With Real Salt Lake on the verge of the MLS Cup, taking stock of our tactical position is elucidating. Without further ado, how can RSL ensure a match in which they have the best chance to win?
1. Don't succumb to high pressure
Sporting KC play what is best described as a high-pressure system -- they start applying pressure with their forwards, and that translates as the ball moves into their space. This might tempt us into playing risky passes in a bid to escape that pressure, which won't work out in our favor. Risky passing from our side is best utilized when in dangerous positions -- moving into the final third, say -- and we need to maintain that approach.
Hesitancy in attacking positions will stymie our play, and overeagerness in the midfield could lead to Sporting KC on the receiving end of turnover-generated chances. It's a difficult balance to strike.
2. Gain control of the ball quickly when out of possession
The best way to both strike that balance and to ensure that difficult moments aren't turned into goals conceded is to minimize the amount of time we spend without the ball. Sporting KC may be nominally a possession side, but their best moments are likely to come quickly after they regain control of the ball. If we do our part to first minimize the frequency of those events, and to regain possession quickly ourselves, we will find ourselves in the ascendancy.
3. Don't let SKC dictate the pace
Much as we will want to avoid succumbing to SKC's high-pressure system, we'll also want to avoid letting them change the pace of the game. One needs only look back to our 2-1 loss to see a classic example of a team capitalizing on a shift in momentum; when Chris Wingert was sent off that day, they were able to slow the game down at will. Their approach play was patient, and though it took seven minutes of stoppage time, they found a breakthrough goal. And it wasn't because they harried us into submission, but because they shifted their play and we failed to meet their transition.
If we remain proactive and attempt to set the pace of the game ourselves, we will find ourselves in a stronger position already. We are not a side that accepts the opposition's pacing, but one that attempts to set the pace themselves -- at least when we do well.
Real Salt Lake and Portland Timbers square off again, and while the last match left this one teetering in RSL's favor, another 90 minutes are needed to protect the two-goal cushion leading to the MLS Cup final.
1. Don't allow Portland to build from wide positions
The Timbers thrive in wide positions cutting inside, and often, you'll find their most dangerous play emanating from channels between the flank and the center. If they're allowed time to build and either drive in a cross or play a ball across the face of the box, they'll be dangerous. Preventing the opposition from finding joy in those areas will be key, but it won't solve everything.
To accomplish this, Our midfielders will need to drop into deep positions in those channels, assisting the full backs in wide defense. If the forwards, too, drop back into defense when needed, two things happen: First, we're rendered more solid when defending without resorting to a line of six or seven players; second, we're put in a good position to exploit the inevitable pockets of space that will appear against an attacking Portland side, and to break forward apace.
2. Build through the middle
It's not that Portland possess any particular vulnerabilities through the middle, but this is how we know how to play. Abandoning that now, especially after it's given us so much joy throughout the season, would be folly. That approach also puts us in the strongest position to win set pieces, which are apparently our new favorite way to score (thank you, Chris Schuler.)
3. Utilize narrow strikers
In recent weeks, Jason Kreis has shifted his deployment of forwards somewhat: Where previously, one of the two was sent into a wide position (Robbie Findley or Joao Plata, typically) while the other was left in a more central position, Kreis is now setting out two strikers in more central positions. We saw this with Devon Sandoval and Robbie Findley against Portland in the first leg, and though it wasn't the first time we saw it, it surely brought us the most success. It seemed prior to the switch that we were attempting to shoehorn in some width to our innately narrow formation -- perhaps it is no surprise that when we returned to a more natural approach, we were successful. This also allows the strikers to combine a bit more, and when one of those isn't Alvaro Saborio, who can typically hold the ball until others join in attack, that could just be vital.
4. Don't give up silly free kicks in good positions
This goes without saying, really. Will Johnson scored from a free kick in a great position against us, and it's something we really should be aware of again. It will take a bit of confidence, but it's something of which we must be aware.
RSL at Portland. Western Conference Championship Leg 2. Sunday night. 7 p.m. MT. ESPN.
Real Salt Lake Head Coach Jason Kreis was asked in his press conference following Thursday's Western Conference Semifinal win over LA what the Rio Tinto Stadium crowd needs to bring in Sunday's Western Conference Championship first leg against Portland.
Here's what he had to say:
“I think for me it’s pretty simple. We need to be here early – there needs to be that really raucous singing of the song “Believe” at the beginning of the match. I thought that was spectacular today how noisy it was. And just to carry that energy and to continue to believe. We tell our players all the time that no matter what happens in the game, we continue to work hard, we continue to stay together and we continue to believe. If you do those three things, something in the end will happen right.”
Listen to the man. Get your tickets now.
LA Galaxy trends toward a less creative midfield, and even from the flanks this is largely the case. This provides a platform for three or four attacking players to showcase their abilities in tonight's Western Conference Semifinal second leg, and when your primary attacking pair is Landon Donovan and Robbie Keane, there's plenty of that. But with the opponent in a more defensive midfield, RSL will have an opportunity to utilize their creative midfield to attempt a breakthrough.
Javier Morales will look toward finding the gaps between the midfield and the defense, which inevitably pushes back the LA Galaxy midfield a bit too as they attempt to cover his movement. This opens up space in other places, which proves vital. He'll also be important for set pieces, but our reluctancy to capitalize on set pieces won't help us there. He may instead look to go directly at goal with free kicks, and who could blame him? He's scored some screamers.
Sebastian Velasquez is likely to step into Ned Grabavoy's spot on the left, and this will give him room to make diagonal runs to and away from the flanks. He'll need to capitalize in spaces vacated by Morales as he embarks on runs with and without the ball.
