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Tactical Preview: RSL-Portland

21 September 10:08 am

Tactical Preview: RSL-Portland

By Matt Montgomery

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:

Panicky Portland

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.

Along with contributing to RealSaltLake.com, Matt Montgomery runs the almost-daily RSL blog Under the Crossbar. Follow Matt on Twitter @TheCrossbarRSL.