Looking to push on from Sunday's season opening road win at San Jose Earthquakes, Real Salt Lake will be pressed into battle at D.C. United on Saturday. At stake: the flanks.
Defending the flanks
It's no secret that attacks from wide areas are dangerous for Real Salt Lake's positional setup, and D.C. United is likely to come out looking for space on the flanks. Players like Chris Pontius could provide dangerous options, and Nick DeLeon and potentially Marcos Sanchez provide real threat from the wings.
As ever, D.C. will look to bypass Kyle Beckerman and swing some crosses in for strikers, but the presence of Chris Schuler and Kwame Watson-Siriboe, both strong in the air, could be an important factor. But before crosses can be swung in, Tony Beltran and Abdoulie (née Kenny) Mansally will need to be in good positions to prevent easy, unmarked crossing. It will be a difficult match from a defensive perspective.
Further, Khari Stephenson and Sebastian Velasquez will need to be at their defensive bests, mopping up possession wide and retaining possession in attacking positions to prevent counterattacks with the flanks left wide open. Robbie Findley, too, will need to drop into wider positions in defense to help prevent significant issues.
Consistency in the midfield
With Ned Grabavoy and Javier Morales absent and no new injuries creeping in, the midfield four is likely to be the same as deployed against San Jose: Kyle Beckerman deep with Sebastian Velasquez, Luis Gil and Khari Stephenson further up the pitch. Velasquez was last deployed primarily on the right but with plenty of room to move about the pitch, while Stephenson was deployed on the left and offered a more defensive approach. Luis Gil was more central, though he, too, moved about frequently.
I suspect that may be switched against D.C. United, with Stephenson on the right and Velasquez on the left, but that the same four will play. Given that they all showed well, there's no reason for change. Where last season our midfield look a bit like a double-pivot with a high playmaker up top, the last match looked more traditional, with a deep-lying midfielder (I struggle with the term 'defensive' here) and three rotating attacking midfielders.
After a disrupted season in 2012 where the starting lineup was very rarely the same from match to match, a start with the same lineup in the first two matches is a refreshing thought. There's no guarantee it'll be the case, of course, but it's something worth hoping for — and perhaps even expecting.
In their season opener against Houston Dynamo, D.C. United struggled to deal with pressure high up the pitch, giving up a slew of interceptions at the base of their defensive third. Although one of their conceded goals was through a corner and the other almost immediately following a throw-in, conceding possession in their own half is always likely to produce chances. RSL will need to be aware of this possibility and alive to opportunities that are presented as a result.
That high pressure will be benefited by the three-man attacking line in the midfield. With Alvaro Saborio and Robbie Findley pushing high up the pitch, Gil, Velasquez and Stephenson will be in good positions to distribute possession for quick counterattacking play.
Real Salt Lake will be looking for its first-ever win in the nation’s capital when it takes on D.C. United at RFK Stadium on Saturday (5 p.m. MT on ABC4).
RSL is winless in eight all-time matches in Washington, posting a 0-4-3 record at RFK Stadium in league play and going 0-1-0 at D.C. in Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup action. D.C. hasn’t lost a regular season match at home since its 2012 RFK opener – a streak of 16 matches.
RSL does have some good recent history against teams carrying lengthy home unbeaten streaks into their home opener, snapping San Jose’s 18-game home unbeaten streak with a 2-0 win at Buck Shaw Stadium in Sunday’s season opener and breaking L.A.’s 26-game home unbeaten run with a 3-1 win at the Home Depot Center in the 2012 opener. Let's hope the Claret-and-Cobalt can turn that same trick on Saturday against D.C.
Real Salt Lake defender Abdoulie "Kenny" Mansally is dropping his longtime nickname and will now go by his given first name of Abdoulie.
Mansally had been called Kenny for years, picking up the nickname in his native Gambia and going by it throughout his MLS career, which began in 2007 in New England. He said on Wednesday that he made the switch back to his given first name - pronounced ab-do-LYE - in order to remind people of who he is and where he came from.
The 24-year-old Mansally played all 90 minutes for injured left back Chris Wingert in RSL's 2-0 season opening win at San Jose on Sunday. The Gambian international and his Real Salt Lake teammates are traveling on Thursday to the nation's capital ahead of this Saturday's match against D.C. United at RFK Stadium. Kick for the game is at 5:00 p.m. MT on ABC4.
RSL goalkeeper Nick Rimando earned his 100th career regular season shutout on Sunday at San Jose.
Here are a few of the best saves Nick's made during his RSL career. Some of these stops are truly incredible - I got the chills re-watching them.
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.
It's tough having the last game of opening weekend - you get to watch every other team's new arrivals and see who's looking good before you get to see how your own team stacks up.
Thankfully, the wait proved to be more than worth it on Sunday night as Real Salt Lake waltzed into San Jose – a team that racked up a whopping 66 points last year en route to the Supporter's Shield – and dispatched the Earthquakes 2-0.