Luis Gil will be tasked with a bit more defensive work than usual in Grabavoy's absence, but he too will need to embark on runs. With Tony Beltran to his right, he'll be involved in plenty of interchanges with the fullback as they look to move the ball forward from the right.
Kyle Beckerman will need to be as aware as ever but eminently willing to capitalize on opportunities to break forward. His passing is never in question, and that'll be vital tonight.
Tony Beltran, as above, will need to work with Luis Gil on the right flank to move the ball forward, but he'll also need to make those overlapping runs on the right side to be effective. But beyond that, he'll have to be ready to burst back in defense. He showed incredibly well against Landon Donovan last weekend, and he'll almost surely have to do so again.
Chris Schuler will, with any luck, not be forced into so many last-ditch tackles and clearances. Instead, we'll be hoping for some balance from Schuler as he steps forward to make an interception before splaying the ball to a full back.
Alvaro Saborio pushes the side forward in important ways, but his biggest role will be in helping the midfield transition into the attack. It's a role that is masked by his goalscoring contributions (which are equally important and follow as a result of this play) — his distributive properties may not lead to high-percentage passing, but he is a chance creator.
His mystery partner remains in question. Robbie Findley offers speed, which is an obviously important factor, but he also offers a willingness to track back and at pace. Joao Plata, on the other hand, offers more finesse in attack but less counterattacking opportunity. In most factors, they end up at about sixes. Olmes Garcia offers a more mysterious option, but it's hard to see him starting, as he hasn't made the bench for the last few matches.
Seriously, no one wants another LA-Houston MLS Cup.
RSL can nip that potential matchup in the bud by advancing past the Galaxy in Thursday's Western Conference Semifinal second leg. Get out to Rio Tinto Stadium early, wear red and be loud.
Real Salt Lake will be without one of its most prominent players in Thursday's Western Conference Semifinal second leg, as midfielder Ned Grabavoy will miss the match due to a left hamstring strain picked up in Sunday's 1-0 first leg loss at LA.
RSL Head Coach Jason Kreis told media on Wednesday that Grabavoy will not play due to the injury. The veteran midfielder left Sunday's match in the 61st minute after picking up the knock earlier in the match.
Grabavoy had a career year in the 2013 regular season, scoring five goals and tallying five assists in 32 appearances - 29 of which were starts - for the Claret-and-Cobalt. Look for Sebastian Velasquez to be a candidate to replace Grabavoy in the starting lineup on Thursday.
Real Salt Lake trained on Saturday for the final time ahead of Sunday’s Western Conference Semifinal first leg at LA, putting in a light – but spirited – training session at a StubHub Center practice field ahead of Sunday’s 7:00 p.m. MT kick against the Galaxy.
Nothing major to report from training, though there was a light-hearted shooting contest that took place at the end of the session.
Check out the video above to see some footage from today’s practice and be sure to tune-in to the first leg on ESPN on Sunday night at 7:00 p.m. MT.
Stopping LA Galaxy — Robbie Keane and Landon Donovan are the chief targets, but others remain dangerous — is not a simple task. But that's exactly the task Real Salt Lake will be tasked with on Sunday when they launch their playoff campaign.
It's of real importance that the opposition midfielders be allowed minimal time on the ball. The more time Galaxy midfielders (and forwards dropping into deep positions) are given to find a killer pass, the greater the likelihood that we'll concede a goal. This doesn't necessitate the high pressure one might expect from other sides in MLS — instead, we can keep the same pressuring tactics we normally deploy, with our pressure increasing as the opponent nears our half. By approaching it in this way, we can avoid problems stemming from late overcommitment.
Following from that, we must also avoid getting hit in transition phases: We're facing a side that finds great joy in those moments. As a relevant example, three of their four goals they scored in a 4-2 win against us came with few of their players even in our half, let alone involved in the attack. It's a style that's afforded to them by the great individual skill of a few players and the willingness by others to remain in defensive positions during those moments. When your counterattack runs essentially three or four on six opposition players and ends in a goal scored, you're likely to find greater success.
Because of the threat offered by LA Galaxy on set pieces, RSL will need to be slightly more cautious when playing in the opposition half than they'd prefer to be. Creativity is a must, but an awareness of danger and willingness to sprint back to recover — from all players and not just those with more defensive roles — is necessary. As such, we must be willing to exercise patience in the opposition half, and in the final third we must take our chances quickly. Anything else presents too much risk for an unlikely reward.
Real Salt Lake will play its final game of the 2013 MLS regular season on Wednesday night, hosting Chivas USA at 7:00 p.m. MT at Rio Tinto Stadium.
Here are a few storylines to watch ahead of Wednesday’s contest:
RSL battling for outside shot at Supporters’ Shield; Playoff seeding on the line
A ton is on the line for Real Salt Lake in the Supporters’ Shield and Western Conference races this week. Everything starts on Wednesday, with RSL needing a win to stay alive in the chase for the Shield and a result to have hope of winning the West.
RSL gunning for season sweep of Chivas USA
Real Salt Lake will be looking to complete a season sweep of Chivas USA on Wednesday, having already beaten the Southern California side 1-0 at Rio Tinto Stadium on April 20 and downing the Goats 4-1 at the StubHub Center on May 19.
The Claret-and-Cobalt has only swept Chivas USA once before, going 2-0-0 against its expansion brethren in the 2011 season.
Saborio, Morales look to continue success v. Goats
Real Salt Lake stars Alvaro Saborio and Javier Morales have both had a great deal of success against Chivas USA, with Saborio notching four goals and two assists in eight career regular season games against the Goats and Morales scoring one goal and registering five assists in 12 regular season games against the Southern California side. They’ll look to continue that success in Wednesday’s important contest.