Real Salt Lake's travels to Portland force the league-topping side into a difficult position against a strong team, with the loss of Kyle Beckerman a particularly sore point.
No Captain (or is it "No, Captain!"?)
The returning Yordany Alvarez should step in for Kyle Beckerman, which, on the face of it, is a slightly terrifying prospect, but the reality of it is a bit less daunting. Alvarez is clearly no direct, one-for-one replacement, and I don't think anybody suspects he is. But he does present some valuable attributes, especially when we consider his passing game. He surely won't be getting forward in the same way, but he still manages to get himself into advanced positions quite readily.
Surprisingly, the thing we'll miss most from Beckerman is his creative play. Do we say that a year ago? Two years ago? I don't know, but he's had a distinct shift in his approach this season, and it's one that has benefited our play.
Our shifts in formation have startled opponents somewhat, as they now feel uncertain as to what we'll play on any given match day. This, despite very heavily playing in that 4-4-2 — so what's got them scared? Simply, it's the flexibility they thought we didn't have. In all honesty, our three core formations we've played this season — the 4-4-2 diamond, the 4-2-1-3, the 4-5-1 — all function in largely the same way: We maintain pressure with our forwards and attacking midfielders, we stretch play with midfield runs, and we maintain possession in the middle.
It's the understanding we've built in the squad over years of play that allows us to easily switch formations, and that, in its own right, is a bit unintuitive. By being dogged in our formational approach, we've enabled ourselves to be flexible in our … formational approach. Funny how these things turn out.
Maintaining midfield pressure
As we saw against Portland in the US Open Cup, it's important that, if we're to be successful again against this side, we have to maintain a similar approach. This means being systematic in our pressure from the midfield and the front, but we must do so without leaving substantial gaps between our defenders and our midfield. This is the difficulty of the approach, but key will be restricting the possession and passing of Portland Timbers in less dangerous areas. Less key is winning the ball back quickly, because as we've seen, they hardly thrive in deeper positions.
It all takes a degree of caution, but this is the sort of thing on which the result will pivot.
Real Salt Lake on Saturday faces perhaps their most bitter nemesis (rivalries not withstanding) in the form of LA Galaxy; one of the more potent sides in MLS, Real Salt Lake will have a difficult job maintaining approach and style without sacrificing defensive solidity.
Returning to the diamond
It's easy to imagine that facing off against LA Galaxy will require a more dynamic midfield than facing Houston required — which isn't a knock on the trio of Kyle Beckerman, Ned Grabavoy, and Javier Morales last week, nor on Houston particularly. But certainly we can agree that, when in form, LA Galaxy are a treacherous side to face, and containing them will require special attention. Stymying Robbie Keane and Landon Donovan is not particularly an easy task.
But it's equally important in attack: There was plenty of potency unfulfilled last week, and this isn't the sort of match to leave that on the table. Deploying with a more familiar formation for the squad could provide both attack and defense the best platform for success.
Defending the transition
It's a simple thing but difficult to execute: LA Galaxy will be quite good at picking up the ball in key areas and hitting us in our transitional states. We know this. With attacking players who can essentially turn the game on its head at any given moment — Robbie Keane and Landon Donovan the two obvious options — we have to be smart with the ball. We can't go losing it in the deeper parts of midfield on a silly pass, and we surely can't afford to lose the ball with a silly pass from a defender.
But surely we will give up the ball at times. Some of the world's greatest tactical managers, notably Pep Guardiola and Arsene Wenger, among others, had a method for mitigating the risk of a lost ball: Immediately after the ball is lost, put intense pressure on the opposition for somewhere between three (Wenger) and six seconds (Pep) in an attempt to win the ball back immediately. Once that time period has passed, if the ball is not forthcoming, retreat to a more stable defensive outlay and defend the attack. That sort of approach wouldn't go amiss for Real Salt Lake.
Maintain control of possession
There are some sides against which losing the possession battle is fine, or at least doesn't present any great trouble. LA Galaxy are not one of those sides. That's not to say that they don't present trouble when they lose that particular battle: On April 27, RSL lost 2-0 but had a 63-37 possession advantage. So, yes, it's not everything. Or most things. But it's something we can control, and if we're smart without the ball as well as with it, we'll be in a good position.
