Two of the best sides in recent MLS memory face each other when RSL takes on Sporting Kansas City this weekend, and that we're involved in that is a testament to the progress we've made this season — but playing SKC always presents some difficult considerations.
Watching some of the more positive moments — those that resulted in goals and those that didn't — against FC Dallas last weekend, the importance of the ever-vaunted pass-and-move strategy came to bear. By forcing defenders and midfielders to follow the ball consistently, quick, dangerous players like Olmes Garcia and Joao Plata can come in late in the match and tear the opposition apart. It should also be noted that Real Salt Lake's goals on the break this season — of which there have been a fair few — have come as a result of that movement. When five, six, even seven attackers end up in the attacking third, the odds of a goal should naturally increase.
Despite conceding some chances while dominating matches, Jason Kreis's side have displayed an undeniable desire to win the ball quickly after turning it over, particularly outside of the defensive third. Being caught of position there is dangerous, while being caught out of position as an attacking midfielder is generally less so. Though there is a bit of danger associated with a high pressure system, the risks are outweighed by the gains. Against a strong defensive side like Sporting Kansas City, it will be imminently important to apply that sort of pressure. They'll have a result to expose the Kansas City defense to holes emanating from the absence of Matt Besler — and to expose the whole squad to the oft-discussed altitude consideration in Salt Lake City.
I feel as though I've written this little bit about 100 times this season already, but it bears repeating: RSL will have to deal with rotating due to injury. This time, we'll be without central defender Carlos Salcedo (although next time we're with him, we'll have Carlos Salcedo without his gallbladder, and perhaps that's good) and goalkeeper Josh Saunders. That's slightly problematic, but their replacements already have time: Both Aaron Maund and Jeff Attinella have seen a bit of time — Maund a bit more — and that's got to help the nerves.
Going to Texas and notching a win on our belt is no easy feat, but a 3-0 win over FC Dallas while deploying an untested formation? It's the stuff of dreams for Real Salt Lake, and we can point to tactics if we're looking for a cause.
At least on paper, it looked like was rolling out a 4-2-3-1, and parts of it made a good deal of sense. Luis Gil and Sebastian Velasquez played in wide attacking roles on either side of Javier Morales, and Robbie Findley operated as the lone forward. The attacking midfielders, on paper, seemed a fantastic use of personnel, while Findley's operating up top on his lonesome seemed a strange decision.
It didn't quite work out that way. Velasquez and Gil struggled to get heavily involved, and perhaps it was the unfamiliarity of the role that was problematic for the pair. Both thrive when they have passing options closer to them, and that simply wasn't the case. To connect well, Ned Grabavoy and Yordany Alvarez both had to push higher up the pitch, and Morales would have to swing to either side.
While both youngsters are capable of picking up the ball and running at players, it's not exactly a trait that fits the system — we thrive moving the ball from the inside-out while high up the pitch, then back in again to create danger — Saturday was a case of moving the ball outside deeper, then attempting to bring it back in again. This allowed defending wide players to stop the movement before any momentum could be had.
It was perhaps telling that Javier Morales had one of his finer games of the last three years, and his goal and assist (or, if you're including second assists, then he had two) were a mark of his work. Perhaps this came from the wider players occupying defenders more, giving Morales more time and space on the ball.
On a surface level, it would appear the formation worked, but it's difficult to say to what extent. A single win — or loss — doesn't speak to a formation's worth. But it is encouraging that Jason Kreis, typically a stalwart of the diamond 4-4-2, has significantly experimented with other formations this season. The tactical flexibility this affords should keep opponents guessing a bit more and less able to deploy a stymying tactical plan.
A discussion of the match wouldn't be complete without a note on Jason Kreis's key substitutions, as they really shifted the match in RSL's favor. By stepping back into the 4-4-2 and bringing Joao Plata on for Velasquez, the defense was forced to adapt; Plata's ability to run at players has wide impact.
And Olmes Garcia on for Robbie Findley really sounded the death knells for Dallas — with Findley having tired the defense for 70 minutes, Garcia came on and was handed an exhausted defense. With Dallas looking to recover a bit, they wanted to push players forward: Garcia didn't allow that. He picked up the ball in key positions and ran at defenders, he closed down superbly, and by and large, he was a player that impacted the game in a significant way.
