When I got home from RSL’s 2-1 win over Seattle on Saturday night, I was talking about rookie forward Devon Sandoval's excellent outing so much that my wife accused me of having a "man crush" on him.
I laughed it off at the time, but now that I've had some time to think about it, you were right, dear. I do have a “man-crush.”
I think RSL fans realize that Sandoval had a nice night in his first-ever start, but I think it was better than most people realized. In fact, for me he would have been Man of the Match had it not been for Seattle goalkeeper Michael Gspurning, who I thought was the best player on the field despite conceding twice. On Saturday I thought Sandoval did what we expected and even more, and did it with a calmness that defies his age and experience. So what was so great about Sandoval's game?
I usually leave these tactical chats in the capable hands of Matt Montgomery, but take a look at the chalkboard to the right. Here you can see Sandoval's entire night from a passing perspective - all 22 successful passes and his six unsuccessful passes.
Take a look at his passes that originated from between about 35 and 55 yards from goal; almost all of them are "negative" (i.e. backward) passes. This is exactly what you want and expect your target-style forward to do. Almost all these passes are long balls sent up field by defenders from deep in RSL's end. In these cases the target forward puts his back to the goal, holds the defender at bay, settles the ball, and makes a backward pass to a midfielder who probably doesn't have a man draped all over him. Looking at Sandoval's high completion percentage on these back passes, clearly he met expectations in that aspect of his game.
Next, take a look at his passes that originated from 35 yards out and closer; you can see that most of these passes are going forward, not backward. These mostly came from times when RSL was advancing on goal with numerous attackers, and this is where Sandoval went above and beyond in my opinion. Many target forwards - especially young ones - aren't comfortable attempting incisive passes and joining in combination play with teammates. But instead of being a one-trick pony who only wants to play "post-up" soccer and lay off back passes, Sandoval's passing around goal clearly shows that he is plenty comfortable acting as a playmaker. You don't often see this behavior with big forwards, especially ones so young.
A great example of this is his combination with Ned Grabavoy and Joao Plata on Plata's 55th-minute chance. Grabavoy plays a pass into Sandoval who is holding position with his back to goal. But instead of playing a back pass right back to Grabavoy, Sandoval flicks a forward pass into space where Plata runs onto it for an open look. The only thing that kept Sandoval from recording a beautiful assist was Gspurning's face getting in the way of Plata's shot.
Sandoval's finishing left a bit to be desired on Saturday night - it will come around - but I am really excited about his passing game and what it's doing to open things up for the rest of the team.
Real Salt Lake took down Seattle 2-1 on Saturday, scoring two goals from set pieces and looking rather like the well-oiled machine that seemed absent through most of 2012. It's hard not to focus on those two goals, because they're indicative of something the squad's been missing for some time.
It's just as Alexi Lalas says: "Set pieces." I'm sure there's more to that statement, and it probably relates to what we saw on Saturday. Luis Gil scored from a corner, and Robbie Findley scored from a throw-in. The nature of their goals being as different as they were — one a well-planned attack that caught a defense ball-watching, the other a quick finish that came from awareness up front — it's easy to see how important set piece planning can be.
If there's been a major criticism of Real Salt Lake in attack this year — and perhaps longer than that — it's been a lack of threat from set pieces. Saturday changed that, but it came from a shift in mentality. The first goal saw Tony Beltran thrust a ball into the mix from a throw-in, and the strength of Devon Sandoval kept Seattle from making an easy clearance. Robbie Findley's awareness paid dividends, and not a moment too soon, as he was taken off injured hardly minutes later.
For the second goal, rather than sending a corner straight into the center of the Seattle box, where they were well covered, a touchline-searing ball from Velasquez to Grabavoy set up Luis Gil for a strong header to the far post. Too often, defenses can crowd Real Salt Lake in the middle of the box, but creative play and danger from multiple areas will give defenses pause for thought.
It's perhaps no surprise that Jason Kreis confirmed that more time was spent on set pieces than in the past. When it becomes less about power and strength (particularly with the departure of Jamison Olave) and more about finesse, Real Salt Lake, with its array of short midfielders, will be a natural benefactor.
It's difficult to say what the proper tactical approach would have been in the second half, but with Seattle putting RSL on the back foot for the first 15 minutes of the second half, Abdoulie Mansally and Tony Beltran tucked in to cover runs from attacking midfielders. On the conceded goal scored by Brad Evans, the defense had become so narrow as to allow Seattle right back DeAndre Yedlin all the time in the world to cross, and as such, a goal was scored.
