Essentially all sides in MLS (18, if we're to be precise) generally play with a four-man defense, and it's very much the accepted tactical outlay across world football. As such, modern attacking formations are based heavily on attempting to exploit the vulnerabilities and spaces between the two central defenders and the full backs. Chivas USA, as has been oft-discussed this season, has been playing with a three-man back line under Chelis, which presents some interesting options for Real Salt Lake.
The midfield attack
It becomes a rather simple equation — though not an entirely accurate one — when we talk about the three central defenders facing two strikers: 3v2 would seem to give an advantage to the defense, but not because of pure numbers. It simply allows for more defensive flexibility in covering an attacking midfielder — a Javier Morales, say — when he's playing centrally. In this case, you'd have both strikers covered and a third attacking player, and your wide midfielders are covering the flanks.
This is where it gets a bit tricky: If Javier Morales makes his diagonal runs toward touch on either flank, he opens up different sorts of space that the 3-5-2 might not accommodate readily. If the third central defender pulls off with him toward the channels on either side, a run is opened up for a deeper-lying midfielder. If the defender stays, he's forced to decide between covering for a wider central defender, who might peel off to cover Morales, or to simply cover dangerous spaces at the back. Whatever the defense does to attempt to cover the danger Morales provides, options should open up for midfielders.
The strikers might be more efficiently covered, doubling the importance of midfield attack. Any disruption that can be offered — while avoiding too much opportunity for Chivas USA to counter — will play into RSL's hands. A quick turn could see the defense presented with three, four or even five attacking options. Imagine, for example: Saborio, Findley, Gil, Morales and Grabavoy all moving toward goal, and rather narrowly at that. Quick runs past the defenders could see Findley perfectly poised to cause significant trouble.
The wide areas
Chivas USA are likely to control the wide areas with either wing-backs or wide midfielders patrolling the flanks. If Real Salt Lake surrenders them, as so often we do out of tactical necessity, our fullbacks will need to be actively communicating with the midfielders to handle any danger on the flanks. Obviously enough, this will require a bit more communication across the board, as it would be rather disastrous to allow free runs in the middle from a creative side.
Both Real Salt Lake and Vancouver are battling poor form heading into Saturday's matchup (2 p.m. MT; ABC4), but if Jason Kreis's side doesn't adapt and learn from recent failures, they'll be getting in just enough of a mess as to be irritating.
With the news that Sebastian Velasquez is set to miss the match after suffering a broken hand, Real Salt Lake is certain to see yet another altered starting midfield four. It'll be the fourth different midfield lineup — in seven matches. This lack of continuity is inevitably difficult for a side to deal with, but if Javier Morales is ready to start, it'll start to take on a more definitive appearance.
A disjointed midfield makes Kyle Beckerman's job as captain and general midfield organizer that much more difficult, and the list of fully fit players is small: Beckerman, Grabavoy, Gil, Alvarez, Martinez, Stertzer. Three of those players would expect to start most matches; the drop-off toward the end is a bit severe as experience is concerned.
Individual mistakes have proven costly for Real Salt Lake in 2013, which is likely a function of the relatively low cooperative inexperience of the group, which is to say that they haven't been together for long enough. Extra focus to cut out these mistakes will be essential, especially as Martin Rennie might be instructing his players to target those specific weaknesses. Clearing balls on first opportunity, stepping up during the offside trap, and making immediate, simple passes will be necessary if RSL is interested in clearing up the errors that have plagued these early matches.
We saw last week that Colorado took very specific aim at RSL's left side and Abdoulie Mansally; whether he is a defensive liability or not — and that's very much up for discussion — it's hard to deny that other coaches seem to think so. When one player is targeted frequently, they're more likely to make costly mistakes; Mansally and his teammates will need to be wary of the modes of attack employed.
Despite the uncertainty created by an ever-rotating cast of midfielders, Jason Kreis's side have made creating chances look a bit easy. His squad's averaged a surprising 14 shots per match in the early weeks and attempting more forward passes per match (175, if you're wondering) than any side, excepting Portland.
Robbie Findley's still out, so he doesn't get a chance to finish; Joao Plata may be close to a return, and Alvaro Saborio is still recovering from knee swelling. With the two fully healthy forwards remaining — Devon Sandoval and Olmes Garcia — rather untested and still learning the system, the midfield will need to step up in creation to an extent not seen in some time.
Things didn't go so well for Real Salt Lake last time it played at Vancouver, with the Claret-and-Cobalt losing 2-1 to the 'Caps at BC Place on Aug. 11, 2012.
Check out the highlights of that match above and make sure you tune-in to ABC4 at 2 p.m. MT on Saturday to see if RSL can avenge last year's defeat at Whitecaps FC.
Real Salt Lake faces Colorado on Saturday for the second time in less than a month, and although most of the squad is returning to fitness, there remain questions across the board.
With Javier Morales approaching full fitness, Jason Kreis is set to make his first big decision of the new-look 2013 lineup. WIll Luis Gil drop to the bench, with Morales taking his place? Or will Velasquez go to the bench, with Gil dropping deeper in midfield? Will Javier Morales even start on Saturday? While that one seems a bit of a doubt, but it's worth consideration.
