Real Salt Lake lost the Desert Diamond Cup Final 0-1 to Seattle Sounders FC on Saturday, giving up a goal from a counterattacking ball over the top. In a match in which the Claret-and-Cobalt dominated early proceedings and should have put at least a goal or two on the board, the story is less about winning and losing and more about preparation for the season's opener, now less than a week away.
Pacing the match
The first half saw both Real Salt Lake and Seattle creating chance after chance, with Marcus Hahnemann demonstrating that perhaps 40 isn't too old to play in goal in this league. Those chances came from across the field of play, with long shots nearly again making the difference. It's funny how that works.
The early pace of the game was frenetic, but it also saw three clear-cut chances for Real Salt Lake. Two of those were created from hopeful shots — one from Sebastian Velasquez and one from Kyle Beckerman — and the other was created from an Alvaro Saborio header. Inevitably, the side tired late on as many of them played their first consecutive 90 minutes of preseason — with the season roaring into view, that's essential.
The pacing suffered as a result, but the more important consideration was getting a fit group of players ready for a match on Sunday. Losing the Desert Diamond Cup stung ever-so-slightly — to our oft-repeated foes, no less — but in the end, the most important thing wasn't winning.
Defending the counter attack
Once again, we've seen this side fall to a counterattacking goal by Seattle, caught on the break with our defenders rather left to dry. A long ball over the top sprung Seattle, a spate of individual errors gave them an opportunity, and a good finish sealed the match.
It's a storyline that's been told and retold over the last few years. It's the danger of pushing men forward in attack, the inevitable downside of high-line defenses and high pressure. A little switch, perhaps, that would cue fullbacks in to those very dangerous moments would be magnificent here, but that hardly seems forthcoming. A bit more recognition of the danger posed by Seattle on the counter would have gone a long way.
Stepping up: The Velasquez 45
Sebastian Velasquez had perhaps the strongest 45 minutes of preseason he had so far — a good sign considering it was his final 45 of the preseason, and improvement over time is never a bad thing — impressing throughout with his ability on the ball and his still-developing vision.
Playing at the top of the diamond, where he's likely to start on Sunday, Velasquez ran the show. Plain and simple, he controlled the tempo, pacing and direction of Real Salt Lake's attack. His departure at the half gutted the side — a statement that speaks well of him and perhaps less so of the players who remained.
Real Salt Lake midfielder Luis Gil notched an assist in the U.S. Under-20 national team's 1-0 win over Costa Rica in the Group Stage of the CONCACAF U-20 Championship on Friday night.
Gil delivered the corner kick that L.A. Galaxy attacker Jose Villarreal nodded home in the 63rd minute. Friday night's win moved the U.S. to 2-0-0 in the Group Stage, giving the Stars-and-Stripes the Group A title.
The U.S. will now face Group B runners-up Canada in the CONCACAF U-20 Championship Quarterfinals on Feb. 26. The winner of that match will advance to this summer's 2013 FIFA U-20 World Cup in Turkey.
A late surge saw a vaguely veteran Real Salt Lake side eke out a 3-2 win over New England Revolution on Wednesday night, earning a spot in the Desert Diamond Cup Final.
The First Team Resurgence
Late resurgences are always a joy to watch, but deconstructing how exactly they came into being can be a bit difficult. It's easy to point at New England Revolution last night and accuse them of not seeing out the match, but that largely ignores the quality of the play that led to the goals.
The first of the two in the late surge came about through fantastic play by Alvaro Saborio, whose maneuvering on the edge of the box from a Ned Grabavoy pass positioned him to score a fantastic goal. The second came from Khari Stephenson — again from a Ned Grabavoy pass from the right channel. Grabavoy's ability to find space on the right flank was crucial, though perhaps a bit subtle.
Certainly New England could have defended the build-up more effectively, but their inability to hold on to the lead was down more to Real Salt Lake's first-team quality than other concerns.
The Viana Free Role
David Viana was deployed in the first half in a nominally striking role — a position which he's been dropped into at times later on in matches, but starting as a striker is a different sort of affair.
Viana came out in a quintessential free role role, with his primary roles on the pitch as a second-striker role behind Devon Sandoval and — more often — as a winger, primarily on the left flank. However, with this move, his influence was cut substantially: He saw less of the ball in dangerous attacking areas than in previous Desert Diamond Cup matches, serving more in build-up play from deeper positions.
The Velasquez Diamond
Sebastian Velasquez was handed his first real opportunity at the top of the diamond in preseason, filling a role played by Grabavoy, Viana and Stephenson so far, among others. It's a more natural position for the youngster, but I suspect he's being given more time in the outside of the diamond simply because it's where he'll undoubtedly see the most time in 2013.
