Real Salt Lake will face a number of challenges against Toronto FC on Saturday, but of particular interest will be two types of moments from which we have been vulnerable.
Watch the counter
It is no secret that Toronto FC are going to try to beat us on the counter attack. It is what they’ve done twice this season to good effect, and it’s something they might see as something of a weakness in our constitution.
If you need convincing it’s something we can suffer from, look no further than this screenshot from Saturday’s draw against LA Galaxy.
Chris Wingert has just lost control of the ball and is struggling to get back in time. Nine players are inside the opposition half here, including Nat Borchers. Chris Schuler is only just inside our half and is not visible in this screenshot, but he’s there. The only remaining player is Nick Rimando, who, despite being the best goalkeeper in MLS, cannot defend an entire LA Galaxy attack on his own. The ensuing play is something we don’t need to repeat, but there is something strange about the way we’ve approached this one.
The solution isn’t to drop into incredibly deep positions at all times, but as a general rule, having nine players inside the opposition half when you’re playing a side with Robbie Keane in it is probably unwise. We all want to see attacking soccer, and we want to see our players committed in those moments. But what we don’t much want to see is anybody going one-on-one with Keane — or, in tomorrow’s match, Jermain Defoe. These are notably difficult players to defend.
Watch set pieces
Defending set pieces is a tough gig. We know that, and we certainly made sure LA Galaxy knew that with Alvaro Saborio’s goal last weekend. Marking individuals is never easy when they’re top quality, and we have two examples — one for and one against — that help illustrate that.
In our first example, Chris Wondolowski scores from a set piece thanks to some fine movement from him and a nice ball sent into the box.
San Jose has sent men forward to confuse our marking, and it certainly worked. This is sort of in their DNA, but it’s not some exclusive club that only hoof-and-run sides can get into.
In our second example, we have Alvaro Saborio as the scorer, with Joao Plata grabbing the assist. These two set pieces occurred roughly in the same part of the field, which is not entirely coincidental.
Plata’s pass to an unmarked Saborio was fantastic, but it was the movement of Saborio — or lack thereof — that confused the LA Galaxy defense and gave us our opportunity.
Both instances involve confusion in the box, and although they’re of different orders of magnitude, they come from the same place. Unexpected actions, whether it’s intelligent movement around a defender or simply letting defenders move away from their marking, are dangerous.
We’re facing a Toronto FC side who may try to capitalize on that. Our set piece defense has not been spectacular, but by the same token, it hasn’t been miserable. If we watch the fouls in these positions, we can cut out the most dangerous element, but it won’t always play out that way.
It will be important for defenders and, indeed, anyone marking on set pieces to stay aware and — to use a bit of a truism, “expect the unexpected.” After all, Michael Bradley’s not bad at those passes, and Toronto FC do have one or two very good strikers who will want to test us in these moments.
Real Salt Lake faces a difficult task on Saturday: Defeat a San Jose Earthquakes side that hasn't lost at home in over a year. Given we were the last side to beat them at home, though, we can turn our focus toward more practical matters.
Watch the long ball
We have plenty of evidence that San Jose excels in situations where they don't have long spells of possession in advance of a goal. We've seen it over and over: They'll hoist a ball into the box, have one of their rather-large men get on the end of it, cause some havoc, and score.
Bypassing our midfield is the biggest threat we face. If we don't pay heed to long, direct passing -- or long, hopeful passing, as the case may be -- we'll be forcing our defenders to deal with some of the most difficult moments they'll face in MLS. It takes only a single pass for Steven Lenhart or Alan Gordon to have a prototypical moment in the box followed by a Chris Wondolowski poached goal for the damage to be done.
This starts at the front, too: While unreasonably high pressure or over-eagerness isn't the solution, standing off the midfield and allowing them long-ball opportunities could possibly be worse.
Watch for space
Against the Galaxy, we played a more direct style generally, and it worked well for us in the end. But we found our goal in a particularly probing moment, when our forwards were given opportunities to pull defenders out of position and generally cause problems. This was against two top-quality central defenders in Omar Gonzalez and Leonardo, which speaks highly of our movement.
