Real Salt Lake faces Colorado on Saturday for the second time in less than a month, and although most of the squad is returning to fitness, there remain questions across the board.
With Javier Morales approaching full fitness, Jason Kreis is set to make his first big decision of the new-look 2013 lineup. WIll Luis Gil drop to the bench, with Morales taking his place? Or will Velasquez go to the bench, with Gil dropping deeper in midfield? Will Javier Morales even start on Saturday? While that one seems a bit of a doubt, but it's worth consideration.
Let's talk hypothetically. If Gil stays on, he drops into a position he hasn't played yet this season, but RSL gets a more seasoned player on the pitch. If Velasquez stays on, he continues in his position, building on strong performances there. Experience with Jason Kreis might lead one to believe that Gil stays on, given Kreis's preference for continuing with veteran players, but the fight for places is as big as RSL has had in a while.
Robbie Findley is likely to miss Saturday, which means Alvaro Saborio will again be partnered by somebody in the rotating cast of characters that is the RSL forward line. Joao Plata, should he recover sufficiently, is the most natural big-man-little-man fit, but he's apparently been struggling with a hamstring strain. Devon Sandoval has worked hard, presents some interesting options, but might not be the most natural fit next to Saborio. Olmes Garcia is full of raw, unmistakable talent, but he's just that: Raw.
Sandoval seems the most likely pick: Risking Joao Plata at this point might not be the most unreasonable thing in the world, but there's little chance he goes for a full 90 minutes with injury concerns close by.
Sandoval up top alongside Saborio would be a tactically interesting move. The two are both in a strong mold, work well with their backs to goal, and will help bring the midfield into attack; with two hold-up players, more attacking opportunities for players like Velasquez, Gil, Morales and Grabavoy emerge. Likewise, with two stronger forwards, defenders are forced out of their "cover Saborio endlessly" mentality, and when he he's got room, goals are scored. Additionally, the opportunities at set pieces — at least to distract the defending side — emerge with two dangerous players in the box.
Last time we played Colorado — a scant few weeks ago — Deshorn Brown found himself breaking past the defense time after time after time. Chris Schuler and Kwame Watson-Siriboe struggled as a pair that night. With Colorado at their home ground, they're likely to be continuing on a more attacking bent, but having Nat Borchers back in the side could make a bit of difference.
The fullbacks will need to be extra aware: Mansally and Beltran should continue to trade attacking moments, with one of the two deeper at any given moment. This will allow them to tuck in a bit (but not much) more centrally to help defend the counter.
The Rocky Mountain Cup: RSL tested, C.J. Brown approved.
The Claret-and-Cobalt take on the Rapids at Dick's Sporting Goods Park at 5:30 p.m. MT on Saturday. Watch live on NBC Sports Network.
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.
I'm convinced that true rivalries must have more than just a geographic component. There needs to be a strong element of competitiveness between the rivals, and the nail-biting nature of the games between Real Salt Lake and the Colorado Rapids have added to the richness of the Rocky Mountain Cup. There have been so many great moments in the Rocky Mountain Cup over the years; bulletin board material, last-minute game-winning goals, big-time saves, questionable calls, questionable no-calls, red cards, and skirmishes, just to name a few.
My favorite RMC moment – so far – was the RSL-Colorado game on Oct. 24, 2009, the final day of regular season play that year. It wasn't so memorable because of the game itself – RSL won 3-0 – but everything else that went on that night. Let me set the stage for you.
Going into the final day of the 2009 season, one playoff spot was up for grabs. As the day's games kicked off, that final spot belonged to none other than the Rapids who were sitting on 40 points. Right on their heels were FC Dallas, D.C. United, and Toronto FC, each with 39 points. RSL was the final team with a mathematical chance at the playoff spot with 37 points. In order for RSL to make the playoffs, they would need to leapfrog the three aforementioned teams and beat the Rapids. A win by either Dallas, D.C., or Toronto would automatically eliminate RSL.
That afternoon, before heading to Rio Tinto, RSL fans eagerly tuned into the early game on the East Coast: Toronto at New York. We were able to sit back and relax after not too long thanks to a brilliant showing by New York. The Red Bulls scored early and often, thrashing Toronto 5-0 to eliminate TFC from playoff contention at 39 points. One down, three to go.