In addition to the high-profile coaching matchup detailed here earlier on Thursday, Real Salt Lake’s game at the LA Galaxy on Saturday night will pit the two hottest players in MLS against each other in RSL’s Alvaro Saborio and LA’s Landon Donovan.
The two stars have absolutely torn up the league recently, with Saborio notching six goals and one assist in his last five MLS games and Donovan registering four goals and three helpers over the same span.
Saborio has decent numbers against LA, tallying one goal and two assists in six career regular season games against the Southern California side.
As he has against so many MLS teams, Donovan has run rampant in his career against RSL, scoring nine goals and adding eight assists in 17 career regular season matches against the Claret-and-Cobalt.
RSL Head Coach Jason Kreis and goalkeeper Nick Rimando both spoke earlier this week about the prospect of stopping Donovan, who, in addition to his recent MLS exploits, was perhaps the best player in July’s CONCACAF Gold Cup.
“He’s just somebody you’ve got to be aware of at all times, depending on where he’s playing in their tactical setup” Kreis told reporters on Tuesday. “He’s been playing more as a second forward than as a wide midfielder. That makes him, I think, a little bit easier for us to pick up actually and know where he is at all times because he’ll tend to stay more in central positions.”
“He’s always been Landon, you know?” Rimando told The Salt Lake Tribune on Wednesday. “I think that time away really gave him back his legs and his mentality, and he really found his passion back for soccer. He was in a zone [during Gold Cup] and it’s continued. It was good to see it on the American side, but bad to see it when we have to face him.”
Real Salt Lake’s match at LA on Saturday will pit two of the top head coaches in Major League Soccer against each other in RSL’s Jason Kreis and the Galaxy’s Bruce Arena.
Kreis and Arena have crossed paths numerous times over the last 20 years, beginning in the early 1990’s, when Kreis – and RSL GM Garth Lagerwey – and the Duke Blue Devils would regularly butt heads with Arena’s Virginia Cavaliers in fiercely-fought ACC contests.
The battles continued in MLS, with Kreis bagging five goals and compiling a 4-6-0 record with Dallas and RSL in 10 matches against Arena’s D.C. United and New York Red Bulls squads.
It was against Arena and those same Red Bulls against which Kreis made his coaching debut, with RSL coming back for a miracle 3-3 draw on May 5, 2007 at Rice-Eccles Stadium marking the first – but far from only – time the coaches two squads would play to a memorable finish.
Historically, Kreis and Arena are two of the most successful coaches in MLS. Arena is a U.S. soccer legend, winning four MLS Cups, three Supporters’ Shields, six conference titles and three Coach of the Year awards. He’s second in league history to Seattle’s Sigi Schmid with 154 wins and 488 points and his winning percentage of .599 is the best all-time mark in MLS.
Kreis, who, at age 40, is 21 years younger than the 61-year-old Arena, stacks up rather nicely against his older counterpart, currently sitting in fourth-place amongst active coaches with 85 wins, 309 points and a .541 winning percentage. The two are the only coaches in MLS to lead their teams to 50 point, 15 win seasons in each of the last three years.
As a young coach, Kreis still has a good deal of growing to do, something he readily admitted on the Ford Postgame Show following last Saturday’s 1-0 home win over the Houston Dynamo and their successful head man Dominic Kinnear.
You can check out Kreis’s comments at the 2:45 mark of the above video or read them below:
“I’m still learning, I’m still learning for sure,” Kreis told RSL color commentator Brian Dunseth. “I think that I feel a lot more confident during the match about what I’m seeing and the ability to change things during the match. That’s probably been the latest thing that I’ve felt really, really confident [about], seeing where the spaces are to exploit, what our opponent’s doing against us and causing us trouble with and how to tinker with that a little bit during the match. That’s probably the latest thing that’s come and I think that there’s still a lot more for me to learn and I’m excited about it.”
We’ll see if Kreis can get one over on Arena on Saturday night at StubHub Center. The two are even against each other this year, with Arena and the Galaxy beating RSL 2-0 at Rio Tinto Stadium on April 27 before Kreis and the Claret-and-Cobalt down LA 3-1 at home on June 8. Saturday’s match kicks at 8:30 p.m. MT and will be broadcast live on ABC 4.
