Defensive questions reign ahead of today's match against New England Revolution, and with Nat Borchers having taken ill, those questions are sure to be more poignant and pressing.
We're likely to see Chris Wingert out there again, and there's something refreshing about that. Wingert is, as we know by now, an important defensive piece. While he may not be the most attacking full back in the league — we probably have that piece available, too, with Abdoulie Mansally — he brings organization and positional awareness to the side. With a more attacking midfield group this season, Wingert's calming presence is helpful. We saw the very palpable benefits of his presence on Saturday, and if he plays again, we'll be in a strong position.
With news that Nat Borchers could be out for the match with illness, Wingert's presence could be essential. He'd be a stabilizing presence at the back — and with a young center back likely to start, that could be the difference between conceding a handful and keeping a clean sheet.
The question then turns to who starts at the back alongside Chris Schuler: The most immediate option is Kwame Watson-Siriboe, but given that he's a new father as of Friday, there's a thought that he may be unavailable. Watson-Siriboe presents himself as a player similar to Borchers, though he's not to that level. He's as capable athletically as anyone, and he can step into the right positions to win the ball. Perhaps more importantly, he's very good in the air, and against a New England side that's still unsure what their attacking style looks like, that could be essential.
Carlos Salcedo, who was handed his debut on Saturday, has a chance as well. The young academy graduate a bit more of an unknown quantity, but he's been impressive for RSL's reserves and is an immaculate worker. He cuts an aggressive figure, and though he's inexperienced, he wouldn't necessarily be out of his depth in the lineup. Again, though, he presents plenty of unknowns and has a lot to prove. Interestingly, Salcedo is more likely to cary the ball out of defense when the options are open, and he's very good in the pass. This gives us a look we haven't really seen — both Schuler and Borchers are capable, but more frequently they pass the ball off to a full back or to Kyle Beckerman.
Chris Wingert could also move centrally, which he did at times last year with some success. He played centrally frequently early in his career, but he's been a full back with us for long enough that it's easy to forget that. He's not a perfect option, but you know what you get with Wingert in the middle. More pressingly, missing him at left back could be troubling.
With Vancouver coming to Rio Tinto Stadium tomorrow, Real Salt Lake will be looking to establish a strike partnership to carry forward with Alvaro Saborio out with injury.
Striking up a partnership: Olmes at the core
Leading scorer Alvaro Saborio is out for at least a few weeks, and that's certain to add a bit of stress to the RSL strike force. As a result, it's important that a partnership be struck up between the strikers available — whether this is Olmes Garcia and Devon Sandoval or Olmes Garcia and Joao Plata is difficult to say. It seems likely, though, that Olmes Garcia is at the center of considerations at this point, such have been his displays in this still-early season.
He presents different advantages with each option: Alongside Sandoval, Garcia could play a little deeper and more central, picking up on balls shook loose by the big man. Sandoval's also a disruptive figure, and we've seen him getting some joy with his ability to hold off an opponent. Alongside Plata, Garcia could be a more central figure around which Plata would pivot. The options are boundless.
There's always a chance Garcia doesn't get the start, but if he's fit, the odds seem pretty good. He's the most flexible option of the three potentially available, and with RSL's attack still developing and building anew, that flexibility may be enough to sway considerations. He's also the only one of the three with a goal, and in every match he's played, he's looked dangerous and likely to score further goals.
We're not unfamiliar with how Vancouver Whitecaps FC is looking this season, largely because we played against them only — what — three weeks ago? It's a funny thing, this somewhat-randomized intra-conference play. As a result, there shouldn't be any real surprises — and hopefully no strangely decided penalty kicks with which to contend. This should be particularly useful when considering Vancouver's attacking options. Truth be told, RSL looked pretty good against Vancouver, but improving on that will be a high priority.
First to the gates
Something like that, right? The onus is on Real Salt Lake to control the proceedings and to score first. It's an obviously desirable thing, but as we've seen, this side has trouble breaking down teams defending deep. Particularly without Alvaro Saborio out there to disrupt defenders through hold-up play, there's an inherent difficulty in breaking down those walls — unparking the bus, as it were. Scoring first and early forces Vancouver to abandon any designs to sit back and defend.
LA Galaxy have started their season off with some style, but there's plenty of opportunity for RSL to find success against them on Saturday night like they have so often before.
Stopping the midfield
First, the midfield's got to be stopped — Juninho and Marcelo Sarvas are an efficient pairing in the middle of the park for LA. Snuffing out their threat means we've got to keep our outside midfielders narrow, ready to pick off passes and prevent chances from being created. Additionally, they'll need to be aware of the defensive strength of Sarvas in particular. It's illustrative that he was successful in 10 of 13 tackles against Sporting KC last week. Stopping the midfield means both preventing attacking threats and avoiding defensive threats.
Second, the defense has to be constantly vigilant with Robbie Keane and Landon Donovan, should they play — and it's hard to imagine they wouldn't for a match like this. Donovan has wasted no time since returning to action, grabbing a goal and an assist last week. Still, the options LA Galaxy have up top aren't endless, and without both Keane and Donovan, it could be tempting for the defense to relax. This would be a mistake, especially with the set piece and long shot prowess of Juninho and the persistence of one Mike Magee.
Being afforded possession
Third, the whole of the side has to be prepared for a team that's willing to sit back a bit and let play develop. LA defeated last season's defensive standouts Sporting KC last week, winning 2-0 — this, despite completing considerably fewer passes and losing the possession battle. It's surprising for a team that has generally controlled possession in 2013, but it shows a willingness to adapt to the opposition that makes them a dangerous side to face. It's easy to imagine the Galaxy sitting back a little bit, picking their chances, and snuffing out ours — it wouldn't be the first time, and it won't be their last time. Playing around them will require some real control and skill on the ball — and it'll take our best passing and possession-oriented skills to ensure we don't allow silly chances.
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.