Real Salt Lake's struggles in Texas continued on Saturday with a 2-0 loss at FC Dallas, but it was hardly the state that was their downfall: Rather, it was the state of the squad, and naturally, the state of the attack.
Ringing in the changes
With a bit of surprise, Real Salt Lake didn't have many issues that occurred directly as a result of the changes in lineup. None of the individual pieces were particularly woeful, and indeed, most showed reasonably well for themselves. That is, of course, not to say that their first-choice counterparts wouldn't have been better options — particularly when it came to overall creativity.
Ned Grabavoy led the attack in the midfield, grabbing four key passes; Yordany Alvarez was largely effective as a defensive midfielder despite his late red card, leading the team in passing (56/66) and generally breaking up play. Both goals came from other areas of the pitch — one a long ball over the top, the other a long ball sent wide — leaving Alvarez relatively blameless, excepting his dismissal that made a comeback more difficult for Real Salt Lake.
Of the players who stepped in from the start without having seen action this season, Cole Grossman looked acceptable in the midfield, Nat Borchers looked magnificent in defense, and Josh Saunders, barring his big error, was a solid goalkeeper.
Speed without strength
Jason Kreis opted for a speedier front line than Real Salt Lake has seen in some time, and the acceleration of Joao Plata combined with the top speed of Robbie Findley created some interesting opportunities in front of goal. Indeed, it was Plata's quickness that created the first RSL shot of the match as he burst past a line of defenders. Still, without the hold-up play of Alvaro Saborio, Real Salt Lake lacked an efficient out when pressured, and this led to some dangerous moments in which FC Dallas looked likely to score.
It hammers home an important point: Alvaro Saborio is an important part of the tactical makeup of Real Salt Lake — or at least a player who can hold the ball in congested areas, deflecting attention from other areas of the pitch. With two speedy strikers and a relatively compact midfield sticking further back on the pitch, the defending side can place effective pressure on the midfield without having to cover forwards with multiple players. How many times have we seen Saborio with three players at his heels, only for him to make a pass back to an open midfield? It's illustrative of his influence, and when it's not there, Real Salt Lake quite naturally struggles in attack.
If there's one thing to be said about this Real Salt Lake side early on, it's that when they've conceded, they've had a response. Once again, after conceding a goal, RSL out-passed (77/97 to 45/61; 27/38 to 10/17 in the attacking half) their opponents. But with this late pressure, RSL's efforts backfired a bit, as they conceded another goal, and though the manner of it was hardly a tactical flaw, the three other shots FC Dallas took were not. Should this mentality continue, dividends will certainly be paid. Of greater concern should be the situations in which they concede.
A makeshift Real Salt Lake lineup couldn’t quite get a result at FC Dallas on Saturday night, conceding twice in the final 20 minutes to fall 2-0 to FCD.
Here are a few interesting numbers from the match:
Saturday’s result moved RSL to 0-19-3 in Texas. The Claret-and-Cobalt is now 0-11-2 across all competitions at Dallas.
Real Salt Lake defender Nat Borchers made his first appearance of the season on Saturday night, starting and playing 90 minutes. Borchers had missed RSL’s first three games while rehabbing from offseason quad surgery.
Real Salt Lake forward Olmes Garcia entered Saturday’s match in the 77th minute. It was the MLS debut for the 20-year-old Garcia, who signed with RSL in February.
Garcia nearly scored a goal with the first touch of his MLS career, snapping a diving header off the near post in the 78th minute.
Real Salt Lake defender Chris Schuler had nine interceptions on Saturday night. Schuler leads the league with 38 interceptions this year, 14 more than second-place Aurelien Collin of Sporting Kansas City.
Real Salt Lake will be missing more than a handful of players as they travel to take on FC Dallas. Dealing with absence after absence will be the highest priority on Jason Kreis’s mind — how, exactly, does one go without ten-plus players, anyhow?
Managing expectations and approach
Let’s be clear about things: Real Salt Lake is likely to be missing upwards of 10 players on Saturday. It makes things very difficult. It could well be the case that to fill the seven-man bench, there will be two goalkeepers on there — it’s no certainty, but there should be no surprises if that’s the case.
As such, this match is a very difficult one for Jason Kreis’s crew. Our loyal leader will need to have his side prepared for what could be a tough match. At this early point in the season, the goal should be to avoid a blowout loss, to understand expectations, and to simply work hard on and off the ball. Anything more than that will, I suspect, be a bonus.
Given that Jason Kreis is hardly a madman, even if he is obsessive about winning, it’s hard to see him upset with a loss — excepting perhaps some anger directed at MLS for scheduling a match during World Cup qualifiers.