Two late goals from forward Olmes Garcia powered Real Salt Lake to a 3-1 win over LA in the sides last meeting on June 8 at Rio Tinto Stadium.
Garcia's first goal - an 84th minute "header" that put the Claret-and-Cobalt up 2-1 - was followed by one of RSL's best celebrations of the year, with Garcia running to the sideline to salsa with fellow RSL attacker Joao Plata.
Check out full highlights from the June 8 home win above.
It's no secret what Jason Kreis and Garth Lagerwey wanted to do this past offseason. In addition to getting younger and creating some salary cap room, RSL’s technical staff needed to find some scoring punch after the club finished the year with zero goals in their final five matches across all competitions. What Kreis, Lagerwey & Co. undertook is no easy task. Bringing in younger and lower-priced players seems to be diametrically opposed to improving offensive output; just consider how much other teams are spending to bring in big-time scorers. So now that we're a considerable distance into the 2013 season, let's take a look at how the focus on more goals has panned out. If you think you've seen opponents' nets move a lot this season, you're right - the evidence suggests the "new" offense is working out very well.
- After being shut out four times in their first nine games across all comps, RSL have now scored in 19 straight games. That's a franchise record.
- With a league-leading 39 goals in 24 MLS matches played, RSL is on pace to score 55 goals this season. That would blow away their previous best by nine goals.
- Five players have scored at least five goals so far in MLS play. RSL has never had more than four players do that in the same season, so that's already a club best. And two more players (Luis Gil, three goals, and Kyle Beckerman, two goals) could end up joining that list.
- RSL currently has a road goal differential of +4 after 12 road games. No other incarnation of RSL can touch that, even that phenomenal 2010 team (+/-0 after 12 road games).
- And keep in mind that RSL is doing this despite trading or waiving 39 percent of the goals scored in 2012.
I don't think anyone - even those wearing the thickest Claret-and-Cobalt-tinted glasses - could have predicted how potent this offense would be in such a short period of time. Most of us thought RSL would struggle to score at first, and they did, but at some point in late April a switch was flipped and Real has been cooking with gas ever since. So what - and who - has been responsible for this offensive onslaught we've been witnessing? Here are a few parties that stand out:
- Alvaro Saborio has been deadly efficient this year. He has nine goals this season but he's played in less than half of RSL's games. He's averaging 1 goal for every 103 minutes played. For reference, in his amazing 2012 season where he finished as the second-leading scorer in the league, he averaged 1 goal for every 141 minutes played.
- Javier Morales is having a career year, already hitting paydirt five times. That's right up there with his best pre-injury years.
- Ned Grabavoy has dramatically upped his scoring by putting in five goals so far this season. He had only scored eight goals in his previous nine MLS seasons.
- Not to be outdone by the resurgent vets, Luis Gil has chipped in three goals this year. In three pro seasons prior to 2013, he had three goals combined.
- Another youngster who has exceeded expectations is Olmes Garcia. During the offseason, word around the team was that Garcia was a long-term project and would likely contribute to the first team a little if at all in 2013. But he's been too good to keep off the field, scoring five goals in just 13 appearances. Last year, playing in Colombia for Deportes Quindio, he scored five goals in 33 appearances. In 2011 he had two goals in 14 appearances.
Clearly this team is rolling when it comes to moving the scoreboard and it doesn't show signs of stopping. RSL has always been the MLS team to follow if you like possession-based soccer, but now it's also the team to watch if you like to see opposing goalkeepers fish the ball out of the net.
Because it's really what was on everybody's minds after the match, let's talk about the formation shift Jason Kreis rolled out and its effectiveness for this team.
To start, it was a fairly European 4-2-1-3 — or as some might term it, a 4-2-3-1 — but whatever way you describe it, there were two deeper midfielders, Ned Grabavoy and Kyle Beckerman; an attacking midfielder sitting essentially in the attacking half, Javier Morales; a central striker, Alvaro Saborio; and two wide players in attacking positions, Olmes Garcia and Joao Plata. The difference between the two formational descriptions rests on the roles of Garcia and Plata. Neither played exactly like a traditional winger, nor did they play exclusively like strikers in wide positions. In reality, the formation is somewhere betwixt the two.