The return of Javier Morales and the rise of Sebastian Velasquez
Javier Morales looked closer to the Javi of bygone days than he has in some time. Claims that he's a slow, old player are overblown: The breakaway, on which he should have been awarded a penalty kick after being hauled down by Jhon Kennedy Hurtado, showed that.
Whether it was planned that Luis Gil would come off for Morales or not, there was something incredible about seeing the playmaker-in-chief lining up with the talented Sebastian Velasquez for 30 minutes. Whether that continues depends on how Luis Gil fares in training sessions, but it seems Kreis has every reason to be impressed with the rat-tailed kid. He's been one of RSL's best players in the early days of the season, and his hard work is a sure factor in that.
Real Salt Lake picked up its first home win of the season on Saturday night, beating Western Conference rival Seattle Sounders FC 2-1 in front of a sold-out crowd at Rio Tinto Stadium.
Here are a few interesting numbers from the match:
20,359 RSL fans packed a sold-out Rio Tinto Stadium to the rafters on Saturday night. Saturday’s game was RSL’s eighth-straight non-playoff sell-out and seventh-straight MLS regular season sell-out.
The number of days between RSL goals for forward Robbie Findley, who opened the scoring for the Claret-and-Cobalt in the eighth minute on Saturday night. Findley’s last RSL goal came on Nov. 6, 2010 in the Western Conference Semifinals second leg against FC Dallas. The 27-year-old speedster left RSL after that match, spending 2011 and 2012 with English Championship side Nottingham Forest before rejoining RSL this offseason.
Findley’s last regular season goal for RSL came 973 days ago on Aug. 7, 2010 at Kansas City.
Findley’s goal broke Real Salt Lake’s 408-minute scoreless streak against Seattle. The Claret-and-Cobalt hadn’t scored in its previous four matches against Sounders FC, last scoring against the Cascadia club in the 50th minute of its 1-0 win at Seattle on May 12 of last year.
RSL midfielder Javier Morales entered Saturday’s match in the 62nd minute to make his 2013 season debut. Morales – who entered the game to a raucous standing ovation from the RSL faithful – had missed the Claret-and-Cobalt’s first four matches while recovering from preseason knee surgery.
Real Salt Lake outshot Seattle 25-8 on Saturday night. The total was RSL’s highest mark of the season and vaulted the Claret-and-Cobalt from seventh in the league in total shots to third.
CCL-bound Seattle Sounders FC is in town (7:00 p.m. on Saturday; CW30), and once again, the nascent rivalry looks set to continue its growth. Managing the match presents a tricky puzzle — how will Jason Kreis adapt his squad to the challenge?
Reintegrating full-back width
Working the international players back into the side will be an undoubtedly easy endeavor: Beckerman, Beltran and Rimando each step in for their backup counterparts, and the roles don't change significantly.
Abdoulie Mansally should step in at left back, and he does present something different and perhaps important. Along with Beltran, Mansally certainly gets up the pitch — we could talk about attack all we wanted — but as important as that is the ability to win the ball in the midfield on the flank, squashing attacks early. Certainly there's a risk in pushing both of your full backs up the pitch: Expect one of Beltran and Mansally to drop back while the other goes forward. It allows the defense to adapt more easily to threats.
Javier Morales is back! Well, maybe. Jason Kreis has indicated that Real Salt Lake's playmaker-in-chief could be set for an appearance, and whether this is off the bench or a start depends on highly on his fitness levels. Kreis — as most reasonable managers would — won't start Morales if there's a chance he'll have to take him off for fitness issues. It rather forces the hand of the coach, and when things may be going well, that's a tough thing to take.
Regardless, should Javier get in, it means a significant shift in the midfield. The sort-of-wide midfielders in the lineup and the central playmaker have been playing a relatively flat line, with the attacking midfielder — Luis Gil, say — dropping a little more than Morales, and with the wide midfielders — Grabavoy and Velasquez, perhaps — pushing up a little further. Morales would certainly play centrally, but he'd get the normal latitude to move in other attacking areas. The rotation among the midfielders would serve him well.
