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23 August 3:35 pm

With one of the Eastern Conference's playoff somewhat-hopefuls coming to town in the form of Columbus Crew, the impetus is on Real Salt Lake to continue improving in all areas.

Maintaining momentum

Momentum may or may not be a myth, but if we're talking about what Real Salt Lake should do to ensure victory, it certainly is something to consider. But this isn't the sort of momentum maintained in a frictionless system; instead, RSL must continue applying force to keep on the right path. Things have slowed in recent weeks, and maintaining speed is of the essence as the race for the Supporters Shield heats up once again.

Getting players like Kyle Beckerman and Nick Rimando back into the side will be of the utmost importance, but it ought be remembered that we've also struggled with them in there. Should we hope to get back to our best, those two — as well as everyone else out there, but especially those two — will have to ensure that they remain defensively aware.

Defensive awareness

Without a doubt, this has been the biggest sticking point for Real Salt Lake in the last month. Too often we have done tremendously to find a lead, only to surrender it at first asking, often on a set piece or a cross into the box. Our physical attributes are not particularly problematic, and the ability of our defenders is difficult to question. But it must be remembered that defensive awareness starts at the front and trickles to the back.

This is particularly poignant when we're talking about the midfield; while we've surely improved in the attack over last year, we sometimes lack some important qualities that players like Will Johnson brought to the field. We lack the workhorse in the middle, and while Ned Grabavoy somewhat fills that role, more important has been his attacking thrust. But similarly, I've been quick to criticize players like Luis Gil for not getting far enough into the attack — it's clearly a difficult problem to solve. Whatever we find as our best solution it will involve preventing long unprotected passes from deep in the midfield — those will hurt us over and over.

Higuain v. Morales

The two Argentines are notably among the most ruthlessly efficient playmakers in MLS, and Saturday is a perfect opportunity to see them square off. Both have similar histories, and both are doing quite the providers for their team — but the two aren't exactly the same player. It's difficult to bear those statistics out without watching the match — which renders it all the more interesting. Both are near the top of the league in key passes and assists, and both chip in with a fair few goals for their side — Morales with 6, Higuain with 9.

regular contributor to RealSaltLake.com, Matt Montgomery runs the SB Nation blog RSL Soapbox. Follow Matt on Twitter @TheCrossbarRSL

23 August 2:37 pm

Real Salt Lake continues MLS regular season play with its third match in seven games to take on the Columbus Crew on Saturday night at 7:30 p.m. at Rio Tinto Stadium.

Here are a few interesting storylines to watch ahead of Saturday’s match:

Columbus has RSL’s number

Salt Lake has posted only a 3-3-1 mark all-time at home against the Crew, with a 4-10-1 overall record, its worst against any MLS opponent. The Utah side has dropped 5 of the last 6 regular-season matches against Columbus, but does boast 2009 MLS Cup Playoff and 2011 CONCACAF Champions League knockout series wins over the Crew. The Black & Gold is 3-0-0 in its last three against the Claret-and-Cobalt, including a pair of shut-out victories, as well as a 2-0 win at the RioT in Columbus’s most recent visit on July 30, 2011.

The Crew bring its best for the best

Columbus is sitting eighth in the Eastern Conference with 29 points, but the Ohio side is no pushover. Riding a two game winning streak, the Crew has made the most of its opportunities against the league’s top teams, beating the Montreal Impact, Portland Timbers and New York Red Bulls, all of whom were in first place when facing the Black & Gold. With Real sitting atop the MLS table with 42 points, coach Jason Kreis’s side will be facing a pesky opponent.

Returns for RSL

Captain Kyle Beckerman served his suspension for yellow card accumulation and GK Nick Rimando sat out due to a stomach virus during Wednesday’s fixture against the Portland Timbers, but the Utah side still managed to get a 3-3 result on the road. For Saturday’s meeting against the Crew, the midfielder is available for selection and the goalkeeper can return to his spot in net. Expect the RSL stalwarts to add leadership and organization to an already veteran squad.