We'll want to do exactly the same thing on Saturday against two defenders of slightly lower quality. Clarence Goodson and Victor Bernardez, both of whom are capable, will be vulnerable to the same types of movement. With a forward corps of Joao Plata and Alvaro Saborio, there's no reason why we can't continue to perform in the same way.
Jeff Cassar's substitution patterns will understandably be subject to some scrutiny in these early weeks of his career. How we reshape to approach a match from the 60th minute forward essentially shapes our game; a poor substitution and tactical decision, and we're in a difficult spot and struggling to regain any footing we had. A good substitution, and we can turn the game on its head.
Saturday saw three smart, effective substitutions: We brought in players who are hungry for playing time, capable on the ball, and who could have an attacking impact. The Jordan Allen substitution sticks out the most: He's a fast, bright attacking player, but most importantly, he can maintain possession. We saw exactly that, and his confidence on the ball made the game slightly easier for us to win in the end.
Don't succumb to the mind games
San Jose will hack us down, they'll bash us around in the area, and all-in-all, they'll do what they can to get inside our heads. Not literally, I hope.
It's hard to call it a tactical approach, but we'll need to keep our wits about us. We've lost these matches before because we get sucked into it like it's bad reality TV -- we can't let that happen. There is, of course, something tactically meaningful about retaining all 11 players in the game.
With Real Salt Lake opening their season against LA Galaxy tomorrow, we're facing once again one of the difficult sides in MLS to play against. With some attentive play and effective possession, we can neutralize the threat and create options for ourselves at the same time.
Narrow at the back
LA Galaxy are not, I think, a side that will hit you with incredible crosses consistently; they are, however, a side that can always spot any gaps and spaces between the center backs and the full backs. Robbie Keane and Landon Donovan both excel at stepping into the channels, though the way in which they operate differs somewhat.
If we are to prevent those deadly two from capitalizing on any space, we have to remain somewhat narrow at the back. This should not be entirely too problematic, though. It was something we could pinpoint in several preseason matches: the full backs tuck in when defending and push out wide in attack. Exaggerating this a bit could help our chances.
Soak up pressure
It's difficult to say how LA Galaxy will come out of the gates, but with the first match in front of their home crowd, they'll likely see some attacking impetus behind them. If we can adjust our game to soak up some of the inevitable pressure that comes our way, we can avoid getting caught out when a fast Galaxy side comes streaking at us.
This doesn't mean surrendering possession by any stretch, but it does mean we'll want to shape our approach to regaining it. We can't have defenders pushing too far, as we'll get caught — this is something we saw in previous matches against the Galaxy.
This approach does, however, require more than a modicum of attentiveness and preparedness from the midfield: This necessitates moving as a unit and understanding where pockets of space have and will emerge. This also means we must watch any runs further inside our area — if we let someone like Robbie Keane move into a more open position, we won't fare well.
Hit them on the counter
We should be a fine counterattacking side but too often we lose sight of that. While the focus is and should continue to be on effective play through possession, we have the right tools for effective play on the break. With Olmes Garcia and Joao Plata, we have quick forwards who can find themselves in great positions; in Kyle Beckerman and Ned Grabavoy, we have midfielders who can hit anybody with a pass; in Luis Gil and Javier Morales, we have attacking players who can really create opportunities.
By soaking up pressure when we don't have possession, too, we encourage Galaxy to push further into our half in an attempt to break our stance and find space to create. While there is some inherent risk in this, it allows us to take advantage of the plentiful options at our disposal.
With Real Salt Lake on the verge of the MLS Cup, taking stock of our tactical position is elucidating. Without further ado, how can RSL ensure a match in which they have the best chance to win?