Missing a handful of top players, Real Salt Lake travels this Saturday to FC Dallas, where they've never found a win. Absences won't make it impossible, but expecting it to get easier as a result would be a bit of madness.
A whole host of players will be rather notably absent for this one: Alvaro Saborio, Kyle Beckerman, Tony Beltran, and Nick Rimando will all be busy in Salt Lake City (funny thing, fate), and Lovel Palmer is out through suspension after his dubious red card against Philadelphia. That doesn't exactly make the occasion easier, particularly with Kwame Watson-Siriboe and Chris Schuler out with injury. Shifting players around will be a tricky task.
The key position that might throw things off: right back. Beltran's absence is conspicuous, and Palmer's hurts in light of that. Perhaps Jason Kreis will opt to move Chris Wingert to the right side, deploying Abdoulie Mansally on the left — that would seem the most reasonable of options. But Carlos Salcedo and Enzo Martinez have both played significant minutes for the reserves at right back, and perhaps this is an opportunity to test things a bit.
Strike pairs and absences
We've played more pairs of strikers than one would expect, but Robbie Findley and Joao Plata may just get the nod with Saborio's international duty cutting into things — but not significantly more than usual, as the Costa Rican has played fewer than half the available matches this season. The debate rages on about RSL's best pairing: Plata and Findley are not just the speed demon options, but something more intricate that requires the entirety of the midfield be ticking over.
Throwing an Olmes Garcia into the mix obviates that a bit, as he'll run at players and pick up possession all over the pitch, creating dangerous moments along the way. At this point, he's less a system player than he is a fantastic one, though it should be noted that is essentially the goal with him — to exist outside of the system, or at least to stretch and bend it, perhaps nearly to the point of breaking. That sort of disruption is essential in finding the best on-the-field solutions.
Devon Sandoval offers something altogether different, and that's an approximation of our playing style with Saborio in the side. He's clearly a different player, but his playing style is as close as we can come without the veteran striker in the side. As he develops into a stronger, more efficient player, perhaps the best pairing will involve Sandoval.
But for now, Garcia and Plata paired together — especially considering the absences in the side — might make the most sense. Garcia's raw skill and desire to control play from the flanks lessens the impact of Beltran's absence at right back, and it affords an opportunity to combine with Abdoulie Mansally up the left side, should he make the starting lineup.
Demons in Dallas
This is less a tactical adjustment as, say, one that's rather intuitive. We must be acutely focused on the task at hand, and with the numerous replacements to be featured, that's not going to be the easiest of feats. With Dallas struggling after a strong start, having now only two wins from their last 10 matches (having won six of their first 9), the opportunity might just be there for the taking.
On the back of a match struck by experimentation, Jason Kreis's side has been hit once again by international absences. Heading into tomorrow's match against the Philadelphia Union, the concerns weigh on the mind, but solid squad depth should play an easing role.
The 4-3-3: Did it work?
When we take a look back at last weekend, we will rightly wonder if the switch to a 4-3-3 worked. It's a difficult question to answer with the sort of win we found, as it wasn't particularly a win that was down to the system. That said, we saw that it has some potential, particularly in pushing players in wide areas. It did lack a bit of thrust from the midfield, and the strikers were increasingly isolated; whether this is down to a systemic issue or to personnel is difficult to say without further evidence.
That noted, we're not likely to see it again tomorrow unless we're making a second-half adjustment. It would be reasonable to assume that Jason Kreis wasn't looking to change the diamond, but to explore other options for adjustments as needed.
Absence makes the heart grow something-something
Four incredibly important players will be absent for this match and for a few more: Nick Rimando, Tony Beltran, Kyle Beckerman, and Alvaro Saborio are all off with international absences, and when you're missing four crucial players, things get — shall we say — tricky. Continuity becomes an issue, as does a drop-off in performance. But critically, some tactical decisions will be involved as well.