He was effective in attack, and it was his shot from distance which led to the tap-in for Devon Sandoval. He also showed flashes of absolute brilliance on the ball, dribbling around players with the utmost of ease, cutting through the mess of midfield and creating opportunities. He didn't run the show as a playmaker, but he was incredibly bright on the ball.
Although Saturday's 1-2 loss to Seattle in the FC Tucson Desert Diamond Cup was perhaps a bit disappointing, there are some interesting points to be taken from the deployments of RSL's midfielders and forwards.
Flattening the diamond
With Ned Grabavoy as the point man in the midfield diamond, the look changes rather significantly. This is, I think, by design. The wider players in the diamond — in this case, Sebastian Velasquez and Yordany Alvarez — pushed up to be nearly level with Grabavoy.
This enforced a more flat top of the diamond — especially in comparison to a Javier Morales, Will Johnson, Ned Grabavoy triumvirate in front of Kyle Beckerman. Creativity came from all three players in basically equal measure. With Grabavoy at times dropping deeper than Velasquez and Alvarez, the system almost took on a less diamond-looking approach, too.
It's notable because it helps destabilize the notion that Jason Kreis is a strict tactician who refuses to vary his approach. It was a bit subtle, but we see something a bit more untested with Grabavoy up top there.
Alongside the flattening of the diamond come some interesting decisions on player placement. It starts of course with Grabavoy in the top of the diamond, where he plays well as a linking distributor and less that magician. It continues: Yordany Alvarez on the side of the diamond, where he looked surprisingly creative, and Enzo Martinez in the deep-lying role, where he looks more of a playmaker than a destroyer, are the two standouts.
But tossing David Viana up top in the 75th minute is interesting, too: Robbie Findley, still being rested, remains uninvolved, and getting at least a player in the forward position was necessary. It's clearly not Viana's best position, but his ability to run at players with the ball at his feet and beat them on the dribble changes the dynamic of matches. It's something that, after the departure of Fabian Espindola, our current group of forwards lacks — except maybe Olmes Garcia, the unknown quantity — and having that tactical flexibility is essential.
It's a bit strange when the ostensibly first-team players are having trouble scoring goals, but it's what's out there right now. With that set of players — or something resembling that set — we've scored just once since since Oct. 6 against the LA Galaxy, and that was from Ned Grabavoy against the … LA Galaxy in a preseason match on Feb. 8. It's not a pressing issue, but it's one to scratch one's head about. If it continues into the season, there will be trouble, but that's a rather big "if" at this point.
It is worth noting that some of these younger guys have looked particularly bright: John Stertzer, Cole Grossman, Joao Plata — they've all looked better than perhaps first expected, and all three have scored goals.
It's always difficult to take too much away from a preseason match without making profound leaps of logic, but two goals in the first five minutes of play certainly says something. Real Salt Lake came racing out of the gates and, while New York was unprepared, quickly put two goals in the back of the net before the Red Bulls fought back to tie 2-2. The factors that shaped the game are numerous, but let's focus on three of them.
RSL's two quick goals surely had something to do with the speed of the players involved, but the playmaking efforts of rookie midfielder John Stertzer and midfielder David Viana created quick opportunities. Viana's pass for the second goal was particularly sublime. The efforts of Viana were made slightly less effective as New York pushed further forward, with the midfield area becoming increasingly clogged. RSL's primary areas of safe possession shifted further back the pitch, leaving less room for midfielders to move the ball around the pitch.
You could almost see the cogs moving in Real Salt Lake's less-than-cohesive first-half back line: Carlos Salcedo and Aaron Maund worked well together, Lovel Palmer stayed back and kept things tidy on the left, and Josh Saunders made some fantastic stops when necessary. Rather than pushing forward, the defense looked to retain the ball rather safely. It's important they do that, but it did make for an incomplete showing.
The defending for the first goal conceded — a corner finished by former RSL defender Jamison Olave — was unorganized, though, while a failure to deal with a cross saw the second goal hammered in.
Plata's speed and acceleration
As important as the playmaking was for RSL's two goals, equally important was the speed of thought and speed of motion involved. Joao Plata, vital in both, showed not top pace over distance as one might see in a breakaway, but top acceleration in tight areas. This gave him a distinct advantage in pulling away from defenders, drifting wide in the box, and firing home. He had one goal and nearly had another, in part because of his speed.
Veteran heads shine through
When RSL's lineup switched over to a more widely experienced group, the match was drawn at 2-2 — that didn't change. But what did shift was the approach: Real Salt Lake went from being on the back foot to controlling play, from stopping chances to creating them.
It's difficult to definitively say whether this change in play was entirely down to the lineup shift for Real Salt Lake, given the half saw wholesale changes for New York, but it certainly can't have hurt. Real Salt Lake nearly instantly started looking like the creative, dominant team again — even if a few chances went begging and things didn't quite fire on all cylinders.