Scoring without Sabo

Nursing a right calf strain, the Claret-and-Cobalt’s all-time leading scorer Alvaro Saborio didn’t see the field in Wednesday’s match and sat out of training on Friday. The RSL boss ruled him out for Saturday’s game, but the Utah side is used to production from its entire squad. Including four Open Cup games, the 48 RSL goals in the last 20 fixtures have been scored from 17 different sources - by 16 different players - surpassing the club’s total number of goalscorers for the entirety of 2012. The latest man to newly contribute to the attack was MF Cole Grossman, whose equalizer at Portland was the former Duke standout’s second-ever MLS goal and his first with RSL.

Clash of the Argentines

All RSL fans know about Argentine playmaker Javier Morales, but Columbus has some South American flair of its own with Federico Higuain. The Crew DP is the engine for his team’s attack, tallying six assists and nine goals in MLS play. The same could be said for Morales, who is tied for fourth in the league in assists with eight. The winner of this clash of Argentines will have a major impact on the game’s result.

Grossman to face his old team

The midfielder’s now-famous return to the field last Wednesday against Portland came just before he’ll face his old team. The former Duke Blue Devil was selected by Columbus in the second round of the 2011 MLS SuperDraft, appearing in 12 league games and scoring one goal with the Black & Gold. With Grossman healthy and confident due to his game-tying goal, the 24-year-old could get some action against his former club.

22 August 12:23 pm

Real Salt Lake pulled off an improbable come-from-behind draw on Wednesday night, getting a 93rd minute goal from substitute midfielder Cole Grossman to tie the Portland Timbers 3-3 at JELD-WEN Field despite playing the final minutes with just 10 men.

Here are a few interesting numbers from Wednesday’s match:

14

Real Salt Lake defender Nat Borchers and Cole Grossman both scored their first goals of the season on Wednesday night, giving RSL 14 different players that have found the back of the net in league play this year. That total is tied for tops in the league with Chivas USA and Montreal Impact. RSL has had 16 different players score in all competitions this year, six more than the 10 Claret-and-Cobalt players that scored in MLS, U.S. Open Cup and CONACACAF Champions League action in 2012.

25

Wednesday’s three goal performance gives RSL 25 MLS road goals this year, tops in MLS. Only one other team in the league has as many home goals as RSL has away goals, with Vancouver Whitecaps FC notching 25 goals at home thus far. In addition to leading the league in road goals, RSL is in first place in MLS in road goal differential (+2) and total goals (44).

5-6-3

Wednesday’s result moves RSL to 5-6-3 on the road this year. The Claret-and-Cobalt’s 18 road points is tied with Sporting Kansas City for most in the league.

5

Wednesday’s result extended RSL’s unbeaten run on turf to five games. RSL is 1-0-2 on turf this season, tying Vancouver 1-1 at BC Place on April 13 and beating New England 2-1 at Gillette Stadium on May 8 before tying Portland on Wednesday. RSL will play on turf three more times this year, taking on Seattle Sounders FC at CenturyLink Field on Sept. 13, traveling north of the border to take on Vancouver at BC Place on Sept. 28 and returning to Portland to take on the Timbers at JELD-WEN Field on Oct. 19.

141

Cole Grossman’s last appearance with the first-team prior to his shift on Wednesday came 141 days earlier, when he started and played 77 minutes in RSL’s 2-0 loss at FC Dallas on March 23. Grossman suffered a concussion in that match and – though he had made several appearances in the 18 since – had not appeared in a game since. His eight minute cameo on Wednesday was Grossman’s second appearance with RSL after he was acquired by the team this offseason.

21 August 1:37 pm

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.

Formational approach

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. 

regular contributor to RealSaltLake.com, Matt Montgomery runs the SB Nation blog RSL Soapbox. Follow Matt on Twitter @TheCrossbarRSL

16 August 12:10 pm

Real Salt Lake on Saturday faces perhaps their most bitter nemesis (rivalries not withstanding) in the form of LA Galaxy; one of the more potent sides in MLS, Real Salt Lake will have a difficult job maintaining approach and style without sacrificing defensive solidity.

