With the season heating up awfully early with Rivalry Week entering the fray in the third week of play, Real Salt Lake will face the slightly struggling Colorado Rapids. Jason Kreis will have decisions to make to counter the strong-passing Rapids.
Abdoulie Mansally is out after being (rightly) suspended for the match by the league, leaving a gaping hole at left back. Lovel Palmer is likely to step in, and with him comes some tactical uncertainty. For all Mansally's ails when he bursts forward on the left, his interceptions in advanced positions are vital to our tactical approach. With Palmer in the side, perhaps Tony Beltran pushes a bit higher up and we shift our attack a bit more to the right side.
Ned Grabavoy has a chance to make the lineup after returning to the squad this week, although there's a chance he wouldn't be starting, as he missed significant training minutes and two matches. If he does, expect Khari Stephenson to drop to the bench, as he and Grabavoy fill vaguely similar tactical roles in the side. Stephenson has fared reasonably well during his first two matches for the club, proving a good tackler and a nice link-up player, but Grabavoy brings more to the table, as well as a greater understanding with his teammates.
Desperately seeking balance
Perhaps it's not balance qua balance we're seeking, as we've got that already — the midfield is balanced but perhaps at the wrong spot. Luis Gil, Sebastian Velasquez, and Khari Stephenson have, in the first two matches, been excellent at maintaining possession, but none of the three has put in the attacking thrust we've really needed.
With Javier Morales still out with injury, somebody will need to step forward and really push play up the pitch. Grabavoy may not be the man to do that particularly, but he'll help. Velasquez can do it, but as he's generally on the side, won't influence play as much as a playmaker in the middle would. Gil's the best option, and judging by the final 30 minutes of his performance against D.C. United, it's one he's capable of. He simply needs to assert himself more out there — it'll come as a natural result.
Rapid passing patterns
Fascinatingly, Colorado has lost their first two matches having out passed the opponent by a considerable margin, in both matches completing nearly double the passes of their opponent. In both, they even took their fair share of shots. Jason Kreis's side will need to be aware of the danger here.
The solution seems simple: Don't allow Colorado to control the match. Though they haven't succeeded by doing so, they haven't been entirely far off. Stymying those passing rhythms and controlling the match in a safe, sensible manner should be of the highest priority.
A 1-0 loss on the road early in the season should never be a particularly devastating result; instead, it should be looked at as an opportunity to learn and correct mistakes. In comparing the first 60 minutes and the final 30 minutes of Saturday's match against D.C. United, Real Salt Lake has just that chance.
After conceding to D.C. United, Real Salt Lake upped their game considerably. As a quick statistical example, they completed more passes in the final third of the match than they did in the first two-thirds — and while we can certainly look to a more comfortable United side as a reason why, it can hardly be the only factor. Luis Gil was particularly improved after the goal, getting more readily involved in play and even dictating it a bit.
RSL took considerably more shots as well — to the tune of a whopping two in the first 60 minutes and seven in the final 30. Whether this was down to a tentative quality in attack or an inability to control possession in the midfield is difficult to say. When that goal was scored, though, the match changed. Although the right chance never really cropped up, the improvement rightly won praise from Jason Kreis after the match.
Midfield linking play
One issue that plagued RSL through the first 60 minutes was the lack of a distinct link between the forwards and the midfield. Under normal conditions, this would be Javier Morales, but given that he's not yet back with full fitness, Kreis looked toward Luis Gil for answers. Let's be clear about this: Leading up to the goal, most RSL players were fairly poor. Luis Gil had failed to get involved, Sebastian Velasquez had completed as many passes as he missed and Robbie Findley couldn't find the ball.
But Luis Gil has a certain responsibility — as do the midfielders next to him — to act as that connective piece and supply Alvaro Saborio and Robbie Findley. It's an approach Luis Gil will hopefully grow into as a midfielder: He needs to continue injecting himself in every aspect of play. In the long term, we can be hopeful, because in that final 30 minutes, we saw glimpses of that.
Abdoulie (née Kenny) Mansally has attracted some negative attention in the past two matches for being a defensive liability, but Saturday was more positive than perhaps indicated by his substitution. To the eye, he seemed slightly poor — perhaps even a little panicked. But he brings something most full backs can't. A tactically fascinating player, Mansally's marauding runs on the left allow him to intercept the ball in dangerous positions and spring play.
Although he's very quick, Mansally encounters trouble at times when play comes down his side after he's committed higher up the pitch. This is somewhat inevitable give his playing style, but it also underlines a certain tactical naivety that Jason Kreis and company will be hoping Mansally develops away from.
Two goals on the road saw Real Salt Lake victorious on Sunday night over last season's Supporters' Shield winners in San Jose Earthquakes. The key pieces: a top-class midfield performance and a relatively straightforward second-half switch.