Josh Saunders may be a fine goalkeeper, but Nick Rimando is superb when playing with a high-line defense in front of him, as he is quick and good with his feet. Saunders is less of both of those things, though he is certainly a good shot-stopper. A bit more caution from the defenders will be necessitated, and perhaps this will force the defensive midfielder to sit back a little further to allow less room to exploit.
Yordany Alvarez, who will almost certainly be in for Beckerman, lacks the vision and precision of Beckerman, but his break-up play is superb, and he's not a slouch in attack. With him dropping back, the outside midfielders will need to tuck in a bit more, and the full backs will need to push a bit more forward to snuff out wide play.
Saborio's absence certainly affects the attack, but as importantly as anything, he serves as an escape for the midfield and defense in difficult situations. While he may lose the ball from a high-risk pass, his position higher up the pitch obviates much of the risk faced when the opposition receives the ball in dangerous positions. Without him in the side, the ball is more likely to be played to strikers in wide positions, which are more difficult to attack from for a side like ours.
Patching the holes
Those absences aren't damning. Saunders, Palmer and Alvarez should slot in rather naturally, even if things change as a result. All permutations of our striking pairs are now tested and have their positives and negatives, so Saborio's absence is not nearly so worrying. The defense is solidifying after a fine performance from Aaron Maund. It's all getting there — but while we're patching holes, we want to be succeeding through the summer glut.
Toronto FC, like Carolina Railhawks, are probably going to sit back a bit tomorrow. And by a bit, I certainly mean a lot: At this point, a point for Toronto FC would be a favorable result. As a result, the two matches could take on a similar look from the outset.
Obviously Toronto FC and Carolina Railhawks are sides with rather different makeups, and there's little doubt that Canadian side will field their best possible team. But with some real deficiencies from Toronto this season (and in previous seasons, perhaps a bit sadly), they may well approach things in a similar fashion.
How'd it work against Carolina?
Lower-league opposition, as said so often, can be tricky to handle. Evidence of that can be seen in the Railhawks, who, even with a weakened side, kept RSL from gaining too much advantage. The chances weren't flowing, and it was through a bit of magic — and a perceptive strike from Tony Beltran — that the scoring opened up. An unmarked player out wide cutting inside is a valuable tool against a bunkering opposition, as it disrupts man-marking efforts and can often allow an open look at goal. It just takes that extra bit of sharpness to finish the goal — something Beltran showed in droves — and RSL can take the front foot.
Carrying form forward
Real Salt Lake are a side to be feared (or at least fretted about), such is the resplendency of their recent form, but that so rarely means much once the match kicks off. The onus, then, is on Jason Kreis's side to push on with things and to ignore form in favor of attention to detail. While that's fine from a conceptual point, that's not quite specific enough to practice.
Onus up front
When the opposition deploys with a defense-first strategy in mind, it's vital that the attacking players stretch play as much as possible. With Alvaro Saborio out, having again left for international duty, the forwards will be of a somewhat quicker make — perhaps a Findley-Plata pairing would be in order, as both would be capable of quickly stretching play on both axes. This shouldn't be undervalued, even if no striker scores tomorrow: It's about the chances that emerge from other players capitalizing on the stretched nature of the defense.
Continuing a fine U.S. Open Cup run which has surely frustrated and delighted Jason Kreis in equal measure, Real Salt Lake faces yet another side from the lower leagues in the form of Carolina Railhawks on Wednesday at Rio Tinto Stadium. With both preceding matches in this run-up having taken 120 minutes to run their course, Kreis will be looking to ensure his side wins in regulation.
But how can it be done? It's simple, really. Stretch the play but don't get stretched yourself. And insofar as it is simple, it is also a difficult task, and one which requires a concerted effort to really pull together in a cohesive manner, as it invariably involves a slew of moving parts.
Let's start with some base-level assumptions: Carolina Railhawks will come in looking to win. That's an easy one. Perhaps the most tried-and-true method — and one that has nearly felled us twice in this competition this season alone — is to leave defenders and midfielders in retreated positions while one or (if they're feeling adventurous) two attackers attempt to capitalize on gaps in the defense. Let's operate under this assumption, as it seems the most likely.