Let's talk hypothetically. If Gil stays on, he drops into a position he hasn't played yet this season, but RSL gets a more seasoned player on the pitch. If Velasquez stays on, he continues in his position, building on strong performances there. Experience with Jason Kreis might lead one to believe that Gil stays on, given Kreis's preference for continuing with veteran players, but the fight for places is as big as RSL has had in a while.
Robbie Findley is likely to miss Saturday, which means Alvaro Saborio will again be partnered by somebody in the rotating cast of characters that is the RSL forward line. Joao Plata, should he recover sufficiently, is the most natural big-man-little-man fit, but he's apparently been struggling with a hamstring strain. Devon Sandoval has worked hard, presents some interesting options, but might not be the most natural fit next to Saborio. Olmes Garcia is full of raw, unmistakable talent, but he's just that: Raw.
Sandoval seems the most likely pick: Risking Joao Plata at this point might not be the most unreasonable thing in the world, but there's little chance he goes for a full 90 minutes with injury concerns close by.
Sandoval up top alongside Saborio would be a tactically interesting move. The two are both in a strong mold, work well with their backs to goal, and will help bring the midfield into attack; with two hold-up players, more attacking opportunities for players like Velasquez, Gil, Morales and Grabavoy emerge. Likewise, with two stronger forwards, defenders are forced out of their "cover Saborio endlessly" mentality, and when he he's got room, goals are scored. Additionally, the opportunities at set pieces — at least to distract the defending side — emerge with two dangerous players in the box.
Last time we played Colorado — a scant few weeks ago — Deshorn Brown found himself breaking past the defense time after time after time. Chris Schuler and Kwame Watson-Siriboe struggled as a pair that night. With Colorado at their home ground, they're likely to be continuing on a more attacking bent, but having Nat Borchers back in the side could make a bit of difference.
The fullbacks will need to be extra aware: Mansally and Beltran should continue to trade attacking moments, with one of the two deeper at any given moment. This will allow them to tuck in a bit (but not much) more centrally to help defend the counter.
CCL-bound Seattle Sounders FC is in town (7:00 p.m. on Saturday; CW30), and once again, the nascent rivalry looks set to continue its growth. Managing the match presents a tricky puzzle — how will Jason Kreis adapt his squad to the challenge?
Reintegrating full-back width
Working the international players back into the side will be an undoubtedly easy endeavor: Beckerman, Beltran and Rimando each step in for their backup counterparts, and the roles don't change significantly.
Abdoulie Mansally should step in at left back, and he does present something different and perhaps important. Along with Beltran, Mansally certainly gets up the pitch — we could talk about attack all we wanted — but as important as that is the ability to win the ball in the midfield on the flank, squashing attacks early. Certainly there's a risk in pushing both of your full backs up the pitch: Expect one of Beltran and Mansally to drop back while the other goes forward. It allows the defense to adapt more easily to threats.
Javier Morales is back! Well, maybe. Jason Kreis has indicated that Real Salt Lake's playmaker-in-chief could be set for an appearance, and whether this is off the bench or a start depends on highly on his fitness levels. Kreis — as most reasonable managers would — won't start Morales if there's a chance he'll have to take him off for fitness issues. It rather forces the hand of the coach, and when things may be going well, that's a tough thing to take.
Regardless, should Javier get in, it means a significant shift in the midfield. The sort-of-wide midfielders in the lineup and the central playmaker have been playing a relatively flat line, with the attacking midfielder — Luis Gil, say — dropping a little more than Morales, and with the wide midfielders — Grabavoy and Velasquez, perhaps — pushing up a little further. Morales would certainly play centrally, but he'd get the normal latitude to move in other attacking areas. The rotation among the midfielders would serve him well.
As a starter, Morales generally presents an opportunity to assert himself on the match early; as a substitute, he presents a spark and a chance to find joy late in the match. He'd be very unlikely to go 90 minutes, so either option will be working its away around Kreis's head.
Seattle and CCL
Remember when Real Salt Lake was in the CONCACAF Champions League? Yeah, so do I. Seattle Sounders are, and good for them, I suppose. They've got Santos Laguna on Tuesday and could well put out a weakened lineup in preparation for one of the bigger matches in their history. While jealousy does sometimes get the better of me, I suppose it's hard to fault them. It might give us a better chance at a win — but as we've seen before, young, eager guys can sometimes get the better of a more experienced side.
Coming off the back of a rough patch, RSL will need to be ready for Seattle to fling essentially everything at them; if they do roll out a young side, there'll be no huge expectation of winning, and those circumstances are notoriously difficult to manage.
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.
With the season heating up awfully early with Rivalry Week entering the fray in the third week of play, Real Salt Lake will face the slightly struggling Colorado Rapids. Jason Kreis will have decisions to make to counter the strong-passing Rapids.
