Real Salt Lake relied heavily on Nick Rimando to take a result on the road despite taking heavy fire from Vancouver Whitecaps on Saturday, but the influence of Olmes Garcia is hard to forget.
On the road (again)
We could harp on about refereeing inconsistency and bad penalty calls, and maybe there's a place for that, but it stands to reason that allowing 16 shots on Saturday — 7 on-target, 7 off-target, 2 blocked — meant Real Salt Lake was dangerously closing to suffering from a less controversial decision. But for incredible goalkeeping from Nick Rimando, RSL would be walking away with zero points. Now, road matches are always going to be difficult in MLS, and there's plenty to be happy about from Saturday, but allowing repeated opportunities puts a side in real danger.
It's difficult to pinpoint a specific problem point, though — whether it's a problem that might be solved by the return of Chris Wingert is difficult to say, but playing a young center back in Chris Schuler alongside a young or inexperienced left back doesn't always lead to fantastic team defending. Wingert's arrival back to action — he went 90 minutes for the reserves — could add some essential stability.
Defending the flanks
It's fair to say that Real Salt Lake's weakest defensive position is left back, and as such, it stands to reason that teams will try to seek out any inconsistency in the position. Lovel Palmer was targeted — much as Mansally was last match — and did well, but not without the help of his teammates. Yordany Alvarez covered well when needed, Ned Grabavoy put in an efficient effort on the left, and Chris Schuler stepped over when Palmer went forward to build in attack.
Schuler's ability to step left and defend the flanks is perhaps in part a result of his deployment in 2011 and 2012; it's not his natural position, but when RSL is in possession and our left back pushes forward, having an able body to shore things up can make a world of difference.
Olmes Garcia's goal marked a lot of things: The sighting of potential, the excitement of youth, the unyearning need at Real Salt Lake for players who step up and make a difference. Jason Kreis will be delighted by what he saw: After only an hour of playing time with Real Salt Lake, the exciting kid from Colombia made his first major impact on a match.
But Kreis is continually faced with one bigger thing: Who starts, and who makes the bench? Once Robbie Findley returns to fitness, the fight for minutes starts in earnest: Alongside the speed demon, Plata, Garcia and Sandoval have each shown well; Plata has two assists and has looked dangerous, Garcia scored that brilliant goal and has looked freakishly talented otherwise, and Sandoval seems to be shaping into a real rookie surprise.
Real Salt Lake's errors against Colorado were many and frequent, but the sole goal scored was less a tactical failure and more a series of individual mistakes.
Aside from the fairly obvious answer — Real Salt Lake conceded an early goal and couldn't recover — there's something more interesting to be taken from the goal scored. Three things happened, and only one of those could rightly be blamed on Abdoulie Mansally. Nat Borchers allowed Edson Buddle to hold up the ball deep in the box, Schuler slipped, allowing his man through and disrupting the defense, and Mansally left his man to attempt to correct for the individual mistake, giving former RSL man Atiba Harris a clear opportunity.
Why'd it happen?
Does Abdoulie Mansally allow for a weakness in Real Salt Lake's defense? Mansally is obviously an attacking full back, and as such, sides may feel they have good opportunities at RSL's wide left position. This seems fairly obvious, the slightly left-leaning bent of RSL's central defenders corrects for that in some important ways. Although he — and plenty of others — were culpable in that early goal from Colorado, it was because of several individual failures in defending and less because of a systemic tactical failure.
How can it be corrected?
It's difficult to tactically correct for individual errors, save for a defensive strategy that provides more defensive cover in all areas. This is fundamentally in conflict with Jason Kreis's strategy for the side, although certain sorts of players can provide some types of fixes. Take, for example, Jamison Olave, whose ability to recover and prevent an attack was used as a solution to this problem. But without a player like Olave, the defense is often left in a situation where a greater responsibility from everyone is required. Single mistakes are inherently more likely to be punished.
Real Salt Lake took down Seattle 2-1 on Saturday, scoring two goals from set pieces and looking rather like the well-oiled machine that seemed absent through most of 2012. It's hard not to focus on those two goals, because they're indicative of something the squad's been missing for some time.
