MLS Regular Season
If a body meets a body, and those two bodies happen to play effective possession and passing soccer, such an affair might be considering scintillating. With Real Salt Lake arriving in Houston to take on the Dynamo, the two sides, neither of which are lacking in personality on the pitch, are sitting atop some interesting statistical tables.
These two teams, while both insisting on high rates of possession and passing, exemplify the diversity of styles of play. RSL are the forceful, hard-tackling side, while the Dynamo may look to move the ball around a bit more.
Passing and possession
Houston Dynamo have perhaps been found lacking in cutting thrust at times (evidenced by their 9 draws and 7 losses), which is surprising given their domineering possession, which sits at a lofty 56.6 percent on average. To further make things interesting, their possession average goes up even more when they win (57.5 percent) and down when they lose (54.1 percent) but they always remain quite high up there.
RSL is currently sitting at 53.8 percent on average, with greater possession averages clocking up during losses (55 percent) than wins (53 percent). Given the nature of possession (when one side has it, the other does not), one of these two sides will come out with a lower-than-average possession percentage.
Houston is also the safest-passing side in the league, with 82 percent of their passes finding their target and an average pass count of 478 per match. RSL isn't too far behind, with 81 percent pass accuracy and 441 passes per match.
While this doesn't speak heavily to a claim about the efficacy of such techniques, the fact that the amount of passing on average doesn't change much between wins and losses speaks to a certain dogged commitment to a style. Houston is flying under the radar a bit for this, while RSL has that particular approach bandied about both positively and negatively.
Fouls and bookings
The Dynamo, for all their possession, are one of the least-fouling sides in the league — third from the bottom with 10.7 per match. RSL is sitting a bit higher at 13 per match on average. But that's all made a bit more fascinating by yellow cards issued: Houston have — by some number — seen the fewest yellow cards this season, with 23 being shown. As a point of counterbalance, RSL has seen 51 this season; San Jose, 50; and Vancouver, 57.
This leaves the Dynamo at 12.6 fouls averaged per yellow card shown. Whether this is owing to better tackling technique (although the tackle-won percentage isn't significantly higher than RSL's — 82 percent to 80 percent) or some other factor is hard to easily say. RSL's reverse of that, with 7.2 fouls per yellow card issued, will certainly be a consideration for Jason Kreis.
Absences and returns
Any hope for a boost in form pushed along by RSL's starting contingent will have gone out the window by now, with Kyle Beckerman, Will Johnson and Alvaro Saborio absent through international duty, and Chris Wingert out with yellow card accumulation. It will likely be another one of those depth-tests.
It could also lead to some shifts in the defense, with Chris Schuler inching closer to a full return, Kenny Mansally recovering quickly, and Jamison Olave working his way back. Though Olave seems likely to rest in a bid for full fitness following the long break, the lanky Schuler may well be handed a start on the left defensive flank.
There was nothing to particularly suggest any stops were pulled out for RSL’s 1-0 win over D.C. United on Saturday. No, it was a routine, efficient win from Kreis's men; one in which a fair few opportunities were created, one was put away, and a strong defensive effort kept the opponent at bay.
D.C. United presented strong opposition — considering their fight for form as the season comes to its closing moments, this was to be expected. The mentality on hand was exactly what was needed: Control the affair, don't allow too many strong chances, and close the game out. It represented a return to what Jason Kreis calls "Real Salt Lake soccer," and he'll have been pleased with the nature of the win.
Midfielders and shooting
RSL have this season struggled to involve most of the midfield in goal scoring action. While it is perhaps too soon to say, Will Johnson's headed goal in the second half represents a shift in that. Of course, one goal does not a trend make, but there were some interesting numbers to bubble out of the weekend's match.
The four midfielders involved (plus Yordany Alvarez, on late for Saborio, but only for a scant few minutes) took seven of the 13 shots on the night, with six of those being on target. You may recall that only just over 25 percent of the club's shots on the season have come from three in the midfield (Johnson, Morales and Beckerman), while 54 percent have come from Saborio, Espindola, and Paulo.
Additionally, just under half of RSL's shots came from outside the box — those midfielders, again, did some good work in the attack. This was especially important given that Paulo Jr. took no shots, and Saborio took only two — a testament, perhaps, to the strong work in the center of defense for United.