Returning to the diamond

It's easy to imagine that facing off against LA Galaxy will require a more dynamic midfield than facing Houston required — which isn't a knock on the trio of Kyle Beckerman, Ned Grabavoy, and Javier Morales last week, nor on Houston particularly. But certainly we can agree that, when in form, LA Galaxy are a treacherous side to face, and containing them will require special attention. Stymying Robbie Keane and Landon Donovan is not particularly an easy task.

But it's equally important in attack: There was plenty of potency unfulfilled last week, and this isn't the sort of match to leave that on the table. Deploying with a more familiar formation for the squad could provide both attack and defense the best platform for success.

Defending the transition

It's a simple thing but difficult to execute: LA Galaxy will be quite good at picking up the ball in key areas and hitting us in our transitional states. We know this. With attacking players who can essentially turn the game on its head at any given moment — Robbie Keane and Landon Donovan the two obvious options — we have to be smart with the ball. We can't go losing it in the deeper parts of midfield on a silly pass, and we surely can't afford to lose the ball with a silly pass from a defender.

But surely we will give up the ball at times. Some of the world's greatest tactical managers, notably Pep Guardiola and Arsene Wenger, among others, had a method for mitigating the risk of a lost ball: Immediately after the ball is lost, put intense pressure on the opposition for somewhere between three (Wenger) and six seconds (Pep) in an attempt to win the ball back immediately. Once that time period has passed, if the ball is not forthcoming, retreat to a more stable defensive outlay and defend the attack. That sort of approach wouldn't go amiss for Real Salt Lake.

Maintain control of possession

There are some sides against which losing the possession battle is fine, or at least doesn't present any great trouble. LA Galaxy are not one of those sides. That's not to say that they don't present trouble when they lose that particular battle: On April 27, RSL lost 2-0 but had a 63-37 possession advantage. So, yes, it's not everything. Or most things. But it's something we can control, and if we're smart without the ball as well as with it, we'll be in a good position.

regular contributor to RealSaltLake.com, Matt Montgomery runs the SB Nation blog RSL Soapbox. Follow Matt on Twitter @TheCrossbarRSL

15 August 5:08 pm

In addition to the high-profile coaching matchup detailed here earlier on Thursday, Real Salt Lake’s game at the LA Galaxy on Saturday night will pit the two hottest players in MLS against each other in RSL’s Alvaro Saborio and LA’s Landon Donovan.

The two stars have absolutely torn up the league recently, with Saborio notching six goals and one assist in his last five MLS games and Donovan registering four goals and three helpers over the same span.

Saborio has decent numbers against LA, tallying one goal and two assists in six career regular season games against the Southern California side.

As he has against so many MLS teams, Donovan has run rampant in his career against RSL, scoring nine goals and adding eight assists in 17 career regular season matches against the Claret-and-Cobalt.

RSL Head Coach Jason Kreis and goalkeeper Nick Rimando both spoke earlier this week about the prospect of stopping Donovan, who, in addition to his recent MLS exploits, was perhaps the best player in July’s CONCACAF Gold Cup.

“He’s just somebody you’ve got to be aware of at all times, depending on where he’s playing in their tactical setup” Kreis told reporters on Tuesday. “He’s been playing more as a second forward than as a wide midfielder. That makes him, I think, a little bit easier for us to pick up actually and know where he is at all times because he’ll tend to stay more in central positions.”

“He’s always been Landon, you know?” Rimando told The Salt Lake Tribune on Wednesday. “I think that time away really gave him back his legs and his mentality, and he really found his passion back for soccer. He was in a zone [during Gold Cup] and it’s continued. It was good to see it on the American side, but bad to see it when we have to face him.”

Click here for more on how RSL plans to matchup against Donovan from The Salt Lake Tribune’s Aaron Falk.

15 August 10:03 am

Real Salt Lake’s match at LA on Saturday will pit two of the top head coaches in Major League Soccer against each other in RSL’s Jason Kreis and the Galaxy’s Bruce Arena.

Kreis and Arena have crossed paths numerous times over the last 20 years, beginning in the early 1990’s, when Kreis – and RSL GM Garth Lagerwey – and the Duke Blue Devils would regularly butt heads with Arena’s Virginia Cavaliers in fiercely-fought ACC contests.