1. Don't succumb to high pressure
Sporting KC play what is best described as a high-pressure system -- they start applying pressure with their forwards, and that translates as the ball moves into their space. This might tempt us into playing risky passes in a bid to escape that pressure, which won't work out in our favor. Risky passing from our side is best utilized when in dangerous positions -- moving into the final third, say -- and we need to maintain that approach.
Hesitancy in attacking positions will stymie our play, and overeagerness in the midfield could lead to Sporting KC on the receiving end of turnover-generated chances. It's a difficult balance to strike.
2. Gain control of the ball quickly when out of possession
The best way to both strike that balance and to ensure that difficult moments aren't turned into goals conceded is to minimize the amount of time we spend without the ball. Sporting KC may be nominally a possession side, but their best moments are likely to come quickly after they regain control of the ball. If we do our part to first minimize the frequency of those events, and to regain possession quickly ourselves, we will find ourselves in the ascendancy.
3. Don't let SKC dictate the pace
Much as we will want to avoid succumbing to SKC's high-pressure system, we'll also want to avoid letting them change the pace of the game. One needs only look back to our 2-1 loss to see a classic example of a team capitalizing on a shift in momentum; when Chris Wingert was sent off that day, they were able to slow the game down at will. Their approach play was patient, and though it took seven minutes of stoppage time, they found a breakthrough goal. And it wasn't because they harried us into submission, but because they shifted their play and we failed to meet their transition.
If we remain proactive and attempt to set the pace of the game ourselves, we will find ourselves in a stronger position already. We are not a side that accepts the opposition's pacing, but one that attempts to set the pace themselves -- at least when we do well.
Real Salt Lake and Portland Timbers square off again, and while the last match left this one teetering in RSL's favor, another 90 minutes are needed to protect the two-goal cushion leading to the MLS Cup final.
1. Don't allow Portland to build from wide positions
The Timbers thrive in wide positions cutting inside, and often, you'll find their most dangerous play emanating from channels between the flank and the center. If they're allowed time to build and either drive in a cross or play a ball across the face of the box, they'll be dangerous. Preventing the opposition from finding joy in those areas will be key, but it won't solve everything.
To accomplish this, Our midfielders will need to drop into deep positions in those channels, assisting the full backs in wide defense. If the forwards, too, drop back into defense when needed, two things happen: First, we're rendered more solid when defending without resorting to a line of six or seven players; second, we're put in a good position to exploit the inevitable pockets of space that will appear against an attacking Portland side, and to break forward apace.
2. Build through the middle
It's not that Portland possess any particular vulnerabilities through the middle, but this is how we know how to play. Abandoning that now, especially after it's given us so much joy throughout the season, would be folly. That approach also puts us in the strongest position to win set pieces, which are apparently our new favorite way to score (thank you, Chris Schuler.)
3. Utilize narrow strikers
In recent weeks, Jason Kreis has shifted his deployment of forwards somewhat: Where previously, one of the two was sent into a wide position (Robbie Findley or Joao Plata, typically) while the other was left in a more central position, Kreis is now setting out two strikers in more central positions. We saw this with Devon Sandoval and Robbie Findley against Portland in the first leg, and though it wasn't the first time we saw it, it surely brought us the most success. It seemed prior to the switch that we were attempting to shoehorn in some width to our innately narrow formation -- perhaps it is no surprise that when we returned to a more natural approach, we were successful. This also allows the strikers to combine a bit more, and when one of those isn't Alvaro Saborio, who can typically hold the ball until others join in attack, that could just be vital.
4. Don't give up silly free kicks in good positions
This goes without saying, really. Will Johnson scored from a free kick in a great position against us, and it's something we really should be aware of again. It will take a bit of confidence, but it's something of which we must be aware.
LA Galaxy trends toward a less creative midfield, and even from the flanks this is largely the case. This provides a platform for three or four attacking players to showcase their abilities in tonight's Western Conference Semifinal second leg, and when your primary attacking pair is Landon Donovan and Robbie Keane, there's plenty of that. But with the opponent in a more defensive midfield, RSL will have an opportunity to utilize their creative midfield to attempt a breakthrough.