Now, this may be because they weren't entirely effective in their positions. Jason Kreis was critical of the two in his post-match press conference, saying of the formation's future for RSL: "…If we’re going to continue forward ... we’ve got to get those players moving more. I don’t like them standing on their outside backs and getting themselves marked." Now, this doesn't necessarily mean either deserve blame for this, as it was a new approach for the squad and one that requires a great deal of understanding for proper execution. It did present some promise.
What, exactly, does the future hold for Real Salt Lake's formational approach? In the short-term, it's hard to see us moving away from the diamond, on which we have built our core. It's an excellent fit for many reasons — from Javier Morales's consistent mobility to the ability of deeper midfielders to impact play with dynamic runs, there's a lot to be positive about. The diamond may not be here long-term — two, three years down the road, say — but it's hard to see a distinct shift now.
Still, the tactical flexibility afforded by the change in approach is indisputable. If we are able to sufficiently gain an understand in another system, and we're able to utilize it effectively in the attack — not just in defense — we'll be better able to counteract the stale defensive outlays teams send out to put a stopper on us. Should we be able to effectively shift to a three-forward setup, we can instantly widen play in a significant way; should we shift back, we could attack down the middle more effectively. Both systems afford defensive width, and both systems allow for quality play in transition, so we don't lose any particular advantage as a result.
Should Real Salt Lake continue down this road? It would seem a good one to at least venture down a little further. We have wide attacking players who can make a significant impact, and we have a collection of midfielders who will fight for every ball and cover as much ground as anyone in the league. It's a good fit — but it has to work in a sustainable, long-term sense. And given we haven't seen it work fully yet, there remain questions aplenty
Real Salt Lake won its second match in four days on Saturday, getting a penalty kick goal from Alvaro Saborio to beat the Houston Dynamo 1-0 at Rio Tinto Stadium.
Here are a few interesting numbers from Saturday’s match:
Saborio’s goal on Saturday was his sixth in four games since returning from international duty ahead of RSL’s July 27 match at New York. The Claret-and-Cobalt’s all-time leading scorer, Saborio now has nine goals and two assists in 11 league games and 11 goals and four assists in 13 games across all competitions this year. Saborio’s nine league goals are tied for fifth in MLS; the four players with more goals than him have played between nine and 13 more league games than he has. The Costa Rican international leads the league amongst players with more than one strike with 0.88 goals per 90 minutes. He is now 15-for-16 on penalty kicks in all competitions with RSL and has scored on nine of his 15 shots on goal this year. The Claret-and-Cobalt is now 34-6-8 in all comps when Saborio scores.
RSL Head Coach Jason Kreis departed from his usual diamond 4-4-2 formation on Saturday, starting the match in a 4-2-1-3 setup with Saborio, Olmes Garcia and Joao Plata playing up top. It was only the third time this year that Kreis began a match in a formation other than the diamond 4-4-2. RSL is a perfect 3-0-0 in those matches, beating Toronto 1-0 on June 29 and dominating Dallas 3-0 on July 13.
Real Salt Lake goalkeeper Nick Rimando earned the 106th clean sheet of his sterling MLS career on Saturday. The veteran ‘keeper – who has seven shutouts this year – is now only six clean sheets shy of Kevin Hartman’s all-time MLS shutout record.
With Saturday’s win, Real Salt Lake moved to 3-1-1 this year in the final matches of three-game in eight day stretches. Real Salt Lake will play three games in eight days two more times during the season – once beginning with the Aug. 17 match against the LA Galaxy, and again in late September to early October.
Six players age 25 or younger saw the field for the Claret-and-Cobalt on Saturday. Four of the six – forward Olmes Garcia (20), forward Joao Plata (21), midfielder Luis Gil (19) and defender Carlos Salcedo (19) – are 21 or younger.