It's just as Alexi Lalas says: "Set pieces." I'm sure there's more to that statement, and it probably relates to what we saw on Saturday. Luis Gil scored from a corner, and Robbie Findley scored from a throw-in. The nature of their goals being as different as they were — one a well-planned attack that caught a defense ball-watching, the other a quick finish that came from awareness up front — it's easy to see how important set piece planning can be.
If there's been a major criticism of Real Salt Lake in attack this year — and perhaps longer than that — it's been a lack of threat from set pieces. Saturday changed that, but it came from a shift in mentality. The first goal saw Tony Beltran thrust a ball into the mix from a throw-in, and the strength of Devon Sandoval kept Seattle from making an easy clearance. Robbie Findley's awareness paid dividends, and not a moment too soon, as he was taken off injured hardly minutes later.
For the second goal, rather than sending a corner straight into the center of the Seattle box, where they were well covered, a touchline-searing ball from Velasquez to Grabavoy set up Luis Gil for a strong header to the far post. Too often, defenses can crowd Real Salt Lake in the middle of the box, but creative play and danger from multiple areas will give defenses pause for thought.
It's perhaps no surprise that Jason Kreis confirmed that more time was spent on set pieces than in the past. When it becomes less about power and strength (particularly with the departure of Jamison Olave) and more about finesse, Real Salt Lake, with its array of short midfielders, will be a natural benefactor.
It's difficult to say what the proper tactical approach would have been in the second half, but with Seattle putting RSL on the back foot for the first 15 minutes of the second half, Abdoulie Mansally and Tony Beltran tucked in to cover runs from attacking midfielders. On the conceded goal scored by Brad Evans, the defense had become so narrow as to allow Seattle right back DeAndre Yedlin all the time in the world to cross, and as such, a goal was scored.
The return of Javier Morales and the rise of Sebastian Velasquez
Javier Morales looked closer to the Javi of bygone days than he has in some time. Claims that he's a slow, old player are overblown: The breakaway, on which he should have been awarded a penalty kick after being hauled down by Jhon Kennedy Hurtado, showed that.
Whether it was planned that Luis Gil would come off for Morales or not, there was something incredible about seeing the playmaker-in-chief lining up with the talented Sebastian Velasquez for 30 minutes. Whether that continues depends on how Luis Gil fares in training sessions, but it seems Kreis has every reason to be impressed with the rat-tailed kid. He's been one of RSL's best players in the early days of the season, and his hard work is a sure factor in that.
Real Salt Lake's struggles in Texas continued on Saturday with a 2-0 loss at FC Dallas, but it was hardly the state that was their downfall: Rather, it was the state of the squad, and naturally, the state of the attack.
Ringing in the changes
With a bit of surprise, Real Salt Lake didn't have many issues that occurred directly as a result of the changes in lineup. None of the individual pieces were particularly woeful, and indeed, most showed reasonably well for themselves. That is, of course, not to say that their first-choice counterparts wouldn't have been better options — particularly when it came to overall creativity.
Ned Grabavoy led the attack in the midfield, grabbing four key passes; Yordany Alvarez was largely effective as a defensive midfielder despite his late red card, leading the team in passing (56/66) and generally breaking up play. Both goals came from other areas of the pitch — one a long ball over the top, the other a long ball sent wide — leaving Alvarez relatively blameless, excepting his dismissal that made a comeback more difficult for Real Salt Lake.
Of the players who stepped in from the start without having seen action this season, Cole Grossman looked acceptable in the midfield, Nat Borchers looked magnificent in defense, and Josh Saunders, barring his big error, was a solid goalkeeper.
Speed without strength
Jason Kreis opted for a speedier front line than Real Salt Lake has seen in some time, and the acceleration of Joao Plata combined with the top speed of Robbie Findley created some interesting opportunities in front of goal. Indeed, it was Plata's quickness that created the first RSL shot of the match as he burst past a line of defenders. Still, without the hold-up play of Alvaro Saborio, Real Salt Lake lacked an efficient out when pressured, and this led to some dangerous moments in which FC Dallas looked likely to score.
It hammers home an important point: Alvaro Saborio is an important part of the tactical makeup of Real Salt Lake — or at least a player who can hold the ball in congested areas, deflecting attention from other areas of the pitch. With two speedy strikers and a relatively compact midfield sticking further back on the pitch, the defending side can place effective pressure on the midfield without having to cover forwards with multiple players. How many times have we seen Saborio with three players at his heels, only for him to make a pass back to an open midfield? It's illustrative of his influence, and when it's not there, Real Salt Lake quite naturally struggles in attack.