Javier Morales will look toward finding the gaps between the midfield and the defense, which inevitably pushes back the LA Galaxy midfield a bit too as they attempt to cover his movement. This opens up space in other places, which proves vital. He'll also be important for set pieces, but our reluctancy to capitalize on set pieces won't help us there. He may instead look to go directly at goal with free kicks, and who could blame him? He's scored some screamers.
Sebastian Velasquez is likely to step into Ned Grabavoy's spot on the left, and this will give him room to make diagonal runs to and away from the flanks. He'll need to capitalize in spaces vacated by Morales as he embarks on runs with and without the ball.
Luis Gil will be tasked with a bit more defensive work than usual in Grabavoy's absence, but he too will need to embark on runs. With Tony Beltran to his right, he'll be involved in plenty of interchanges with the fullback as they look to move the ball forward from the right.
Kyle Beckerman will need to be as aware as ever but eminently willing to capitalize on opportunities to break forward. His passing is never in question, and that'll be vital tonight.
Tony Beltran, as above, will need to work with Luis Gil on the right flank to move the ball forward, but he'll also need to make those overlapping runs on the right side to be effective. But beyond that, he'll have to be ready to burst back in defense. He showed incredibly well against Landon Donovan last weekend, and he'll almost surely have to do so again.
Chris Schuler will, with any luck, not be forced into so many last-ditch tackles and clearances. Instead, we'll be hoping for some balance from Schuler as he steps forward to make an interception before splaying the ball to a full back.
Alvaro Saborio pushes the side forward in important ways, but his biggest role will be in helping the midfield transition into the attack. It's a role that is masked by his goalscoring contributions (which are equally important and follow as a result of this play) — his distributive properties may not lead to high-percentage passing, but he is a chance creator.
His mystery partner remains in question. Robbie Findley offers speed, which is an obviously important factor, but he also offers a willingness to track back and at pace. Joao Plata, on the other hand, offers more finesse in attack but less counterattacking opportunity. In most factors, they end up at about sixes. Olmes Garcia offers a more mysterious option, but it's hard to see him starting, as he hasn't made the bench for the last few matches.
Stopping LA Galaxy — Robbie Keane and Landon Donovan are the chief targets, but others remain dangerous — is not a simple task. But that's exactly the task Real Salt Lake will be tasked with on Sunday when they launch their playoff campaign.
It's of real importance that the opposition midfielders be allowed minimal time on the ball. The more time Galaxy midfielders (and forwards dropping into deep positions) are given to find a killer pass, the greater the likelihood that we'll concede a goal. This doesn't necessitate the high pressure one might expect from other sides in MLS — instead, we can keep the same pressuring tactics we normally deploy, with our pressure increasing as the opponent nears our half. By approaching it in this way, we can avoid problems stemming from late overcommitment.
Following from that, we must also avoid getting hit in transition phases: We're facing a side that finds great joy in those moments. As a relevant example, three of their four goals they scored in a 4-2 win against us came with few of their players even in our half, let alone involved in the attack. It's a style that's afforded to them by the great individual skill of a few players and the willingness by others to remain in defensive positions during those moments. When your counterattack runs essentially three or four on six opposition players and ends in a goal scored, you're likely to find greater success.
Because of the threat offered by LA Galaxy on set pieces, RSL will need to be slightly more cautious when playing in the opposition half than they'd prefer to be. Creativity is a must, but an awareness of danger and willingness to sprint back to recover — from all players and not just those with more defensive roles — is necessary. As such, we must be willing to exercise patience in the opposition half, and in the final third we must take our chances quickly. Anything else presents too much risk for an unlikely reward.
Saturday's match against FC Dallas pits a team desperate for a win and a chance at making the playoffs, the Texas side, and a team with one last chance to push for a chance at the Supporters' Shield, the Utah side. The difference becomes rather moot: Both are going to be fighting tooth and nail for a chance.