The first question that must be answered: How can Real Salt Lake avoid getting caught in possession? The chances will likely spawn from Railhawks clearances or long passes from the defensive third, and they'll probably come after a good chance for an RSL attacker is scuppered at the last minute. It's when we'll be most eager to win the ball back (and naturally so) and we're more likely to commit somebody forward in search of regaining possession. And why not? Their defenders will almost certainly be on the back leg. But this creates a difficult scenario: If one or two players commit errors, the odds of a goal against skyrocket. If Carlos Salcedo or Nat Borchers makes an error there, the ball is free for the taking and even a moderately quick striker will be in on goal in no time. It's easy to simply say something like "Just don't make mistakes, boys," and hope that it works, but we all know (I would hope) that it's not so simple.
One solution, then: When the ball is lost in a good attacking area, retain confidence that you will soon be creating another and allow the opposition a little bit of harmless possession before regaining the ball; instead of pressing even harder than before, drop into more reasonable positions such that the defense is better supported. It's an exercise in prudence, and it's one we have sometimes suffered from. It's a difficult ask when you're among the best in the league at what you do — press hard in the midfield, gain possession, and create chances when the opposition isn't quite ready.
So now that we've quite obviously solved that unenviable task (sarcasm included for free here), let's move on to the other difficult question to answer: How can Real Salt Lake score goals without intense pressure in the attacking third to force errors? When the midfield and defense merge into one gelatinous (but remarkably solid) blob, the metaphorical parking of the bus makes goal creation intensely difficult.
The answer is simple, but the execution is certainly less so. The strikers, who are more likely to be attracting the attention of the central defenders, should be trading moments of stretching play laterally, drawing defenders wide or forcing a zonal shift. The former option allows more runs into the middle from midfielders; the latter allows unprotected full backs to get into play more readily. With one striker remaining in a central position and the other wide, a late run from anyone deeper than Javier Morales could lead to a tantalizing opportunity.
Lower-league opponents in the U.S. are nearly always a tricky bag, and Charleston Battery further exemplified this rule. Compact, decisive, and quick, the Battery gave everyone a good scare when they scored the first two goals of the match. The question, then: How did Real Salt Lake adjust for their comeback?
Everyone got better. This is easy to say and hard to do, and it doesn't say much of anything from a tactical perspective. That said, it's difficult to execute any tactical decisions when you're looking at the worst you've been in some time. Everybody stepped up their quality in the second half.
A center back was removed. With the impetus on Real Salt Lake to get back into the affair, and with the Battery quite rightly sitting very deep and hoping to fend off an undoubtedly inevitable onslaught, two defenders almost seemed extraneous. Making his first club appearance — an admittedly poor one at that — Aaron Maund stepped off shortly into the second half and Jason Kreis switched the formation.
It took a quintessential attacking 3-4-3 to really break down the Battery defense. Joao Plata and Robbie Findley occupied the attacking flanks, with Devon Sandoval serving as a target man and grabbing two headed goals along the way. Javier Morales and Ned Grabavoy served as the more-attacking midfielders (they really did all attack) and Khari Stephenson and Kyle Beckerman sat deeper and more centrally. Chris Wingert tucked in slightly centrally to position himself better for runs down the middle, and Tony Beltran bombed forward from right back to stretch play.
We stretched play superbly. When we face a hyper-defensive side — and again, there's not an ounce of blame in that for Charleston in their strategy — we have historically struggled to break them down. With Findley and Plata wide to stretch play laterally and Devon Sandoval to stretch along the vertical axis, it became difficult for Charleston to ignore any of those three players up top. Given their proclivity for staying in central positions, this opened room for Plata and Findley to receive clever passes from the midfield and cut inside. Even when they weren't involved in goalscoring movement like that, both players were important to the fightback.
Real Salt Lake's continued run in the US Open Cup presents its own tactical problems, from the need for rotation to questions about how both the defense and attack will deal with a certain-to-be-resolute Charleston Battery defense.
There are two well-balanced opinions that play into a match like this: In one, the impetus on Kreis should be about rotation and ensuring squad fitness; in the other, the impetus is the opposite, and he should roll out a squad best-fitted to win. The point of balance lies somewhere between the two, but with a weekend off for once, it's difficult to argue if veterans play all 90 (and hopefully a positive 90 and not a negative 90 or a nail-biting 120) against Charleston Battery.
