Real Salt Lake faces an absolute must-win on Tuesday night, when it will take on C.S. Herediano in a decisive CONCACAF Champions League Group 2 match. Of course, few things lead to a loss of tactical cohesion quite like these must-win games. RSL will have to stay supremely focused in several areas if it's to get the result it needs at Rio Tinto Stadium on Tuesday.
Posturing: Defensive or offensive
In order to progress, Jason Kreis's side must win by either a 1-0 scoreline or by two clear goals. It's one of those tough scenarios that requires some intense concentration from all involved. It raises questions about the approach to the match.
As a first option, RSL could score a goal then opt for a more defensive posture, as a single goal by Herediano brings the necessary scoreline to 3-1 — it could be a big ask against a defensively resolute side. With Jamison Olave a doubt, a usually solid partnership of Nat Borchers of Chris Schuler could be tested significantly.
As a second option, RSL could go in guns blazing, secure in the knowledge that regardless, they'll need at least a goal to go forward — and there are few better ways to get a goal than to simply go for it.
Defender Nat Borchers — unsurprisingly — would choose the first option: "We're going to have some patience, just make sure everything's switched on defensively, and the goals are going to come."
Missing puzzle pieces
With Alvaro Saborio out through yellow card accumulation, and Fabian Espindola and Jamison Olave in doubt for Tuesday, Jason Kreis will certainly be wringing his hands over the decisions he'll soon be forced to make.
Saborio's absence is perhaps the biggest: RSL's leading goalscorer — this season, in CONCACAF Champions League, and overall — is certain to be missed, as there are no other real hold-up players on the team. Justin Braun will be hoping to fill that role, but until his on-ball ability reaches a higher level, he may struggle for minutes.
Fabian Espindola's potential absence, compounded with Saborio's, would be doubly concerning: Already, Paulo Jr. is likely to start, but having him in as the available-first-choice striker would necessitate a potential shift in approach. With both Saborio and Espindola absent, RSL would be forced into either changing shape, continuing with Emiliano Bonfigli, or giving Justin Braun a chance.
An absence to Olave would be the easiest to solve: Chris Schuler has shown well since returning from his foot injury, and I suspect if called upon, he'd continue that fine form.
Approach play from the midfield
With some shift in personnel inevitable, the key will likely be in the play of Will Johnson and, should he be deemed fit, Ned Grabavoy. Both would need to get forward at will, burst into the box, and connect with Javier Morales.
This would abdicate some responsibility on the forwards, leaving less need to swing long balls in and providing more work for Herediano's defensive line. As they'll be secure with a draw, RSL will need to apply significant pressure there.
It's not often a side is so privileged as to face the same opponent two weeks in row, but with an unbalanced schedule, there was an air of inevitability to this sort of meeting. Though last time around, RSL took their chances well thanks, in part, to a fine striking performance from Alvaro Saborio, the tables so often turn on the road.
Vancouver Whitecaps, sitting in fourth place in the Western Conference, have been one of the most improved sides in MLS this year, rocketing up from their last-place finish in 2011. With eleven games remaining in the season, they've picked up six more points than in the whole of the previous campaign. Clearer a stronger foe now, the Whitecaps have lost but a single match at home, and our road form hasn't set to world alight. It all shapes up to be a noteworthy occasion.
The statistical run of RSL's road fortunes is bandied about with some regularity, there hasn't been much disparity from last season, when a paltry five games were won on the road. Two more road wins would see the Claret and Cobalt best their road results from last season.
But for all the talk of form, the Caps will be without the services of first-choice goalkeeper Joe Cannon, whose performances have contributed in no small way to Vancouver's successes. His 68 saves this season — enough to put him in third place in the category — won't come into play after his sending off just two weeks ago.
Before talk of threatening a backup keeper can take off — Brad Knighton's not a slouch, though he's never won a regular spot for an MLS side — it should be considered that Real Salt Lake play less in the final third than any other side in MLS relative to total passes. Only 24 percent of RSL's passing comes in the final third, and while that seems to indicate a lack of threat to play, it can be tempered: For every 46.8 successful final third passes, the side finds a goal — an indicator that there is more threat in that vital area of possession.
Keeping the Whitecaps at bay is a difficult task: They're a side that thrives without extensive possession: When they've won, they've averaged only 43 percent possession. With speedy players like Darren Mattocks and Dane Richards — both among the fastest in the league — catching sides on the break has become a routine affair. Strangely, Vancouver has averaged more possession when they lose matches — 51 percent — which won't dictate RSL's playing style, but should inform an awareness of counterattacking threat.
It's certain to be a real test for Kwame Watson-Siriboe — it's one he fared well with last time out against this side — early performances for RSL have been impressive. Having won two-thirds of his duels (a rate that tops the team) and showing an impressive ability to keep possession with safe passing play (92.8 percent — the best rate in the league), the young center back has eased the worries about the missing Olave.
With Jamison Olave falling to a hamstring strain and Chris Schuler still out with a foot bone stress response, the Watson-Siriboe-Borchers connection looks to be one that'll continue for at least the next month, supposing the nasty injury bug floating around the squad doesn't claim either of the two. Knock on wood and all that, right?
The trip off to Canada presents RSL with an opportunity to reclaim some road form, and while things aren't as bad as they may seem at times, there is a real sense floating around that there must be improvement away from the relative comforts of the Rio Tinto. Saturday presents a very real opportunity.
-- Matt Montgomery