Jason Kreis told reporters after Tuesday's loss that he had to consider recent results when concocting the group that will take us into the playoffs. That won't be an easy task. Some have been very, very good; others have been poor at best. But when some of those excellent players are young and inconsistent, and some of those poor players are veterans and generally more consistent than not, you've got to wonder if the world has simply gone topsy-turvy for a month.
But it remains the case that we have a deep squad, and we have little reason to not use it now. We may as well throw all of the noodles at the wall to see what sticks, and Jason Kreis undoubtedly recognizes that. So who might he play on Saturday?
Chris Schuler will certainly get another run out, and maybe he'll be partnered by Brandon McDonald again. Both players showed well a week ago, and the calm with which they steadied the back line was admirable. Abdoulie Mansally might get a run on the left, and Lovel Palmer might get a run on the right. (I'd wager one or the other and not both.) Robbie Findley might be back in contention after a knee problem seemed to have kept him out of Tuesday. Finally, Luis Gil will almost assuredly be back in the lineup after having an emergency appendectomy on Sunday. (I mean, really — can't these kids keep their appendixes (appendices?) under control for a day?)
Speed demons, and how to slay them
The immediate options are thus: 1) Run an offside trap, or 2) Play a deeper defensive line to halt opportunities.
If we're playing a less experienced defensive setup, the offside trap seems an unwise gambit. A deeper defensive line, though, would create greater gaps between the defense and the midfield, which brings with it its own set of tactical issues.
But at this point in the season, the only direction in which we can really travel is upward, and only if we string together a great run of results. Our playoff spot is very nearly secured, and a proactive approach is necessary if we're to aim for a Supporters' Shield surprise.
It's a risky thing, but when you need a win, you really have to play for a win, consequences be damned. Let's move the defenders forward, be prepared for Dallas to break with pace, and let the match be its inevitably open self.
Real Salt Lake faces D.C. United in what is perhaps the most anticipated match of the last two years, and it's one Jason Kreis and his team will be hoping to put to bed easily. But that's rarely as simple as it seems, despite their opposition's wholly dismal form in MLS.
Form: What is it good for?
If you've guessed that the answer is something close to "absolutely nothing," then you're right on track. It's not really that form means nothing, but that when we're talking about the biggest matches, form won't dictate anything on a grand scale. Quality players step up for games of this nature. There's nothing controversial about that. We've had trouble in the past in these circumstances, but again: Form, even over the longer term, doesn't mean a thing.
Who plays? One major choice remains
If Saturday's defeat of Vancouver Whitecaps (which, I might add, was quite nice) is any indication, and it surely is, then we'll see as strong a lineup as we've seen all season. The only player who would seem a real doubt, Alvaro Saborio, is back, having trained for at least a week now.
But there remains one question: Who plays in the midfield alongside the Beckerman, Grabavoy and Morales trio? Luis Gil has just come off a superb 90-minute performance on the weekend; Sebastian Velasquez the same. Both played heavily in the Reserve League game during the week. This leaves Khari Stephenson as the obvious choice, but as we've seen so often, the obvious choice is so often the one not taken. Luis Gil is hardly out of the running.
Stephenson adds some great work, a calm head, and a great long shot. It perhaps should be noted that he's won an Open Cup before — a champion with Kansas City in 2004.
Gil adds more attacking movement and combination, which is essential to the way we play. He also would come into the match with some renewed confidence, having been the midfield boss throughout Saturday.
The pass-and-move fabric of our side is an important factor: Stephenson is decidedly less mobile (owing in part to his stature and in part to his style of play) than Gil. He isn't a player that fits neatly into our system the way Gil does at current — a testament to Gil's development at Real Salt Lake, surely.
But that, on its own, isn't the determining factor: Stephenson adds new variables to the equation, and it's tempting to deploy that business buzzword, disruption, to the element he would bring. And maybe we should: By allowing us another type of option, Stephenson disrupts the tendency we have to end up in a desperate spot on the flank, flinging ball after ball into the box. He'll stick more centrally, he'll stay calm, and he'll try to find a sane — if not spectacular — pass.