Then it was off to Rio Tinto where, coincidentally, the final three games that would determine RSL's fate (Colorado at RSL, Dallas at Seattle, D.C. at Kansas City) all kicked off at roughly the same time. Facing a must-win situation, RSL came out flying. Robbie Findley hit pay-dirt twice in the first half hour, ending the drama early as it became apparent that Colorado didn't have the horses to equalize on this night. RSL went on to win 3-0, putting them level with Colorado at 40 points but ahead based on tiebreakers. Two down, two to go.
While RSL was putting a bow on their game, things were getting interesting elsewhere. Dallas gave us an early scare at Seattle when Atiba Harris put them up 1-0, but the expansion Sounders scored twice early in the second half and hung on to win, knocking Dallas out of playoff contention. Three down, one to go.
The D.C. at Kansas City game was going along fine at 1-1 with RSL owning the tiebreaker over D.C. Then suddenly, it looked like the clock had struck midnight and RSL would turn back into a pumpkin - Julius James put D.C. ahead in the 82nd minute. From then on it was all Kansas City on the offensive, but it appeared D.C. would hold on. At this point, almost every member of the media at Rio Tinto was ignoring the final minutes of RSL's win and we were all glued to the TV watching KC and D.C. Then, in second-half stoppage time, RSL got the miracle they needed - a controversial handball gave the Wizards a penalty on the last kick of the game. Claudio Lopez buried it, ending the match 2-2 and putting RSL through to the playoffs.
Without those four matches going exactly the right way, RSL would have watched the playoffs from the couch. Instead, they went on to win MLS Cup. It was a magical night all around, and it's officially my favorite Rocky Mountain Cup game of all time.
A former RSL beat reporter for multiple outlets, Jeremy Horton is a regular contributor to RealSaltLake.com and helps cover the team for ESPN 700 AM
Fantastic infographic from RSL's Ben Barnes detailing the history of the Rocky Mountain Cup Presented by Mark Miller Subaru ahead of the Claret-and-Cobalt's Saturday home opener at Rio Tinto Stadium against the Colorado Rapids. Check it out:
The news of Robbie Findley's return to Real Salt Lake stirred up so many buried memories in my mind, so many classic moments. The hat-trick against Columbus, the brace against L.A. in his first RSL match, and of course the equalizer against L.A. in the 2009 MLS Cup all come to mind. But my "favorite Findley" moment is this one, his second goal in RSL's 3-0 win at Colorado in October 2009.
Two things make this goal special for me. First, after a beautifully-weighted long ball (attention: Andy Williams sighting here), Findley takes a touch that makes Preston Burpo look silly. Second, he seals the deal with a finish that's much tougher than it looks.
But perhaps the thing that most makes this moment stand out in my mind is not how special the goal was, but how typical it was for Robbie Findley in many ways. How many times did we see him score in situations like this: RSL with a one-goal lead, opponent trying to get forward to find the equalizer, Findley gets in behind the defense using his speed and puts one home? Having a player with his skill set was so useful for putting games away. The last couple of seasons it has felt to me like RSL has taken the lead in plenty of games but has been unable to extend that lead past a single goal, causing a few too many nervous moments late in games. A little bit of research yielded the following numbers: When Robbie Findley was with RSL, 60% of their wins came by margins of two goals or more. In the two seasons since he left, that number is a full 10% lower.
RSL could really use somebody who can hurt opponents who are tired late in matches and taking risks while they search for an equalizer. Let's hope Robbie can bring that element back to Real Salt Lake.
A former RSL beat reporter for multiple outlets, Jeremy Horton is a regular contributor to RealSaltLake.com and will cover the team for ESPN700 AM
There’s no doubt that RSL turned in a lackluster offensive performance in last Saturday’s 1-0 loss at Colorado. The team looked tired, disjointed and struggled to create chances throughout, really only getting two good looks at goal in the entire match.
RSL’s biggest struggles came in the attacking third. Despite holding advantages in possession, total number of passes completed and percentage of passes completed across the entire field, RSL was completely outclassed in the final third, attempting and completing a fraction of the passes Colorado attempted and completed in the attacking area.
Check out the below table for a more detailed look:
|Passing stats - Entire field||334/420||293/409|
|Passing stats - Final third||27/51||76/115|
On the surface, this might not make a whole lot of sense - Shouldn't RSL's advantages in possession, total number of passes completed and passing percentage lead to corresponding advantages in final third numbers?