Coping with changes
Continuity’s a funny thing. We’re not likely to have, well, any. Or at least not much. Of the players who started last match, only a handful are likely to start again: Chris Schuler, Kwame Watson-Siriboe, Lovel Palmer (albeit on the opposite side), Luis Gil and Robbie Findley. That’s right: Only five players who played one week ago are likely to start. Should Khari Stephenson be deemed start-ready, that number will be boosted to slightly more than half of the starting lineup at six.
Dealing with those changes is going to be difficult, but Kreis should focus his side on playing a more reserved style, wherein they look to control possession with safe, unadventurous passing. It’s not promising to be a pretty match — but should they get pegged back, the physical presence of Devon Sandoval, likely in for Alvaro Saborio, combined with the kinetic potential of Robbie Findley could see RSL playing prototypical “Plan B” football.
Solidifying the defense
Jason Kreis will surely be looking to solidify his defensive line ahead of Saturday’s match, but given the seemingly imminent return of one Nat Borchers (who will undoubtedly take the captain’s armband for the day, should he start), the task may not be so mammoth.
Of course, an untested midfield grouping, owing to the absence of several players, is likely to see that backline tested. With Palmer on the right and Schuler on the left, expecting much attacking thrust from the defensive group is unreasonable; but that may play into RSL’s hands. Indeed, three of the four that started in defense last week are expected to be starting again. I suppose it could be worse.
Real Salt Lake hasn’t ever won at FC Dallas, but it does have plenty of ties to the club.
RSL Head Coach Jason Kreis, Assistants Jeff Cassar and Miles Joseph, General Manager Garth Lagerwey and Color Commentator Brian Dunseth all played in Big D, with Kreis and Lagerwey on the 1997 team that won the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup, the club’s only major trophy to date.
Kreis in particular was very successful in Dallas, scoring 91 goals in 247 appearances for the then-Burn before moving to Real Salt Lake ahead of the 2005 season. Cassar had 33 appearances across two stints in Dallas, Lagerwey had 10 and Joseph and Dunseth both had nine.
Despite his obvious ties to the organization, Kreis indicated after training on Tuesday that the RSL-FC Dallas matchup no longer resonates with him like it used to. He’s clearly all Real Salt Lake, all the time.
RSL will take on FC Dallas at FC Dallas Stadium at 6:30 p.m. MT on Saturday. The match will be televised on ABC4 and Univision and will be broadcast on the radio on ESPN700 AM and 102.3 La Gran D FM/1600 AM.
It was interesting to watch RSL wheel and deal this offseason – GM Garth Lagerwey and Head Coach Jason Kreis jettisoned a few high-priced players and in return tried to create competition at every position.
By all indications they did a very good job at building that depth, to the point that RSL color commentator Brian Dunseth called the Claret-and-Cobalt the deepest team in MLS. Thanks to injuries and family matters, RSL’s bench has been tested plenty already this season, and while the results haven't been perfect, they haven't been bad either. The depth will get its biggest test of the young season on Saturday at Dallas, thanks to national team call-ups hitting RSL hard as World Cup qualifying hits full stride this weekend.
Tony Beltran, Nick Rimando, and Kyle Beckerman have been called on by Jurgen Klinsmann to represent the Stars-and-Stripes. They'll be facing off on Friday against their RSL teammate and Costa Rican international Alvaro Saborio. Finally, Abdoulie Mansally is making the long trip back to Africa to join his native Gambia.
No other MLS team was hit as hard as RSL, and when combined with the current spate of injuries, RSL could be down as many as 11 players going to Dallas. So while national team call-ups are a great reward and a source of pride to players, the timing is going to leave their club in a bit of a lurch.
These call-ups are peppered around the field and cause concern in almost every positional group, but RSL's depth should help mitigate some of the risks. RSL probably has the best backup goalkeeper in the league with Josh Saunders; Nat Borchers played in the last reserve match - and looked good, I might add - and if he can start it will help Claret-and-Cobalt cover for Tony Beltran; Lovel Palmer has done well at outside back; and Yordany Alvarez is a more than capable replacement for Beckerman.
The biggest question is who is going to fill in for Saborio. Rookie forward Devon Sandoval is physically able to stand in for him, and the pairing of Findley and Plata is a possibility, but so far nobody has been able to step up and take the scoring load from Sabo. Someone is going to have to do it if RSL hopes to get its first win in Texas.
Here's my guess at RSL's starting lineup for Saturday based on the assumptions I've made above (L to R):
Saunders; Palmer, Borchers, Watson-Siriboe, Schuler; Alvarez; Gil, Grabavoy; Velasquez; Findley, Plata
Bench: Attinella, Maund, Martinez, Grossman, Stertzer, Sandoval, Garcia
The injuries and call-ups haven't created an ideal situation for RSL by any means, but considering the circumstances, that's not a bad lineup. And that's exactly what Kreis and Lagerwey were after during those long winter months.
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.
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.