If there's one thing to be said about this Real Salt Lake side early on, it's that when they've conceded, they've had a response. Once again, after conceding a goal, RSL out-passed (77/97 to 45/61; 27/38 to 10/17 in the attacking half) their opponents. But with this late pressure, RSL's efforts backfired a bit, as they conceded another goal, and though the manner of it was hardly a tactical flaw, the three other shots FC Dallas took were not. Should this mentality continue, dividends will certainly be paid. Of greater concern should be the situations in which they concede.
It's not often that a Real Salt Lake goal is the direct result of a tactical decision, but Jason Kreis's move to a 3-4-3 late in the second half of Saturday's 1-1 draw against the Colorado Rapids falls into that category.
Changing shape: 3-4-3
When he pulled Lovel Palmer from the match and dropped in Devon Sandoval, Jason Kreis pushed Real Salt Lake into a near-desperate 3-4-3 formation, and he did it with some success. With Chris Schuler as a slightly withdrawn left back, Tony Beltran as an adventurous right back, and Kwame Watson-Siriboe in the middle, there was always a certain risk involved, and for a moment it did seem as if Colorado would find a goal. If not for a fine performance from Nick Rimando, they would have.
The midfield was where the more interesting movement took place; with a largely right-sided attack, owing to Beltran's runs on that side of the pitch, swathes of the midfield were left rather empty. With Luis Gil on the right flank and Sebastian Velasquez on the left, Ned Grabavoy and Kyle Beckerman were left largely to patrol the midfield; the former was inevitably pushed higher up the pitch than the latter. Devon Sandoval and Alvaro Saborio formed a double-target front line, while Joao Plata played in a slightly withdrawn forward role.
Through Beltran's runs down the right, Luis Gil was given a greater opportunity to influence the match, and it's telling that it was through his hard work on the edge of the box that the goal arose. Joao Plata's awareness again proved crucial as well, and it's increasingly hard to fault Saborio's finishing prowess. Subtly important and easy to ignore, though, was the run by Sandoval, which drew one of two defenders away from Saborio, opening the shooting opportunity, which Saborio took with immaculate poise.
Unsurprisingly, Kyle Beckerman domineered the midfield, leaving Colorado with scant few opportunities to control possession; of course, given their long-ball counterattacking strategy (incredibly effective as it was), this was perhaps no surprise. Beckerman — nor any other RSL midfielder — wasn't forced into tackles or even interceptions, leaving the player free to spray passes across the pitch. With 83 of 101 passes successful, it's clear who controlled the affair. Sebastian Velasquez, too, had a fantastic night in the pass, completing 68 of 77 passes and maintaining possession.
It's hard to tactically account for errors when a player like Jamison Olave isn't in the side to plow through everyone. With this in mind, several Real Salt Lake players will rather be kicking themselves after allowing Colorado Rapids a number of chances simply from mistakes on the ball. Chris Schuler was guilty during the conceded goal, but errors fell in most areas and weren't confined to a single player. Whether this is down to nervousness or concentration or some third factor is difficult to say with any definitive voice. Whatever the case, Jason Kreis and company will be looking for those to be erased moving forward.
A 1-0 loss on the road early in the season should never be a particularly devastating result; instead, it should be looked at as an opportunity to learn and correct mistakes. In comparing the first 60 minutes and the final 30 minutes of Saturday's match against D.C. United, Real Salt Lake has just that chance.
After conceding to D.C. United, Real Salt Lake upped their game considerably. As a quick statistical example, they completed more passes in the final third of the match than they did in the first two-thirds — and while we can certainly look to a more comfortable United side as a reason why, it can hardly be the only factor. Luis Gil was particularly improved after the goal, getting more readily involved in play and even dictating it a bit.
RSL took considerably more shots as well — to the tune of a whopping two in the first 60 minutes and seven in the final 30. Whether this was down to a tentative quality in attack or an inability to control possession in the midfield is difficult to say. When that goal was scored, though, the match changed. Although the right chance never really cropped up, the improvement rightly won praise from Jason Kreis after the match.