Taking a glance at the chalkboards for Sunday's victory shows a distinctly Kyle Beckerman-shaped hole just ahead of our defense. Real Salt Lake's captain impressed not through intense tackling, hard challenges or your typical defensive midfielder attributes, but as a disruptor of movement. The subtlety of his performance saw Beckerman putting the right pressure on the San Jose attack at the right times, leaving them to attack through other channels — all of them harder to profit from.
Disruption without the tackling one normally associates with an anchor man is a difficult ask. Beckerman handled it with aplomb. Of course, even for all his defensive contributions, who can forget that outside-of-the-foot, no-look pass for Alvaro Saborio's second goal?
The diamond, flattened
The midfield, anchored as usual by Beckerman, saw three nominally attacking players in the thick of it. Luis Gil, Khari Stephenson and Sebastian Velasquez played in a relative flat line just behind the attacking third, with Gil ostensibly in the center, Stephenson on the left, and Velasquez on the right. Of course, all three switched spots throughout.
As a result, San Jose's midfield was pushed and pulled across the pitch, with Velasquez and Stephenson stretching play both horizontally and vertically. All three are quite capable of darting around the pitch and sending inventive passes to forwards, which surely played on the minds of the opposition — particularly with former Earthquakes midfielder Khari Stephenson pulling the strings from the left side.
By keeping the San Jose midfield and back line busy through the first half, spaces were opened in the second half as both sides tired. One substitution saw Real Salt Lake take advantage of that: Joao Plata's entrance in the 65th minute, on for Robbie Findley, changed the match.
Findley's efforts saw the field stretched and defenders pulled around, but San Jose generally coped well. Plata's arrival saw the (quite) diminutive striker deeper in play than Findley, and his potential kinetic energy (er, his speed, should he have used it) undoubtedly frightened defenders. In the end, though, it wasn't his speed that changed the match but his propensity for popping up in deeper unmarked positions.
Plata for Findley is a relatively straightforward substitution on the face of things: Both are quick, crafty players and will stretch play. San Jose didn't cope with the switch, Plata was able to sneak into an unmarked spot to receive a long ball from Kenny Mansally, and with a deft pass, released the always-surprisingly-quick Alvaro Saborio for the goal. The rest, as they say, is history.
Sunday's season opener is the first chance Real Salt Lake has to seek revenge on last year's three bitter losses to San Jose Earthquakes, but with both sides suffering from significant injury problems, the season opener is filled with question marks — and opportunity.
Defending long balls
San Jose is — shall we say — not the most sophisticated team in the league. They aren't known for swashbuckling play, nor for inventive attacking. There's nothing particularly wrong with this: They have an effective style for the players in their group, and their 2012 Supporters' Shield speaks toward that. A style of play involving long balls over the top — perhaps service for newly DP-ized Chris Wondolowski, perhaps to one Steven Lenhart — requires attention from the central defenders.
Chris Schuler and Kwame Watson-Siriboe, likely the starting pair on Sunday, are both very good in the air, but they'll need to ensure they're alive to things coming at them. A veteran head like Nat Borchers would be useful here, but these two are more than capable — it's just a matter of proper communication and defensive understanding. Additionally, RSL captain Kyle Beckerman's likely to be called upon heavily to retrieve loose balls knocked down, then he'll need to quickly distribute to wider areas to push play forward.
Top of the diamond
With Luis Gil returning to camp — no, wait — the team (a glorious feeling not having to use preseason terms!), Jason Kreis's decision about who to play at the top of the diamond became a bit more complicated. With Javier Morales out, the immediate choice for a replacement isn't entirely clear.
Gil hasn't trained much with the team as yet, but fitness isn't a concern, and he knows the side well. Some would say he represents a better option on the side of the diamond; that may be true in relation to the players on hand, but the coaching staff — and Tab Ramos, US U-20s coach — value him as a more traditional playmaker in the number 10 spot.
Sebastian Velasquez presents perhaps the best on-the-ball option to replace Morales's skill set, and he's shown well there in preseason. He's grown substantially since he came into this side a year ago, and that he's in contention for a starting spot when there are more veteran players available speaks very well to his progress.
Ned Grabavoy offers something there, but his natural position is perhaps a bit deeper. Khari Stephenson can play there, but it's perhaps not the spot where we'd see him, should he play Sunday. Even John Stertzer saw a bit of time there, but he's very much an outside shot here.
Avoiding red cards
It hardly seems like it needs spelling out, but avoiding inopportune red cards (as if there's ever an opportune one) is essential. Sendings off to Kyle Beckerman, Jamison Olave, and Fabian Espindola last season spelled "doom" in the sky with prominent contrail letters.
When key members of the squad are pulled from matches at key moments, the entire dynamic of a match is changed rather forcibly. It's an obvious thing, but discipline and attention to the refereeing style on hand will be crucial.