Goals, shots, and how they are conceded
Despite some solid defensive work on the night, D.C. United took a number of shots from distance — seven overall, about 2.3 more than RSL concede from outside the box on average. The seven shots conceded inside the box were only slightly more than the 6.3 average, but by avoiding a goal concession, improved the rate slightly to 30/176. It's still a 17 percent shots-faced-to-goals-conceded ratio, and it's hardly one of the better marks in the league. (Before the weekend, Columbus Crew held the lowest ratio at 11 percent, while Colorado Rapids were the worst at 22 percent.)
On most given match days, you'll find most of RSL's interceptions coming from Kyle Beckerman and the center backs, but the D.C. match saw our two full backs stepping up. Nat Borchers led the effort with five, while Chris Wingert and Tony Beltran had four each — all significantly better than average (2.1, 2.0, and 1.9, respectively). The midfield was less involved in this regard, perhaps owing to a more concentrated effort in attack.
By going the full 90 in Saturday’s 1-0 win over D.C. United, third-year center back Kwame Watson-Siriboe has now played more MLS minutes since arriving at RSL via trade with Chicago on June 27 than he did in his previous two-and-a-half years in the league.
Watson-Siriboe has played 738 minutes since joining the Claret-and-Cobalt, 57 more than he did in Chicago, which selected him in the second round of the 2010 MLS SuperDraft.
The UConn product has appeared in 10 league matches for Real Salt Lake, starting eight times in MLS play. That’s the same amount of league appearances and one more start than he had in Chicago.
Watson-Siriboe has also made big contributions in CONCACAF Champions League play, coming on in the second half of RSL’s 1-0 loss at Costa Rican club C.S. Herediano on July 31 and playing the full 90 in the Claret-and-Cobalt’s 2-0 home win over Tauro FC on Aug. 21.
The best part about all of this is, of course, that Watson-Siriboe – who has been called into action so often primarily because of injuries – has done well when on the field. He’s been solid defensively, effective in distribution and decent when getting forward on set pieces, even having a goal called back for an apparent foul by another RSL player in Saturday’s game.
We’ll likely see Watson-Siriboe in the lineup again on Thursday when the Claret-and-Cobalt takes on Houston at BBVA Compass Stadium. His minutes might taper off after that game, what with fellow center backs Chris Schuler and Jamison Olave returning to health, but he’ll undoubtedly remain a valuable piece as RSL continues its run down the stretch.
No matter which conference you happen to be in or facing, going up against a side in the thick of the playoff hunt is always going to provide some difficulties and question marks. DC United, standing on 41 points from 26 games, will be looking to put their best foot forward as they attempt to either move up in the standings or, at the very least, stay level with their fourth-place spot.
Stopping the slide
Jason Kreis may have pulled out all the stops to slow the slide into seeming despair (I don't contend it was, of course) to grab a draw against the Union, and it might seem he'll have to do it again. In this vital time of the season, rest becomes less and less an option as every point is valuable. With the Galaxy three behind us, and Whitecaps FC another three behind them, we'll want to ensure our standing doesn't slip too much. Dropping out of the playoff race is all but impossible now, but seeded standings are important.
But more than standings, Kreis will be worried about mentality going into the postseason. The matches are becoming more and more important to win, and with CONCACAF Champions League group play remaining a priority, our approach to these matches becomes all the more important.
Shots from distance
One of the issues that's affected Real Salt Lake is our reluctance to take shots from outside the box. Now, there could be a number of explanations about this: We prefer to work it in, or defenders tend to sit deeper against us, or we just don't have the long shot abilities we'd need to make it effective. I don't particularly buy any but the second.
To do this, we'll need to break into the final third a bit more regularly than we have been. We're averaging only 25 percent of our passing in the final third, and while this is down partly to our short passing options in the midfield, more thrust is essential. It is perhaps reassuring that United are only just ahead of us (25.5 percent) in this regard, but perhaps for different reasons. But both sides do put a large percentage of their shots on target — D.C. is at about 36 percent, while we're at about — wait for it — 36 percent.
We'll need more shots from our midfield, certainly. Of our 116 on-target scoring attempts, 54 percent have come from Alvaro Saborio (32), Fabian Espindola (22), and Paulo Junior (9). A further 25 percent come from Will Johnson (15), Javier Morales (8), and Kyle Beckerman (7). Between six players, we have 79 percent of our on-target shots, and that's certainly got to be spread a bit more. Luis Gil and Ned Grabavoy, in for a starting spot on plenty of occasions, will be looking to increase their shooting rate, accuracy be damned.
Goals -- and how they are conceded
It is interesting to see that we concede the third-fewest outside-the-box scoring attempts per match (4.7), while the Washingtonians (of the capital sort) concede the most (6.5). We also concede the fourth-fewest attempts from inside the box (6.3), while United concedes the third-most (8).