On a weekend where several teams put up impressive displays, RSL's performance was one of the best. Here are a few players - new and old - who impressed me most in the Claret-and-Cobalt's win at San Jose:
Sabo was Sabo, which is exactly what you want if you're an RSL fan. While many fans spent much of the offseason wondering about getting production from the second forward, I was more worried about whether Sabo could replicate his 17-goal effort from 2012. There's a long way to go, but it's impossible to argue that Sabo isn't off to a great start.
To win a tight match you need a game-changer, someone to come in and tip the contest in your favor. Sunday night the game-changer was clearly Plata.
His assist on Saborio's first goal was brilliant, featuring two perfect touches in a row (the perfect touch to settle a difficult ball, and the perfectly-weighted pass). Beyond that, Plata was active all over the field, coming back when needed to help the midfield possession game. And don't forget, the Ecuadorian international is only 21. This youngster could end up being one of RSL's biggest steals since the Kyle Beckerman trade.
I thought Seba had a great preseason and I was interested to see if it would carry over to MLS play. If the San Jose game is any indication, it has. We all know that Velasquez is a real offensive talent with ankle-breaking footwork on the ball (which he used on poor Ramiro Corrales on Sunday), but where I think Seba has really stepped up his game is on the other side of the ball. Jason Kreis has high expectations for his midfielders on defense, and Velasquez appeared to meet those on Sunday, staying active and honest on defense and tracking back to the top of the box when necessary.
Gil hasn't necessarily added any elements to his game this year, it just seems like he is taking it to a higher level. His movements are smoother, the timing is just a little bit better, and his confidence seems high. I guess that's what carrying the U.S. U-20 National Team to a World Cup berth will do for you. His combination play with Robbie Findley which led to a left-footed Cruyff turn and a shot that produced Jon Busch's best save of the night was a thing of beauty that belies Luis' age.
We've been watching Captain Kyle for a long time now (300 matches, to be exact), so how is it that he continues to surprise us with something we've never seen before? His no-look pass to set up Sabo's second goal looked like something from a great NBA point guard's highlight reel. Aside from that, Beckerman was his usual efficient self, completing a game-high 46 passes and breaking up San Jose's midfield.
How fitting is it that, on the night that Rimando earned his 100th MLS clean sheet, he turned in a textbook shutout performance. Rimando only made two saves on the night, but his reaction save on Chris Wondolowski in the first half was top-drawer goalkeeping. And therein is the essence of keeping a clean sheet: You don't have to make 15 saves, but you must stay focused enough to make the one you have to. On top of that, Rimando was a good coach to his young back line, helping them sort out their issues on the occasions where they lost track of Wondolowski.
A former RSL beat reporter for multiple outlets, Jeremy Horton is a regular contributor to RealSaltLake.com and helps cover the team for ESPN 700 AM
It wasn't Argentina at the 2006 World Cup, but RSL's 12 pass sequence to lead to forward Alvaro Saborio's second goal in the 85th minute of Sunday night's 2-0 win at San Jose was still pretty cool.
Check out the full build-up to the goal above.
Real Salt Lake started its season in style on Sunday night, getting a pair of goals from forward Alvaro Saborio to down defending Supporters’ Shield winners San Jose Earthquakes 2-0 at Buck Shaw Stadium
Here are a few interesting numbers from Sunday’s match:
Real Salt Lake goalkeeper Nick Rimando has 100 career MLS regular season shutouts after blanking the ‘Quakes on Sunday night. Rimando made two saves at Buck Shaw, including one fingertip stop on 2012 MVP Chris Wondolowski.
The 33-year-old Rimando is second all-time on the MLS career shutouts list, trailing only unsigned ‘keeper Kevin Hartman, who has 112 career clean-sheets.
RSL captain Kyle Beckerman made his 300th career regular season appearance on Sunday night, becoming the 20th player in league history to reach the mark.
Beckerman is the seventh player with RSL ties to hit 300 appearances, joining Jeff Cunningham (365), Chris Klein (333), RSL Head Scout Andy Williams (332), Rimando (320), Carey Talley (315) and RSL Head Coach Jason Kreis as former/current players in the exclusive club.
Real Salt Lake forward Alvaro Saborio’s two-goal performance on Sunday night gives him 14 career multi-goal games across all competitions for RSL.
RSL’s record when Saborio scores.
The number of passes RSL played in the build-up to Saborio’s second goal in the 85th minute. That’s a lot.
The Earthquakes entered Sunday’s match with an 18-game home regular season unbeaten streak. RSL squashed that, handing San Jose its first regular season loss in the Bay Area since August 2011.
RSL has now won four-consecutive MLS season openers. Three of those four wins have come at San Jose, with the Claret-and-Cobalt beating the ‘Quakes at Buck Shaw in 2010, 2011 and 2013. RSL – which is 4-2-3 all-time in season openers – beat L.A. in its 2012 season opener.
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.