Midfield linking play
One issue that plagued RSL through the first 60 minutes was the lack of a distinct link between the forwards and the midfield. Under normal conditions, this would be Javier Morales, but given that he's not yet back with full fitness, Kreis looked toward Luis Gil for answers. Let's be clear about this: Leading up to the goal, most RSL players were fairly poor. Luis Gil had failed to get involved, Sebastian Velasquez had completed as many passes as he missed and Robbie Findley couldn't find the ball.
But Luis Gil has a certain responsibility — as do the midfielders next to him — to act as that connective piece and supply Alvaro Saborio and Robbie Findley. It's an approach Luis Gil will hopefully grow into as a midfielder: He needs to continue injecting himself in every aspect of play. In the long term, we can be hopeful, because in that final 30 minutes, we saw glimpses of that.
Abdoulie (née Kenny) Mansally has attracted some negative attention in the past two matches for being a defensive liability, but Saturday was more positive than perhaps indicated by his substitution. To the eye, he seemed slightly poor — perhaps even a little panicked. But he brings something most full backs can't. A tactically fascinating player, Mansally's marauding runs on the left allow him to intercept the ball in dangerous positions and spring play.
Although he's very quick, Mansally encounters trouble at times when play comes down his side after he's committed higher up the pitch. This is somewhat inevitable give his playing style, but it also underlines a certain tactical naivety that Jason Kreis and company will be hoping Mansally develops away from.
RSL suffered its first loss of the season on Saturday, giving up a second-half goal to fall 1-0 at D.C. United.
Here are a few interesting figures from Saturday’s match:
RSL is now 0-6-3 all-time in matches at D.C. The Claret-and-Cobalt is 0-5-3 at United in MLS matches and 0-1-0 at the Black-and-Red in Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup action.
RSL is winless in matches at D.C., Houston, Dallas, Vancouver and Toronto.
Claret-and-Cobalt rookie midfielder John Stertzer made his professional debut on Saturday, playing nine minutes after coming on in the 81st for midfielder Khari Stephenson. A D.C. area native and University of Maryland product, Stertzer had a number of family and friends in attendance at Saturday's match.
Real Salt Lake defender Lovel Palmer made his club debut when he entered Saturday’s match for Abdoulie Mansally in the 66th minute. Palmer had a strong showing on Saturday, bombing up the left flank and nearly scoring an equalizer with a shot from distance.
Real Salt Lake was shown four yellow cards in Saturday’s match. The Claret-and-Cobalt now has six cards this season, two less than league leaders Chivas USA and tied for the second-most in the league with Sporting Kansas City.
RSL has won six consecutive Rocky Mountain Cups over the Colorado Rapids. The Claret-and-Cobalt will take on the Rapids in the home opener at Rio Tinto Stadium on Saturday.
Two goals on the road saw Real Salt Lake victorious on Sunday night over last season's Supporters' Shield winners in San Jose Earthquakes. The key pieces: a top-class midfield performance and a relatively straightforward second-half switch.
Taking a glance at the chalkboards for Sunday's victory shows a distinctly Kyle Beckerman-shaped hole just ahead of our defense. Real Salt Lake's captain impressed not through intense tackling, hard challenges or your typical defensive midfielder attributes, but as a disruptor of movement. The subtlety of his performance saw Beckerman putting the right pressure on the San Jose attack at the right times, leaving them to attack through other channels — all of them harder to profit from.
Disruption without the tackling one normally associates with an anchor man is a difficult ask. Beckerman handled it with aplomb. Of course, even for all his defensive contributions, who can forget that outside-of-the-foot, no-look pass for Alvaro Saborio's second goal?
The diamond, flattened
The midfield, anchored as usual by Beckerman, saw three nominally attacking players in the thick of it. Luis Gil, Khari Stephenson and Sebastian Velasquez played in a relative flat line just behind the attacking third, with Gil ostensibly in the center, Stephenson on the left, and Velasquez on the right. Of course, all three switched spots throughout.
As a result, San Jose's midfield was pushed and pulled across the pitch, with Velasquez and Stephenson stretching play both horizontally and vertically. All three are quite capable of darting around the pitch and sending inventive passes to forwards, which surely played on the minds of the opposition — particularly with former Earthquakes midfielder Khari Stephenson pulling the strings from the left side.