Here's where those two stats really break off, though: RSL is conceding the fifth-highest number of goals from attempts inside the box (30/169) – United, though conceding just as many inside the box, has faced 31 more shots (30/200). It balances things out in a fascinating way.
Ready to get to know RSL captain Kyle Beckerman a little bit better?
We sure hope so, because you’re about to get that chance.
The NBC Sports Network will be documenting Beckerman’s every move from Thursday morning through Saturday night for an episode of its in-depth, day-in-the-life series “MLS 36.” Cameras will follow Beckerman everywhere he goes, taking viewers inside the dreadlocked dynamo’s world for 36 straight hours as he and his teammates prepare for Saturday night's big home match against D.C. United.
The 30-minute episode – which, as of writing, has no set air date – will be an exciting experience for Beckerman, who saw the “MLS 36” crew at work with San Jose’s Chris Wondolowski when the two players were in Philadelphia for July’s All-Star Game.
“It's strange, for sure," Beckerman told reporters when asked about “MLS 36” after training on Tuesday. "It's cool. I'll try and represent the club the right way. That’s why I agreed to do it. I want to get Real Salt Lake out there."
Real Salt Lake head coach Jason Kreis has moved up yet another notch in the all-time hierarchy of MLS managers.
Friday’s scoreless draw at Philadelphia moved Kreis past former Colorado coach Tim Hankinson and into sole possession of seventh-place all-time in regular season points with 257. Kreis got to 257 points in significantly less time than Hankinson, reaching the mark in 18 less games than the former Rapids boss.
The 257 point total puts the 39-year-old Kreis fifth amongst active MLS coaches. On the active list, Kreis trails only Seattle’s Sigi Schmid, L.A.’s Bruce Arena, Houston’s Dominic Kinnear and San Jose’s Frank Yallop, all of whom have coached at least 97 more regular season games than the Claret-and-Cobalt boss.
It’s also worth noting that Kreis is just one of two coaches – along with former New England manager Steve Nicol – to claim a spot in the top-seven while coaching only one MLS team.
Kreis still has a little ways to go to catch former Kansas City head man Bob Gansler for sixth-place, probably needing about one more year to make up the 48 point deficit on the ex-Wizards coach.
Friday's goalless draw against the Philadelphia Union was indeed a tactically fascinating one, but not for the reasons one would have expected going into the weekend. The draw — an uptick in RSL's road form — saw Jason Kreis presenting his side a little differently than it has been in some time. Exactly how different? That's another question altogether.
Briefly, though, let's go over some elements of the tactical preview: What did we see? What didn't we see?Goals, and how they make games
Right. Everybody knows that goals change games, but this was specifically about the timing of goals — when the Union found goals most frequently. That was, of course, in the 15 minute interval around either side of the half, as well as in the final 15 minutes. It is to our credit, then, that we didn't concede a goal, but it does make this point rather difficult to discuss.
Lacking for style
As discussed, the Union are rather lacking in, well, personality. On the pitch, I mean. And you know? That seemed to be the case again — at least in attack. But in defense, the side was relentless in their pressing action. It allowed RSL little time on the ball, disrupting attempts to really create a significant flow to proceedings.
The Union were in superb defensive form: 17/21 tackles won, 21 interceptions, and 24 clearances speak to that fact. Remarkably, they conceded only a single corner and committed only three fouls in their half (of nine total), none of which were within striking distance.
Consistency dismissed: a new look
RSL's revised approach to the match involved a surprising departure from Kreis's diamond 4-4-2 (or, if you will, a 4-1-2-1-2, as Opta records it). Some dubbed it a 4-1-4-1, but I'll dispute that just a bit. What we saw was our narrow diamond, as it usually is set out, but with an additional attacking midfielder flitting from spot to spot, looking for openings. Perhaps a more fitting label is a 4-4-1-1, or, if you follow from the 4-1-2-1-2, a 4-1-2-2-1.
How does that change matters? Will Johnson and Ned Grabavoy still very much operated in their own swathe of midfield, with Grabavoy taking up right-sided attacking positions and Johnson supporting Beckerman in ball-winning measures. Luis Gil, too, was a bit further forward, but still very much the systemic tip-of-the-diamond player.
Javier Morales — inevitably the one floating in that free role — found himself at times ahead of sole striker for the night, Alvaro Saborio, at times behind the midfield, and largely in the thick of things. Was it an inspired move? It's hard to say, really, as a three-point result didn't come along with the change. But with five midfielders in there, four of which were engaged in defensive responsibilities and one generally left out of it, RSL was certainly not overrun by the Union midfield.