Real Salt Lake has zero losses when outside backs Tony Beltran and Chris Wingert start together, as well as zero losses in games in which defender Carlos Salcedo appears. The Claret-and-Cobalt is now 10-0-1 across all competitions when both Beltran and Wingert start and 9-0-2 in all comps when Salcedo plays.
RSL is in sole possession of first-place in MLS in points, points per game, wins, goals scored, goals per game, goal differential, road goals and road goal differential.
MLSsoccer.com’s John Bolster had an interesting bit on Real Salt Lake in his weekly Monday Postgame column, asking if the Claret-and-Cobalt’s star players have outstripped the club’s “Team is the Star” mantra.
Check out his take on RSL below. Click here for the full column.
"They’ve had a saying during the past few years at Real Salt Lake: The Team is the Star. It’s a motto that’s both reflected and sustained the club’s style and formula for success.
But one look at the lineup RSL put out against Houston on Saturday night – with US internationals Nick Rimando, Tony Beltran and Kyle Beckerman, crafty playmaker Javier Morales, dangerous speedsters Joao Plata and Olmes Garcia, and consistent goalscorer Alvaro Saborio – and you couldn’t help wonder if the saying should be tweaked to “a Team of Stars.”
Salt Lake are stacked with talent and increased depth; they’ve rebuilt their team without really missing a step, and they maintained their top spot in the Supporters’ Shield standings with a rugged 1-0 win over Houston that featured vital contributions from all of the aforementioned players (plus midfielder Ned Grabavoy, who’s having one of the best seasons of his career).
When you look at which team’s impact players might have the last word down the wide-open stretch run, you have to consider the superstars in LA, Seattle and New York, and you wouldn’t neglect the talent in KC or Portland, but the smart money may be on the lower-wattage, but plentiful stars of the current Supporters’ Shield leaders."
While we agree with Bolster that RSL has plenty of stars – we’d argue he forgot a few, in fact – Jason Kreis’s motto doesn’t need any tweaking. As has been detailed many different times this year, RSL's locker room is closer than ever this season. Not exactly a bad combo for such a talented group have such good chemistry. Smart money, indeed.
Real Salt Lake will return to MLS action on Saturday, when it will take on the Houston Dynamo at 7:30 p.m. at Rio Tinto Stadium.
Here are a few interesting storylines to watch ahead of Saturday’s match:
Houston, we have a problem
Historically, RSL has fared poorly against the Houston Dynamo, posting a 3-9-5 record against the Orange. The Claret-and-Cobalt has won just once in its last 12 league matches against the Dynamo, last beating the Texas side on May 13, 2010.
Some good news: The Claret-and-Cobalt has done well against Houston at home, posting a 3-1-4 record against the Dynamo in the Beehive State.
Morales and Saborio dynamite against the Dynamo
Real Salt Lake’s Javier Morales and Alvaro Saborio both have strong career numbers against Houston, with Morales notching two goals and four assists in nine career league games against the Dynamo and Saborio scoring two goals and registering one assist in four career games.
Saborio has been particularly hot lately, scoring five goals and assisting once in three games in all competitions since returning to RSL from international duty ahead of the July 27 loss at New York.
Rimando v. Hall
Saturday’s contest will be a battle between two of the top goalkeepers in the league, with RSL’s Nick Rimando and Houston’s Tally Hall facing off in between the pipes. RSL’s “Wall of the Wasatch,” Rimando has the best save percentage in MLS this year, stopping 78 percent of shots fired at the net. Hall isn’t far behind, tied for third with a save percentage of 74 percent. With both sides attacking well, Rimando v. Hall could be the deciding matchup in the game.
Kreis v. Kinnear
Saturday’s match will also pit two of the top coaches in MLS against each other in Jason Kreis and Dominic Kinnear. The two young American coaches most often discussed for future USMNT and other high-profile jobs, Kinnear and Kreis rank third and fourth, respectively, in terms of active MLS coaches in wins, trailing only Sigi Schmid and Bruce Arena. Kinnear has a record of 123-82-98 in MLS play, while the younger Kreis has an 85-57-52 mark in league action.
Real Salt Lake and Houston have combined for eight red card in 14 matches dating back to 2007. Mercifully, no reds have been shown in this series since 2009, when five ejections occurred in three matches between the clubs.