Well, no. Here's why: After scoring the first - and only - goal of the game in the 38th minute, Colorado - which had the possession advantage at halftime - backed off a bit. They allowed RSL to knock the ball around in the back, which boosted the Claret-and-Cobalt's possession number and improved the team's passing stats across the entire field. But by backing off, Colorado was able to maintain a tighter defensive shape in the final third. That compact shape made it hard for RSL to enter the attacking area (explaining the Utah side's low number of passes attempted in the final third) and, once they got there, made it difficult for the Claret-and-Cobalt to have success (explaining the team's poor passing conversion rate in the final third).
Don't expect RSL to repeat last Saturday's poor final third performance in this weekend's match at Vancouver. The team wasn't quite right at Colorado, playing its third game in an eight day stretch which saw them make a midweek trip to Costa Rica. The players got a short break this week, taking Monday and Tuesday off before resuming training on Wednesday. That downtime should allow them to be both physically and mentally refreshed for the game at Whitecaps FC, something that should pay dividends at BC Place.
Although RSL has already secured the Subaru Rocky Mountain Cup for the 2012 season, the excitement is still not over, with the Claret-and-Cobalt having a chance to pull off their first-ever season sweep of the Rapids with a win at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park on Saturday.
Get reacquainted with the Rocky Cup ahead of this weekend’s match with this history of the rivalry:
2005: Current RSL color commentator Brian Dunseth notched the franchise’s first-ever home goal at its inaugural home match on April 16. Click here for ESPN SoccerNet recap.
Apr. 16: RSL 1-COL 0
Sept. 21: RSL 0-COL 2
Oct. 1: RSL 1-COL 2
Oct. 12: RSL 0-COL 1
Series Winner: Colorado Rapids
2006: After swapping players with Colorado, RSL benefits by acquiring FW Jeff Cunningham who helped the team with two goals and an assist in an impressive 4-1 win on August 9. Click here for Yahoo! Sports recap.
May 27: RSL 2-COL 2
June 9: RSL 0-COL 1
Aug. 9: RSL 4-COL 1
Sept. 2: RSL 0-COL 1
Series Winner: Colorado Rapids
2007: RSL wins the Cup for the first time. The peculiar May 10th match in this series resulted in MLS’ only ever draw by own-goals. Click here for ESPN SoccerNet recap.
April 30: RSL 0-COL 2
May 10: RSL 1-COL 1
Sept. 22: RSL 1-COL 0
Oct. 20: RSL 1-COL 0
Series Winner: Real Salt Lake
2008: The pivotal October 25 match saw RSL clinch both the Rocky Mountain Cup and a spot in the playoffs. Click here for highlights.
May 15: RSL 0-COL 2
Aug. 29: RSL 2-COL 0
Oct. 25: RSL 1-COL 1
Series Winner: Real Salt Lake
2009: RSL retains the Cup for the third straight time. The sides tied on points during the season series, but RSL retained the Cup because of the club’s higher series goal total. Watch Leo the Lion protect the 2009 Cup.
May 2: RSL 0-COL 2
June 6: RSL 1-COL 1
Oct. 24: RSL 3-COL 0
Series Winner: Real Salt Lake
2010: RSL scored stoppage-time goals to draw both games. DF Nat Borchers’ late heroics secured the point on Sept 25 and – after Colorado carried a 2-0 lead into stoppage time – FW Álvaro Saborίo’s dramatic brace gave RSL a tie on Oct. 23. Click here for highlights.
Sept. 25: RSL 1-COL 1
Oct. 23: RSL 2-COL 2
Series Winner: Real Salt Lake
2011: FW Fabian Espίndola’s stoppage-time goal on Apr. 13 would be the only tally of the 2011 series. Click here for highlights.
April 13: RSL 1-COL 0
Oct. 14: RSL 0-COL 0
Series Winner: Real Salt Lake
2012: RSL claimed the Cup for the sixth straight time with a 6-0 point advantage after two 2-0 home wins. Click here to watch July 21st highlights.
April 7: RSL 2-COL 0
July 21: RSL 2-COL 0
Aug. 4: ?
Series Winner: Real Salt Lake