Perhaps that was the goal: Contain the Union, ensure a shutout, and hope for a bit of magic from Javier Morales and Alvaro Saborio. By freeing up Morales from the pressing game, Kreis ensured he got at least a good half out of his playmaker — and after a grueling week, that might have been just the goal.
When RSL takes on the Philadelphia Union on Friday, they'll be looking at a side struggling to establish an identity. The Union, 16 points off a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, might look to RSL an alluring opponent: one, perhaps, that should present an easy three points.
As we've seen this season, that's so rarely the case.
Goals – And how they make games
For all the renewed belief from a strong CCL performance, RSL underestimating the Union would be perhaps fatal. Any lack of concentration is readily exploitable, with the lion's share of Union goals coming at vital times: 30 percent come in the final 15 minutes of the first half, while 25 percent come at the end of the second half. A lack of attention to detail is ripe for error here.
But RSL, too, hold similar numbers: 27 percent of their goals come in the 15-minute interval following the half (the Union sit at 25 percent) and 19 percent come in the final 15 minutes — the two most common intervals for goals from the Claret-and-Cobalt. If both sides put forth strong efforts in approaching the goal during these intervals, we might well see a bit of a goal-fest from two sides that haven't exactly been swimming in the goals as of late.
Lacking for style
As the team with the worst crossing record in MLS faces off against the team with the third-worst record — 19 percent of RSL's crosses were accurate, while 23 percent of the Union's crosses were accurate — spectators can rest relatively assured that an aerial battle isn't set to ensue.
But while the Claret-and-Cobalt present a strong on-the-ground passing game, having made the second-highest amount of passes in the league with 81 percent accuracy, the Union seem to be a side lacking in a distinctive playing style. They don't present a strong threat on the ground, either: The fewest key passes in the league, the fewest passes in the final third in the league, the third-fewest goals in the league, and the second-fewest shots taken seem to indicate a general lack of attacking threat from the Pennsylvanian side.
For a player like Alvaro Saborio, the Union must look a tasty meal. The striker, who has seven goals in his last seven games, won’t have to deal with talented outside back Sheanon Williams, who picked up a red card in Philly’s last game and will miss Friday’s contest due to suspension.
Typically a defensive midfielder, Amobi Okugo has been asked to fill a role at center back as the Union, unusually shallow in defensive depth, look to find their footing in MLS play. In their last three league matches, the Union has had three different combinations of their starting back four. Okugo at the back may seem a surprise, but the young player will be looking to combine well with Union captain Carlos Valdes.
But as the Nowak "allocation money is king" era unfolded, the Union dispensed of two-year-starting defender Danny Califf, their hand seemingly weakened — but the arrival of former Chicago Fire defender Bakary Soumare from French third division club US Boulogne could still be the solution to that particular puzzle.
While RSL's fortunes have, at times, been a bit unkind at the back, the rise of Kwame Watson-Siriboe and Nat Borchers as a veritable defensive pairing has been a revelation. With Chris Schuler marching toward a return, Watson-Siriboe will be looking to continue his strong statement that he's deserving of a starting spot — even with injury concerns out of the way.
As painful as Saturday's loss to FC Dallas was, it provided an interesting tactical matchup that ended almost predictably: Real Salt Lake attacked dutifully and nobly, while FC Dallas was rather content to sit back, soak up the pressure, and hit on the break.
Formations: Soaking Up the Pressure
As one might expect from a side that changes formation nearly every week, FC Dallas adapted to a possession-dominating side by sitting deep and allowing attacks to fly in. Of their 38 clearances through the match — one every 2.3 minutes — of which 17 were effective.
That approach saw RSL allowed somewhat in the attacking third, but with much of the action coming on the flanks. Of the home side's 498 passes and 84 percent pass accuracy, 154 were in the final third with 64 percent accuracy — a surprisingly typical final third passing rate. Before this weekend, only 24.63 percent of RSL's passes came in the final third (the lowest in the league), though the club holds the third spot in pass accuracy in the final third — 63 percent. Sound familiar?
Despite the eased pressure in the attacking half, FC Dallas kept RSL from working in the penalty box, by and large. Only six passes were attempted there, of which one was successful. However, 10 shots were found from inside the box — three headed shots, one of which was a goal — but with little real success.
