Real Salt Lake's travels to Portland force the league-topping side into a difficult position against a strong team, with the loss of Kyle Beckerman a particularly sore point.
No Captain (or is it "No, Captain!"?)
The returning Yordany Alvarez should step in for Kyle Beckerman, which, on the face of it, is a slightly terrifying prospect, but the reality of it is a bit less daunting. Alvarez is clearly no direct, one-for-one replacement, and I don't think anybody suspects he is. But he does present some valuable attributes, especially when we consider his passing game. He surely won't be getting forward in the same way, but he still manages to get himself into advanced positions quite readily.
Surprisingly, the thing we'll miss most from Beckerman is his creative play. Do we say that a year ago? Two years ago? I don't know, but he's had a distinct shift in his approach this season, and it's one that has benefited our play.
Our shifts in formation have startled opponents somewhat, as they now feel uncertain as to what we'll play on any given match day. This, despite very heavily playing in that 4-4-2 — so what's got them scared? Simply, it's the flexibility they thought we didn't have. In all honesty, our three core formations we've played this season — the 4-4-2 diamond, the 4-2-1-3, the 4-5-1 — all function in largely the same way: We maintain pressure with our forwards and attacking midfielders, we stretch play with midfield runs, and we maintain possession in the middle.
It's the understanding we've built in the squad over years of play that allows us to easily switch formations, and that, in its own right, is a bit unintuitive. By being dogged in our formational approach, we've enabled ourselves to be flexible in our … formational approach. Funny how these things turn out.
Maintaining midfield pressure
As we saw against Portland in the US Open Cup, it's important that, if we're to be successful again against this side, we have to maintain a similar approach. This means being systematic in our pressure from the midfield and the front, but we must do so without leaving substantial gaps between our defenders and our midfield. This is the difficulty of the approach, but key will be restricting the possession and passing of Portland Timbers in less dangerous areas. Less key is winning the ball back quickly, because as we've seen, they hardly thrive in deeper positions.
It all takes a degree of caution, but this is the sort of thing on which the result will pivot.
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