The battles continued in MLS, with Kreis bagging five goals and compiling a 4-6-0 record with Dallas and RSL in 10 matches against Arena’s D.C. United and New York Red Bulls squads.

It was against Arena and those same Red Bulls against which Kreis made his coaching debut, with RSL coming back for a miracle 3-3 draw on May 5, 2007 at Rice-Eccles Stadium marking the first – but far from only – time the coaches two squads would play to a memorable finish.

Historically, Kreis and Arena are two of the most successful coaches in MLS. Arena is a U.S. soccer legend, winning four MLS Cups, three Supporters’ Shields, six conference titles and three Coach of the Year awards. He’s second in league history to Seattle’s Sigi Schmid with 154 wins and 488 points and his winning percentage of .599 is the best all-time mark in MLS.

Kreis, who, at age 40, is 21 years younger than the 61-year-old Arena, stacks up rather nicely against his older counterpart, currently sitting in fourth-place amongst active coaches with 85 wins, 309 points and a .541 winning percentage. The two are the only coaches in MLS to lead their teams to 50 point, 15 win seasons in each of the last three years. 

As a young coach, Kreis still has a good deal of growing to do, something he readily admitted on the Ford Postgame Show following last Saturday’s 1-0 home win over the Houston Dynamo and their successful head man Dominic Kinnear.

You can check out Kreis’s comments at the 2:45 mark of the above video or read them below:

“I’m still learning, I’m still learning for sure,” Kreis told RSL color commentator Brian Dunseth. “I think that I feel a lot more confident during the match about what I’m seeing and the ability to change things during the match. That’s probably been the latest thing that I’ve felt really, really confident [about], seeing where the spaces are to exploit, what our opponent’s doing against us and causing us trouble with and how to tinker with that a little bit during the match. That’s probably the latest thing that’s come and I think that there’s still a lot more for me to learn and I’m excited about it.”

We’ll see if Kreis can get one over on Arena on Saturday night at StubHub Center. The two are even against each other this year, with Arena and the Galaxy beating RSL 2-0 at Rio Tinto Stadium on April 27 before Kreis and the Claret-and-Cobalt down LA 3-1 at home on June 8. Saturday’s match kicks at 8:30 p.m. MT and will be broadcast live on ABC 4.

14 August 10:40 am

Two late goals from forward Olmes Garcia powered Real Salt Lake to a 3-1 win over LA in the sides last meeting on June 8 at Rio Tinto Stadium.

Garcia's first goal - an 84th minute "header" that put the Claret-and-Cobalt up 2-1 - was followed by one of RSL's best celebrations of the year, with Garcia running to the sideline to salsa with fellow RSL attacker Joao Plata. 

Check out full highlights from the June 8 home win above. 

13 August 10:12 am

It's no secret what Jason Kreis and Garth Lagerwey wanted to do this past offseason. In addition to getting younger and creating some salary cap room, RSL’s technical staff needed to find some scoring punch after the club finished the year with zero goals in their final five matches across all competitions. What Kreis, Lagerwey & Co. undertook is no easy task. Bringing in younger and lower-priced players seems to be diametrically opposed to improving offensive output; just consider how much other teams are spending to bring in big-time scorers. So now that we're a considerable distance into the 2013 season, let's take a look at how the focus on more goals has panned out. If you think you've seen opponents' nets move a lot this season, you're right - the evidence suggests the "new" offense is working out very well.

  • After being shut out four times in their first nine games across all comps, RSL have now scored in 19 straight games. That's a franchise record.
  • With a league-leading 39 goals in 24 MLS matches played, RSL is on pace to score 55 goals this season. That would blow away their previous best by nine goals.
  • Five players have scored at least five goals so far in MLS play. RSL has never had more than four players do that in the same season, so that's already a club best. And two more players (Luis Gil, three goals, and Kyle Beckerman, two goals) could end up joining that list.
  • RSL currently has a road goal differential of +4 after 12 road games. No other incarnation of RSL can touch that, even that phenomenal 2010 team (+/-0 after 12 road games).
  • And keep in mind that RSL is doing this despite trading or waiving 39 percent of the goals scored in 2012.