But some rotation will happen naturally. Sebastian Velasquez is a sure-starter in the midfield, and he may just take the place of Luis Gil with no other general changes to the setup. Devon Sandoval might get another chance to start up top after a fine performance in the last round of the Cup. Carlos Salcedo and Kwame Watson-Siriboe, too, may get another chance to partner, allowing Nat Borchers a rest.
Push and Pull
Real Salt Lake has been incredibly successful in moments of transition this season (when, of course, the transition if rom defense to attack) and one might attribute a number of our goals to that fact. But this becomes difficult to manage effectively when the opposition plays withdrawn, and our mode of scoring has to shift. With a tricky midfielder or two — Velasquez and the ever-effective Javier Morales — Charleston's midfield and defense will be kept busy; this leaves important spaces for forwards to run into.
Devon Sandoval could be incredibly effective against this level of side, as well. He's still adjusting to MLS play (though remarkably well, it must be said) but he has a golden opportunity to get in the heads of the Battery defense. With midfield runs occupying some attention, the remainder might be shifted to him, leaving a free forward. His uncanny ability to retain the ball and make a safe if unexciting pass can sometimes be an effect of tentative play, but it's this sort of passing and movement that will have the biggest impact on a less-able defense. He'll push and pull defenders out of position — it's important that he makes the right decisions in that regard.
How many times have we conceded an unnecessary goal at some point in the match simply because it looked like our collective minds were elsewhere? We saw it in the last round of the Open Cup: We can't go around conceding cheap goals and risking a loss or even another overtime excursion. With bodies bursting forward in efforts to score and unlock what may be a staunch defense, the match becomes more difficult to manage.
It'll be vital that, when everyone is forward, the three or so defenders that have stayed back are in good positions to recover and can communicate danger to their teammates. Otherwise, we may be looking at another match where we're on the cusp of something great, but mistakes see us caught out.
Three key absences for Real Salt Lake sounds a difficult proposition to handle, but options for each position — in the midfield, in defense, and up front — could mean RSL is in a better tactical position than one might readily imagine ahead of Saturday's home match against LA.
No Luis Gil means we'll be looking for a midfielder to take his place. Two options readily present themselves: Sebastian Velasquez has shown well this season and is stepping up in the system, but Khari Stephenson provides veteran experience and looked strong last week. The most reasonable approach, to my mind: Stephenson starts, Velasquez comes off the bench. Stephenson can manage the game well in midfield and provide a safe outlet; Velasquez can come on late and be his creative, spark self.
No Chris Schuler leads to a continuation with either Kwame Watson-Siriboe or Carlos Salcedo. Both have showed well so far, and Watson-Siriboe was massive against a pesky San Jose side. Watson-Siriboe had a rocky start to his season, but should he continue to impress, worries about an injured Chris Schuler might ease somewhat. Carlos Salcedo is a natural bench option with an eye on a Wednesday start.
No Alvaro Saborio leaves us again wondering about a tactical scenario. Is the Plata-Findley pairing for real? Can it work? It's hard to deny that chances have been created, and Saturday saw us looking somewhat near very, very good. Olmes Garcia could be an option but is likely to be eased back from injury, while Devon Sandoval might not yet be the sort of player that can dominate the Galaxy defense. But Plata-Findley presents its own challenges from a tactical perspective, but if those can be overcome, it's hard to argue with the selection.
It all leaves Real Salt Lake in an interesting position against one of MLS's better sides, but it leaves a good tactical position open. With the tendencies of Plata and Findley to drift wide, opportunities for midfielders emerge. Javier Morales is in fine form, Ned Grabavoy is in the best goalscoring form of his career, Khari Stephenson has a cannon of a foot and Kyle Beckerman can swing in the late shots himself.
The surprise? The Findley-Plata pairing could be one of our better options up front, regardless of injury concerns and international duty. The win against San Jose, however poor they've been this season, is partly owed to the results of effective movement up top, drawing defenders into poor positions and creating channels for midfield runs. Seeing more of that on Saturday would be precisely the sort of thing RSL needs to handle the Galaxy.