By keeping the San Jose midfield and back line busy through the first half, spaces were opened in the second half as both sides tired. One substitution saw Real Salt Lake take advantage of that: Joao Plata's entrance in the 65th minute, on for Robbie Findley, changed the match.
Findley's efforts saw the field stretched and defenders pulled around, but San Jose generally coped well. Plata's arrival saw the (quite) diminutive striker deeper in play than Findley, and his potential kinetic energy (er, his speed, should he have used it) undoubtedly frightened defenders. In the end, though, it wasn't his speed that changed the match but his propensity for popping up in deeper unmarked positions.
Plata for Findley is a relatively straightforward substitution on the face of things: Both are quick, crafty players and will stretch play. San Jose didn't cope with the switch, Plata was able to sneak into an unmarked spot to receive a long ball from Kenny Mansally, and with a deft pass, released the always-surprisingly-quick Alvaro Saborio for the goal. The rest, as they say, is history.
It's tough having the last game of opening weekend - you get to watch every other team's new arrivals and see who's looking good before you get to see how your own team stacks up.
Thankfully, the wait proved to be more than worth it on Sunday night as Real Salt Lake waltzed into San Jose – a team that racked up a whopping 66 points last year en route to the Supporter's Shield – and dispatched the Earthquakes 2-0.
On a weekend where several teams put up impressive displays, RSL's performance was one of the best. Here are a few players - new and old - who impressed me most in the Claret-and-Cobalt's win at San Jose:
Sabo was Sabo, which is exactly what you want if you're an RSL fan. While many fans spent much of the offseason wondering about getting production from the second forward, I was more worried about whether Sabo could replicate his 17-goal effort from 2012. There's a long way to go, but it's impossible to argue that Sabo isn't off to a great start.
To win a tight match you need a game-changer, someone to come in and tip the contest in your favor. Sunday night the game-changer was clearly Plata.
His assist on Saborio's first goal was brilliant, featuring two perfect touches in a row (the perfect touch to settle a difficult ball, and the perfectly-weighted pass). Beyond that, Plata was active all over the field, coming back when needed to help the midfield possession game. And don't forget, the Ecuadorian international is only 21. This youngster could end up being one of RSL's biggest steals since the Kyle Beckerman trade.
I thought Seba had a great preseason and I was interested to see if it would carry over to MLS play. If the San Jose game is any indication, it has. We all know that Velasquez is a real offensive talent with ankle-breaking footwork on the ball (which he used on poor Ramiro Corrales on Sunday), but where I think Seba has really stepped up his game is on the other side of the ball. Jason Kreis has high expectations for his midfielders on defense, and Velasquez appeared to meet those on Sunday, staying active and honest on defense and tracking back to the top of the box when necessary.
Gil hasn't necessarily added any elements to his game this year, it just seems like he is taking it to a higher level. His movements are smoother, the timing is just a little bit better, and his confidence seems high. I guess that's what carrying the U.S. U-20 National Team to a World Cup berth will do for you. His combination play with Robbie Findley which led to a left-footed Cruyff turn and a shot that produced Jon Busch's best save of the night was a thing of beauty that belies Luis' age.
We've been watching Captain Kyle for a long time now (300 matches, to be exact), so how is it that he continues to surprise us with something we've never seen before? His no-look pass to set up Sabo's second goal looked like something from a great NBA point guard's highlight reel. Aside from that, Beckerman was his usual efficient self, completing a game-high 46 passes and breaking up San Jose's midfield.
How fitting is it that, on the night that Rimando earned his 100th MLS clean sheet, he turned in a textbook shutout performance. Rimando only made two saves on the night, but his reaction save on Chris Wondolowski in the first half was top-drawer goalkeeping. And therein is the essence of keeping a clean sheet: You don't have to make 15 saves, but you must stay focused enough to make the one you have to. On top of that, Rimando was a good coach to his young back line, helping them sort out their issues on the occasions where they lost track of Wondolowski.
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
It wasn't Argentina at the 2006 World Cup, but RSL's 12 pass sequence to lead to forward Alvaro Saborio's second goal in the 85th minute of Sunday night's 2-0 win at San Jose was still pretty cool.
Check out the full build-up to the goal above.