Saturday saw Real Salt Lake facing a Portland Timbers side desperate to grab a win on the road, but a renewed attacking approach and a rediscovered killer instinct from set pieces saw the Claret-and-Cobalt exit with the honors.
Javier Morales scored RSL's first set piece goal since a 2-1 home loss to San Jose on June 23. It is no coincidence that the free-kick-goal scorer that night was Javier Morales — and before that, you won't find another free kick goal from RSL in 2012.
But on Saturday, the team scored two of those, and both of them had a distinct Morales influence to them. The first free kick, a perfect display of the connection between Morales and Fabian Espindola, was laid off by the playmaker for the mercurial striker, who spotted the smallest of holes forming in the wall. With the instincts of a samurai, Espindola slammed the ball through, leaving second-string Timbers keeper Joe Bendik with nary a chance of saving.
The second, Morales’s magnificent strike from 25 yards out, dipped just under the crossbar, and it was clear from the Argentine's celebrations that he'd been waiting some time for that.
The Beckerman Influence
As shown in their 2-2 draw with San Jose earlier in the week, Portland has a penchant for quality counterattacking play. Against RSL on Saturday, though, there was little of that to be seen. Three of the big attacking names were ineffectual at best: Franck Songo'o, Danny Mwanga and Darlington Nagbe were mere ghostly images of their swashbuckling selves.
What kept the triumvirate quiet? A subtle but strong performance from Kyle Beckerman, plain and simple. RSL's captain was always taking up the right positions, removing any need for last-ditch tackles and strong pressure — he made his stead in front of the back four, cut out the passing lanes, and prevented forward-moving progress.
Of course, Beckerman was hardly alone in the endeavor: Fellow midfielders Will Johnson and Ned Grabavoy also got back efficiently when RSL wasn't in possession. As a result, Mwanga and Nagbe were forced largely into making backward passes, and attacks were continually pushed away from the final third.
Not every attack was scuppered, of course, and Nick Rimando was forced into making a few stellar saves — but these came largely through set pieces and quick counter attacks, and it was only when the midfield was almost entirely bypassed that the Timbers looked dangerous. Those are a different issue, but that RSL didn't concede many chances through the middle of the park will lift Jason Kreis and the team's collective spirits.
MLSsoccer.com's video guru Scott Riddell was out at Rio Tinto Stadium for RSL's 2-1 win over Portland on Saturday. As usual, Scott did some great work, using his arsenal of cameras to shoot - and then slow down - Fabian Espindola's and Javier Morales's free kick goals as well as two of Nick Rimando's most stellar saves.
Check out the video above.
Real Salt Lake is set to take on the somewhat-resurgent Portland Timbers on Saturday at Rio Tinto Stadium. Portland’s been an awful road team – they don’t have an away win this season – and RSL will be looking to take advantage of the Timbers poor road form and pick up a crucial three points in the Utah side’s last match at Rio Tinto for a month.
Here are three tactical keys to Saturday night’s match:
If there's one thing to be learned from Portland's 2-2 draw with San Jose on Wednesday which saw the Timbers blow a two-goal lead late in the match, it's that the Cascadia side is susceptible to a special sort of panic that – oftentimes – dooms the team to a fiery demise.
Whatever the cause, Portland has a knack for the panicky type of defending that plays right into opponents' hands. It's not the sort of thing that can be fixed overnight and – considering we saw it during Portland’s match at San Jose on Wednesday – RSL might rightly expect to see it Saturday night. With Claret-and-Cobalt leading scorer Alvaro Saborio likely out, the Portland back line will be dealing with a bit more speed up front and perhaps a bit more guile. Whatever the case, ensuing panic plays into RSL's hands, and darting runs are always likely to produce that.
Fullbacks bombing forward
A trademark of the Real Salt Lake style involves the team’s two full backs - Chris Wingert and Tony Beltran in most cases - bursting into the final third and pulling opposing fullbacks wide. It's not necessarily a move designed to lead to swung-in crosses – although it may appear such on its face. With Wingert and Beltran far up the pitch - though usually only one at a time - the opposing defense is stretched, leaving gaps for channel-running forwards like Fabian Espindola and Paulo Jr. and late-running midfielders like Will Johnson and Ned Grabavoy to get into the box and cause some chaos.
When the full backs don't get forward, RSL doesn't get any joy in this way — leaving Espindola to run without much chance of finding the ball and the midfielders stuck a little further back — just on the edge of the final third. It's a tough one, though — when said pieces of the puzzle get caught up front during a counter, it's easier to give up goals.
The throes of tentativeness
When RSL started leaking goals earlier this season, something was clearly amiss: A leaky defense isn't on an island, and as a result, the box-to-box midfielders (Johnson and Grabavoy, typically) stepped a bit further back and joined holding mid Kyle Beckerman in protecting the defense. They may have swung too far in that direction.
As a result, the Claret-and-Cobalt has lacked killer instinct, cutting edge play and hasn’t scored many goals. Jason Kreis's side lives and dies by the midfield, and when it's not working perfectly, the whole of the side tends to fall around it.
The easiest way to solve that problem? Quit being tentative. Just get out there, bomb forward, get back, and don't stress so much about the counter. Portland may be fast — but they lack in a lot of other factors, and if this side doesn't start scoring goals, there will be bigger problems. Timbers attackers Darlington Nagbe, Danny Mwanga and Franck Songo'o — they all matter very little when RSL is in possession.