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.