stand in style on Saturday night, beating Western Conference foe Chivas USA 1-0 at Rio Tinto Stadium.
Here are a few interesting numbers from Saturday’s match:
Real Salt Lake goalkeeper Nick Rimando’s penalty kick save on Chivas USA midfielder Edgar Mejia in the 36th minute of Saturday’s game moved the veteran ‘keeper to 18-for-59 (30.5 percent) on regular season penalty kicks in his career – the best mark in league history.
Real Salt Lake forward Alvaro Saborio assisted on midfielder Javier Morales’ goal on Saturday night, the first time that the Costa Rican international registered a helper on a Morales goal in regular season play.
Saturday’s win continued RSL’s recent dominance over Chivas USA, moving the Claret-and-Cobalt to 7-2-1 in regular season play against the Rojiblancos since the start of the 2009 season.
RSL forward Olmes Garcia made his first career MLS start on Saturday night, registering an assist and hitting the crossbar twice in 63 minutes of action. The 20-year-old Garcia signed a five-year contract with RSL in February.
RSL has zero losses in three home games this year, with Saturday’s result moving the Utah side to 2-0-1 at Rio Tinto Stadium in 2013. The Claret-and-Cobalt will play six of its next nine league matches in Sandy, starting with this Saturday’s contest against Western Conference rival L.A. Galaxy.
Essentially all sides in MLS (18, if we're to be precise) generally play with a four-man defense, and it's very much the accepted tactical outlay across world football. As such, modern attacking formations are based heavily on attempting to exploit the vulnerabilities and spaces between the two central defenders and the full backs. Chivas USA, as has been oft-discussed this season, has been playing with a three-man back line under Chelis, which presents some interesting options for Real Salt Lake.
The midfield attack
It becomes a rather simple equation — though not an entirely accurate one — when we talk about the three central defenders facing two strikers: 3v2 would seem to give an advantage to the defense, but not because of pure numbers. It simply allows for more defensive flexibility in covering an attacking midfielder — a Javier Morales, say — when he's playing centrally. In this case, you'd have both strikers covered and a third attacking player, and your wide midfielders are covering the flanks.
This is where it gets a bit tricky: If Javier Morales makes his diagonal runs toward touch on either flank, he opens up different sorts of space that the 3-5-2 might not accommodate readily. If the third central defender pulls off with him toward the channels on either side, a run is opened up for a deeper-lying midfielder. If the defender stays, he's forced to decide between covering for a wider central defender, who might peel off to cover Morales, or to simply cover dangerous spaces at the back. Whatever the defense does to attempt to cover the danger Morales provides, options should open up for midfielders.
The strikers might be more efficiently covered, doubling the importance of midfield attack. Any disruption that can be offered — while avoiding too much opportunity for Chivas USA to counter — will play into RSL's hands. A quick turn could see the defense presented with three, four or even five attacking options. Imagine, for example: Saborio, Findley, Gil, Morales and Grabavoy all moving toward goal, and rather narrowly at that. Quick runs past the defenders could see Findley perfectly poised to cause significant trouble.
The wide areas
Chivas USA are likely to control the wide areas with either wing-backs or wide midfielders patrolling the flanks. If Real Salt Lake surrenders them, as so often we do out of tactical necessity, our fullbacks will need to be actively communicating with the midfielders to handle any danger on the flanks. Obviously enough, this will require a bit more communication across the board, as it would be rather disastrous to allow free runs in the middle from a creative side.
RSL walked all over Chivas USA the last time the sides met, getting a hat trick from forward Alvaro Saborio - who played only 74 minutes - to beat the Goats 4-0 at the Home Depot Center on Sept. 29, 2012.
Check out highlights of that match above. RSL hosts Chivas USA at 7:00 p.m. on Saturday at Rio Tinto Stadium.
Real Salt Lake youngsters Carlos Salcedo and Lalo Fernandez both spent time in the Chivas Guadalajara academy earlier in their careers, with Salcedo playing there in 2009 and Fernandez at the academy from 2008-2010.
The pair of Guadalajara natives talked about their time in the Chivas academy ahead of Saturday's home match against Guadalajara's sister club Chivas USA. Check out the above video to see the roommates and RSL-Arizona Academy grads dish on life with Guadalajara and their tight connection with Chivas USA midfielder Giovani Casillas.
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.
Real Salt Lake put in a dominant performance on Saturday night, scoring two goals in the first 12 minutes on its way to beating Chivas USA 4-0 at the Home Depot Center.
Here are some interesting numbers from the Claret-and-Cobalt’s victory in Southern California.
The number of goals scored by RSL forward Álvaro Saborío in Saturday’s game. The hat trick was Saborio’s second of the season – he bagged three goals in the 3-0 win over Portland on July 7 – and just the fourth in RSL history.
The number of goals Saborío has scored in 29 league games this year – the best-ever single-season haul by a RSL player. Saborío’s Saturday hat trick broke the single-season record previously held by former Claret-and-Cobalt forward Jeff Cunningham, who led the league with 16 goals in 2006.
The number of multi-goal games Saborío has in 91 career matches across all competitions for RSL. The Claret-and-Cobalt is now 30-5-5 all-time in games in which the Costa Rican international scores.
The number of assists RSL forward Fabían Espíndola had on Saturday night. It was the first time in RSL's 249-game MLS history that one player had three assists in a match.
The number of goals allowed by RSL on Saturday, the team’s fifth shutout in its last seven matches across all competitions. Claret-and-Cobalt goalie Nick Rimando tied his season-high with six saves to earn Saturday’s clean sheet – the 98th of his illustrious MLS career, putting him second behind FC Dallas goalie Kevin Hartman
RSL’s current seed in the Western Conference standings. The Claret-and-Cobalt – which entered the weekend in third in the West – is two points ahead of L.A. and three ahead of Seattle after both teams tied this weekend.
RSL’s 2012 point total. The club has now earned at least 50 points in three-consecutive seasons, joining the 2005/06/07 D.C. United squads and the 2010/11/12 L.A. Galaxy sides – who reached the milestone by drawing 1-1 at Colorado on Sunday night – as the only teams in MLS history with that unique distinction.
The number of wins Real Salt Lake has this year – another single-season club record. The 16-win total is one higher than the 15 the Claret-and-Cobalt had in 2010 and 2011. RSL has three regular season games remaining to add to its new club-record total.
The number of wins Real Salt Lake now has at the Home Depot Center. RSL – which has 24 MLS road wins in club history – will return to the HDC this coming Saturday for a crucial match against the L.A. Galaxy.
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.)