Abdoulie Mansally is out after being (rightly) suspended for the match by the league, leaving a gaping hole at left back. Lovel Palmer is likely to step in, and with him comes some tactical uncertainty. For all Mansally's ails when he bursts forward on the left, his interceptions in advanced positions are vital to our tactical approach. With Palmer in the side, perhaps Tony Beltran pushes a bit higher up and we shift our attack a bit more to the right side.
Ned Grabavoy has a chance to make the lineup after returning to the squad this week, although there's a chance he wouldn't be starting, as he missed significant training minutes and two matches. If he does, expect Khari Stephenson to drop to the bench, as he and Grabavoy fill vaguely similar tactical roles in the side. Stephenson has fared reasonably well during his first two matches for the club, proving a good tackler and a nice link-up player, but Grabavoy brings more to the table, as well as a greater understanding with his teammates.
Desperately seeking balance
Perhaps it's not balance qua balance we're seeking, as we've got that already — the midfield is balanced but perhaps at the wrong spot. Luis Gil, Sebastian Velasquez, and Khari Stephenson have, in the first two matches, been excellent at maintaining possession, but none of the three has put in the attacking thrust we've really needed.
With Javier Morales still out with injury, somebody will need to step forward and really push play up the pitch. Grabavoy may not be the man to do that particularly, but he'll help. Velasquez can do it, but as he's generally on the side, won't influence play as much as a playmaker in the middle would. Gil's the best option, and judging by the final 30 minutes of his performance against D.C. United, it's one he's capable of. He simply needs to assert himself more out there — it'll come as a natural result.
Rapid passing patterns
Fascinatingly, Colorado has lost their first two matches having out passed the opponent by a considerable margin, in both matches completing nearly double the passes of their opponent. In both, they even took their fair share of shots. Jason Kreis's side will need to be aware of the danger here.
The solution seems simple: Don't allow Colorado to control the match. Though they haven't succeeded by doing so, they haven't been entirely far off. Stymying those passing rhythms and controlling the match in a safe, sensible manner should be of the highest priority.
I'm convinced that true rivalries must have more than just a geographic component. There needs to be a strong element of competitiveness between the rivals, and the nail-biting nature of the games between Real Salt Lake and the Colorado Rapids have added to the richness of the Rocky Mountain Cup. There have been so many great moments in the Rocky Mountain Cup over the years; bulletin board material, last-minute game-winning goals, big-time saves, questionable calls, questionable no-calls, red cards, and skirmishes, just to name a few.
My favorite RMC moment – so far – was the RSL-Colorado game on Oct. 24, 2009, the final day of regular season play that year. It wasn't so memorable because of the game itself – RSL won 3-0 – but everything else that went on that night. Let me set the stage for you.
Going into the final day of the 2009 season, one playoff spot was up for grabs. As the day's games kicked off, that final spot belonged to none other than the Rapids who were sitting on 40 points. Right on their heels were FC Dallas, D.C. United, and Toronto FC, each with 39 points. RSL was the final team with a mathematical chance at the playoff spot with 37 points. In order for RSL to make the playoffs, they would need to leapfrog the three aforementioned teams and beat the Rapids. A win by either Dallas, D.C., or Toronto would automatically eliminate RSL.
That afternoon, before heading to Rio Tinto, RSL fans eagerly tuned into the early game on the East Coast: Toronto at New York. We were able to sit back and relax after not too long thanks to a brilliant showing by New York. The Red Bulls scored early and often, thrashing Toronto 5-0 to eliminate TFC from playoff contention at 39 points. One down, three to go.
Then it was off to Rio Tinto where, coincidentally, the final three games that would determine RSL's fate (Colorado at RSL, Dallas at Seattle, D.C. at Kansas City) all kicked off at roughly the same time. Facing a must-win situation, RSL came out flying. Robbie Findley hit pay-dirt twice in the first half hour, ending the drama early as it became apparent that Colorado didn't have the horses to equalize on this night. RSL went on to win 3-0, putting them level with Colorado at 40 points but ahead based on tiebreakers. Two down, two to go.
While RSL was putting a bow on their game, things were getting interesting elsewhere. Dallas gave us an early scare at Seattle when Atiba Harris put them up 1-0, but the expansion Sounders scored twice early in the second half and hung on to win, knocking Dallas out of playoff contention. Three down, one to go.
The D.C. at Kansas City game was going along fine at 1-1 with RSL owning the tiebreaker over D.C. Then suddenly, it looked like the clock had struck midnight and RSL would turn back into a pumpkin - Julius James put D.C. ahead in the 82nd minute. From then on it was all Kansas City on the offensive, but it appeared D.C. would hold on. At this point, almost every member of the media at Rio Tinto was ignoring the final minutes of RSL's win and we were all glued to the TV watching KC and D.C. Then, in second-half stoppage time, RSL got the miracle they needed - a controversial handball gave the Wizards a penalty on the last kick of the game. Claudio Lopez buried it, ending the match 2-2 and putting RSL through to the playoffs.
Without those four matches going exactly the right way, RSL would have watched the playoffs from the couch. Instead, they went on to win MLS Cup. It was a magical night all around, and it's officially my favorite Rocky Mountain Cup game of all time.
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
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.