Looking to push on from Sunday's season opening road win at San Jose Earthquakes, Real Salt Lake will be pressed into battle at D.C. United on Saturday. At stake: the flanks.
Defending the flanks
It's no secret that attacks from wide areas are dangerous for Real Salt Lake's positional setup, and D.C. United is likely to come out looking for space on the flanks. Players like Chris Pontius could provide dangerous options, and Nick DeLeon and potentially Marcos Sanchez provide real threat from the wings.
As ever, D.C. will look to bypass Kyle Beckerman and swing some crosses in for strikers, but the presence of Chris Schuler and Kwame Watson-Siriboe, both strong in the air, could be an important factor. But before crosses can be swung in, Tony Beltran and Abdoulie (née Kenny) Mansally will need to be in good positions to prevent easy, unmarked crossing. It will be a difficult match from a defensive perspective.
Further, Khari Stephenson and Sebastian Velasquez will need to be at their defensive bests, mopping up possession wide and retaining possession in attacking positions to prevent counterattacks with the flanks left wide open. Robbie Findley, too, will need to drop into wider positions in defense to help prevent significant issues.
Consistency in the midfield
With Ned Grabavoy and Javier Morales absent and no new injuries creeping in, the midfield four is likely to be the same as deployed against San Jose: Kyle Beckerman deep with Sebastian Velasquez, Luis Gil and Khari Stephenson further up the pitch. Velasquez was last deployed primarily on the right but with plenty of room to move about the pitch, while Stephenson was deployed on the left and offered a more defensive approach. Luis Gil was more central, though he, too, moved about frequently.
I suspect that may be switched against D.C. United, with Stephenson on the right and Velasquez on the left, but that the same four will play. Given that they all showed well, there's no reason for change. Where last season our midfield look a bit like a double-pivot with a high playmaker up top, the last match looked more traditional, with a deep-lying midfielder (I struggle with the term 'defensive' here) and three rotating attacking midfielders.
After a disrupted season in 2012 where the starting lineup was very rarely the same from match to match, a start with the same lineup in the first two matches is a refreshing thought. There's no guarantee it'll be the case, of course, but it's something worth hoping for — and perhaps even expecting.
In their season opener against Houston Dynamo, D.C. United struggled to deal with pressure high up the pitch, giving up a slew of interceptions at the base of their defensive third. Although one of their conceded goals was through a corner and the other almost immediately following a throw-in, conceding possession in their own half is always likely to produce chances. RSL will need to be aware of this possibility and alive to opportunities that are presented as a result.
That high pressure will be benefited by the three-man attacking line in the midfield. With Alvaro Saborio and Robbie Findley pushing high up the pitch, Gil, Velasquez and Stephenson will be in good positions to distribute possession for quick counterattacking play.
Real Salt Lake will be looking for its first-ever win in the nation’s capital when it takes on D.C. United at RFK Stadium on Saturday (5 p.m. MT on ABC4).
RSL is winless in eight all-time matches in Washington, posting a 0-4-3 record at RFK Stadium in league play and going 0-1-0 at D.C. in Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup action. D.C. hasn’t lost a regular season match at home since its 2012 RFK opener – a streak of 16 matches.
RSL does have some good recent history against teams carrying lengthy home unbeaten streaks into their home opener, snapping San Jose’s 18-game home unbeaten streak with a 2-0 win at Buck Shaw Stadium in Sunday’s season opener and breaking L.A.’s 26-game home unbeaten run with a 3-1 win at the Home Depot Center in the 2012 opener. Let's hope the Claret-and-Cobalt can turn that same trick on Saturday against D.C.
There was nothing to particularly suggest any stops were pulled out for RSL’s 1-0 win over D.C. United on Saturday. No, it was a routine, efficient win from Kreis's men; one in which a fair few opportunities were created, one was put away, and a strong defensive effort kept the opponent at bay.
D.C. United presented strong opposition — considering their fight for form as the season comes to its closing moments, this was to be expected. The mentality on hand was exactly what was needed: Control the affair, don't allow too many strong chances, and close the game out. It represented a return to what Jason Kreis calls "Real Salt Lake soccer," and he'll have been pleased with the nature of the win.
Midfielders and shooting
RSL have this season struggled to involve most of the midfield in goal scoring action. While it is perhaps too soon to say, Will Johnson's headed goal in the second half represents a shift in that. Of course, one goal does not a trend make, but there were some interesting numbers to bubble out of the weekend's match.
The four midfielders involved (plus Yordany Alvarez, on late for Saborio, but only for a scant few minutes) took seven of the 13 shots on the night, with six of those being on target. You may recall that only just over 25 percent of the club's shots on the season have come from three in the midfield (Johnson, Morales and Beckerman), while 54 percent have come from Saborio, Espindola, and Paulo.
Additionally, just under half of RSL's shots came from outside the box — those midfielders, again, did some good work in the attack. This was especially important given that Paulo Jr. took no shots, and Saborio took only two — a testament, perhaps, to the strong work in the center of defense for United.
Goals, shots, and how they are conceded
Despite some solid defensive work on the night, D.C. United took a number of shots from distance — seven overall, about 2.3 more than RSL concede from outside the box on average. The seven shots conceded inside the box were only slightly more than the 6.3 average, but by avoiding a goal concession, improved the rate slightly to 30/176. It's still a 17 percent shots-faced-to-goals-conceded ratio, and it's hardly one of the better marks in the league. (Before the weekend, Columbus Crew held the lowest ratio at 11 percent, while Colorado Rapids were the worst at 22 percent.)
On most given match days, you'll find most of RSL's interceptions coming from Kyle Beckerman and the center backs, but the D.C. match saw our two full backs stepping up. Nat Borchers led the effort with five, while Chris Wingert and Tony Beltran had four each — all significantly better than average (2.1, 2.0, and 1.9, respectively). The midfield was less involved in this regard, perhaps owing to a more concentrated effort in attack.
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.