Setting out on the front foot
If there's one thing that's universally agreed upon about this D.C. United side, it's that allowing them to play their game yields dividends for the opposition. The "inevitable mistake," as a group of United podcasters and bloggers described it during a conversation I had with them tonight, will come, and it'll push their chances to something approaching zero.
We won't give them the opportunity to make that mistake. Not easily, at least. At home, with Jason Kreis as our manager, we aim to control nearly everything that comes our way. We lead the league in passes per possession. We make the game ours and not the opponents. Even with the weakness of our opponent, there's little chance we break from that. This is who we are, and we'll continue our unabashed approach.
That's of course to our benefit. There's little point in completely changing the way we play. Responding to our opponents is one thing; playing to exploit one specific weakness is another. We'll play to exploit multiple weaknesses in the midfield and defense, and if it works out, we'll have a very strong chance of coming out victorious on the other side.
We didn't get here by not being us. It's been a difficult road, and the final won't be easy. But we're not going to abandon that road now — not right at the end.
Real Salt Lake faces Vancouver Whitecaps on Saturday with a bit of a quandary on their hands: Play a weakened side and risk a loss, or play a strong side and risk losing the U.S. Open Cup Final on Tuesday?
Return to approach
The first and perhaps foremost thing Real Salt Lake must focus on for Saturday's match is returning to the approach that's brought them so much joy through the season. Too often, they've set out to do something, but, after finding themselves down a goal, looked to force the occasion. It's not what they train week-in, week-out to do, and as a result, they're not particularly good at it.
So at the top of Jason Kreis's list will be convincing his side that, if the going gets tough, they must continue to attack in sane, non-panicky ways: Keep the ball on the ground, build connective play, and work as a unit. The individualistic approaches showcased last weekend was not the solution to our ills, and though they might be natural and somewhat sane reactions to the compact defense we saw, they were ineffective.
The necessity of rotation
This is no time in the season to be rotating, but we've found ourselves in a situation where it's necessary. That's a good thing, as the impetus is the U.S. Open Cup Final on Tuesday (ahem, buy tickets, et cetera), which, we'll all agree, is a good thing to have happen. And it's at home, which is even better, as you won't be able to watch it otherwise. But with Saturday on the road, a two-games-in-three-day stretch might be too much to ask of even the most seasoned of players.
Should we lose Saturday, we're in a precarious position for the playoffs. Should we lose Tuesday, we'll have missed another chance at a trophy. Obviously enough, the goal is to lose at neither asking, but the approach required is difficult. We can't put too many of those likely to start Tuesday out there on Saturday — or indeed, even on the plane today — lest we risk tiring them out prematurely.
So a much-changed lineup is inevitable. Balancing those players who might be able to play in both matches with those who might be on the bench is a difficult task. But sending Nick Rimando, Nat Borchers, Kyle Beckerman, Alvaro Saborio, Ned Grabavoy, and Javier Morales? I wouldn't count on that. Those players are ostensibly the core of our soccer identity, but we'll need to rely on our much-vaunted depth to make it through this difficult stretch.
It's a funny thing when a future match dictates a match immediately at hand, but that's the nature of playing for trophies. It's difficult, it's arduous, and it comes bundled with a great deal of risk. But if we want to stand a fighting chance to continue in both, it will take some real work.
Briefly, a slew of young players will likely see the pitch on Saturday. Sebastian Velasquez can be expected to play at the top of the diamond, where he's continually impressed for the reserves. Yordany Alvarez should be at the base of the diamond, and his strong passing and breakup play will be strongly needed against this Whitecaps side hunting for a playoff spot. Brandon McDonald could be called into action for the first time since the 3-3 draw against Portland (particularly as he's cup-tied and can't play Tuesday).
It'll be a mixed lineup, no doubt, but one imminently capable of putting a two-game losing streak behind this side. It's all about depth, isn't it?