The Ferreira Factor
David Ferreira's return from a long injury layoff — suffered on April 4, 2011, from which he returned on July 4, 2012 — has been remarkable and inspiring. He's grabbed two goals and six assists from ten matches — and one of each came against us on Saturday. That, too, might be inspiring if it hadn't sent us to our third straight defeat.
But all that came in spite of FC Dallas's lack of attacking play. He found two key passes, both of which were long balls from around the midfield stripe, and an assist on the counter to put us 1-0. That he ended us in stoppage time owed partly to his free role on the pitch, as he had plenty of room to work — especially with our defense pushing into the final third late on.
RSL and Rotation
With Tuesday's match looming, some rotation was necessary, but we're always looking to win at home. A strong squad was the statement perhaps needed — for fans and for the league — but it backfired in spectacular fashion. We'll be marching on to Tuesday with some rested players: Alvaro Saborio and Fabian Espindola, both likely to start in the Champions League, each played a half, Will Johnson was kept out, and Kyle Beckerman played just 15 minutes at the end of the match.
Those four are almost assured to start against Tauro, while a 90 minute effort from Javier Morales may put slight question marks over the likelihood that he starts. Despite Grabavoy, Beltran, Wingert and Watson-Siriboe going 90, those four are all likely to start as well.
It's a quick turnaround, but without intensive travel involved, Real Salt Lake could be in pole position to gain some footing in the CONCACAF Champions League — it is, after all, the competition for which the club has kept their core group of players together, and a loss here would be a bitter, bitter blow to all that.
FC Dallas is coming into this one on a bit of a hot note, having just defeated Vancouver 2-0 and Colorado 3-2. While those results have somewhat helped us maintain our position in the table, that sort of form coming into the Rio Tinto is slightly daunting.
Formations: Switching things up
This is an FC Dallas side that quite actively adapts their formation to the match at hand and their playing personnel available. They've ranged this season from playing a traditional 4-4-2 to, more recently, a 4-2-3-1 — all of this more recent action seems to have worked somewhat, as their form and results have improved significantly.
Their most recent two match ups illustrate clearly the different approaches they've taken (although they have technically played in the same formation, the differences are clear.) In their 3-2 win over Colorado a week ago (a win for which it is hard to not have some affection for the Texans) they employed a flank-heavy look and managed two goals from long shots. In Wednesday's result against Vancouver (staving off the wolves from RSL's backs, perhaps?), they played a bit deeper in the midfield and entirely surrendered the right flank. Indeed, in general, FC Dallas has proved a more left-sided team than most others.
For Real Salt Lake, who have been one of the most consistent sides — if not the singly most consistent — in approach and formation over the last four seasons (with varying levels of success, although I'd point quite firmly at RSL's generally excellent results), FC Dallas could employ a fairly static two-banks-of-four approach to stifle creativity in the final third.
But if the two matches we played earlier this season are any indication, RSL fans could be subject to some further late drama, having found the Claret-and-Cobalt already not lacking at all in that sort of flair.
The Ferreira Factor
All these tactical and strategic switches seem to be focused on getting the best out of returning attacking midfielder David Ferreira — the victim of a broken ankle from a bad tackle only weeks before Javier Morales was taken out of contention for most of 2011. His return has already seen him gather 707 minutes of play, during which he's found 26 key passes — giving him the second-best rate in MLS at one every 27.2 minutes — just over 3 per match on average. Of course, Javier Morales isn't far behind in fourth place, at 28.3 minutes per key pass.
With that excellent key pass rate come assists: Five assists from nine matches is nothing to shake a stick at. Ferreira is one of the major heartbeats of this Dallas side, and their uptick in form could be attributed almost directly to him. But having gone 90 minutes twice in the last 7 days, Schellas Hyndman may be inclined to rest his playmaker rather than risk fatigue so early after returning from a horrific injury.
RSL and Rotation
After three of RSL's four established international players went 90 minutes in midweek, changes are almost assuredly set to be rung in, especially with Tuesday's CONCACAF Champions League matchup against FC Tauro looming. Chances for Yordany Alvarez, Jonny Steele and perhaps Justin Braun seem to be coming, and given Kreis's recent comments, it would be hard to not imagine further changes. Whoever comes out, they'll need to watch for David Ferreira and his magical passing abilities. Further, a concentrated focus on attacking down the right side while remaining defensively solid on the left could lead to some very interesting switches in personnel.
It is worth considering that FC Dallas will be playing their third game in 8 days: Will this give RSL a chance to capitalize on tired legs without burning out their own? Suddenly, these Western Conference match-ups are looking very juicy indeed.