I don't think anyone - even those wearing the thickest Claret-and-Cobalt-tinted glasses - could have predicted how potent this offense would be in such a short period of time. Most of us thought RSL would struggle to score at first, and they did, but at some point in late April a switch was flipped and Real has been cooking with gas ever since. So what - and who - has been responsible for this offensive onslaught we've been witnessing? Here are a few parties that stand out:

  • Alvaro Saborio has been deadly efficient this year. He has nine goals this season but he's played in less than half of RSL's games. He's averaging 1 goal for every 103 minutes played. For reference, in his amazing 2012 season where he finished as the second-leading scorer in the league, he averaged 1 goal for every 141 minutes played.
  • Javier Morales is having a career year, already hitting paydirt five times. That's right up there with his best pre-injury years.
  • Ned Grabavoy has dramatically upped his scoring by putting in five goals so far this season. He had only scored eight goals in his previous nine MLS seasons.
  • Not to be outdone by the resurgent vets, Luis Gil has chipped in three goals this year. In three pro seasons prior to 2013, he had three goals combined.
  • Another youngster who has exceeded expectations is Olmes Garcia. During the offseason, word around the team was that Garcia was a long-term project and would likely contribute to the first team a little if at all in 2013. But he's been too good to keep off the field, scoring five goals in just 13 appearances. Last year, playing in Colombia for Deportes Quindio, he scored five goals in 33 appearances. In 2011 he had two goals in 14 appearances.

Clearly this team is rolling when it comes to moving the scoreboard and it doesn't show signs of stopping. RSL has always been the MLS team to follow if you like possession-based soccer, but now it's also the team to watch if you like to see opposing goalkeepers fish the ball out of the net. 

12 August 4:43 pm

Because it's really what was on everybody's minds after the match, let's talk about the formation shift Jason Kreis rolled out and its effectiveness for this team.

To start, it was a fairly European 4-2-1-3 — or as some might term it, a 4-2-3-1 — but whatever way you describe it, there were two deeper midfielders, Ned Grabavoy and Kyle Beckerman; an attacking midfielder sitting essentially in the attacking half, Javier Morales; a central striker, Alvaro Saborio; and two wide players in attacking positions, Olmes Garcia and Joao Plata. The difference between the two formational descriptions rests on the roles of Garcia and Plata. Neither played exactly like a traditional winger, nor did they play exclusively like strikers in wide positions. In reality, the formation is somewhere betwixt the two.

Now, this may be because they weren't entirely effective in their positions. Jason Kreis was critical of the two in his post-match press conference, saying of the formation's future for RSL: "…If we’re going to continue forward ... we’ve got to get those players moving more. I don’t like them standing on their outside backs and getting themselves marked." Now, this doesn't necessarily mean either deserve blame for this, as it was a new approach for the squad and one that requires a great deal of understanding for proper execution. It did present some promise.

The Future

What, exactly, does the future hold for Real Salt Lake's formational approach? In the short-term, it's hard to see us moving away from the diamond, on which we have built our core. It's an excellent fit for many reasons — from Javier Morales's consistent mobility to the ability of deeper midfielders to impact play with dynamic runs, there's a lot to be positive about. The diamond may not be here long-term — two, three years down the road, say — but it's hard to see a distinct shift now.

Still, the tactical flexibility afforded by the change in approach is indisputable. If we are able to sufficiently gain an understand in another system, and we're able to utilize it effectively in the attack — not just in defense — we'll be better able to counteract the stale defensive outlays teams send out to put a stopper on us. Should we be able to effectively shift to a three-forward setup, we can instantly widen play in a significant way; should we shift back, we could attack down the middle more effectively. Both systems afford defensive width, and both systems allow for quality play in transition, so we don't lose any particular advantage as a result.

Should Real Salt Lake continue down this road? It would seem a good one to at least venture down a little further. We have wide attacking players who can make a significant impact, and we have a collection of midfielders who will fight for every ball and cover as much ground as anyone in the league. It's a good fit — but it has to work in a sustainable, long-term sense. And given we haven't seen it work fully yet, there remain questions aplenty

regular contributor to RealSaltLake.com, Matt Montgomery runs the SB Nation blog RSL Soapbox. Follow Matt on Twitter @TheCrossbarRSL