As a starter, Morales generally presents an opportunity to assert himself on the match early; as a substitute, he presents a spark and a chance to find joy late in the match. He'd be very unlikely to go 90 minutes, so either option will be working its away around Kreis's head.
Seattle and CCL
Remember when Real Salt Lake was in the CONCACAF Champions League? Yeah, so do I. Seattle Sounders are, and good for them, I suppose. They've got Santos Laguna on Tuesday and could well put out a weakened lineup in preparation for one of the bigger matches in their history. While jealousy does sometimes get the better of me, I suppose it's hard to fault them. It might give us a better chance at a win — but as we've seen before, young, eager guys can sometimes get the better of a more experienced side.
Coming off the back of a rough patch, RSL will need to be ready for Seattle to fling essentially everything at them; if they do roll out a young side, there'll be no huge expectation of winning, and those circumstances are notoriously difficult to manage.
Pumped yet for Saturday's grudge match between Real Salt Lake and Seattle Sounders FC?
You will be once you watch this great video from RSL videographer Nick Lamping, a.k.a. the greatest hype man since Puff Daddy.
Real Salt Lake announced late on Tuesday night that it will host Brigham Young University in a friendly match at Rio Tinto Stadium on Monday, April 1.
Claret-and-Cobalt Head Coach Jason Kreis talked on Wednesday about Monday's match, which will kickoff at 6:30 p.m. MT.
"We have annually enjoyed our games throughout the years with BYU, and are very excited to finally hold this fantastic Utah soccer event at our Rio Tinto Stadium home," Kreis said. "RSL looks forward to a competitive game against our state's best PDL side, and we look forward to welcoming fans from all over Utah for this unique event."
RSL will likely field a reserve lineup for the match, which will come just two days after Saturday's home match against Western Conference rival Seattle Sounders FC. Monday's game will be the second time in 2013 that the Claret-and-Cobalt's lesser-known players will play under the bright lights of Rio Tinto Stadium -- the RSL Reserves beat the Colorado Reserves 2-1 in Reserve League play at the RioT on March 16.
Tickets to Monday's match are just $5 for RSL Season Ticket Holders and $10 for the general public. Be sure to give RSL your full support - get your tickets now.
Real Salt Lake offseason acquisition Olmes Garcia made his Claret-and-Cobalt debut on Saturday night, coming on with the score 1-0 in the 77th minute of RSL's 2-0 loss at FC Dallas.
The 20-year-old Colombian had an exciting debut, nearly equalizing with the first touch of his MLS career. Video of the chance - a diving header that clanged off the near post - is above.
Real Salt Lake's struggles in Texas continued on Saturday with a 2-0 loss at FC Dallas, but it was hardly the state that was their downfall: Rather, it was the state of the squad, and naturally, the state of the attack.
Ringing in the changes
With a bit of surprise, Real Salt Lake didn't have many issues that occurred directly as a result of the changes in lineup. None of the individual pieces were particularly woeful, and indeed, most showed reasonably well for themselves. That is, of course, not to say that their first-choice counterparts wouldn't have been better options — particularly when it came to overall creativity.
Ned Grabavoy led the attack in the midfield, grabbing four key passes; Yordany Alvarez was largely effective as a defensive midfielder despite his late red card, leading the team in passing (56/66) and generally breaking up play. Both goals came from other areas of the pitch — one a long ball over the top, the other a long ball sent wide — leaving Alvarez relatively blameless, excepting his dismissal that made a comeback more difficult for Real Salt Lake.
Of the players who stepped in from the start without having seen action this season, Cole Grossman looked acceptable in the midfield, Nat Borchers looked magnificent in defense, and Josh Saunders, barring his big error, was a solid goalkeeper.
Speed without strength
Jason Kreis opted for a speedier front line than Real Salt Lake has seen in some time, and the acceleration of Joao Plata combined with the top speed of Robbie Findley created some interesting opportunities in front of goal. Indeed, it was Plata's quickness that created the first RSL shot of the match as he burst past a line of defenders. Still, without the hold-up play of Alvaro Saborio, Real Salt Lake lacked an efficient out when pressured, and this led to some dangerous moments in which FC Dallas looked likely to score.
It hammers home an important point: Alvaro Saborio is an important part of the tactical makeup of Real Salt Lake — or at least a player who can hold the ball in congested areas, deflecting attention from other areas of the pitch. With two speedy strikers and a relatively compact midfield sticking further back on the pitch, the defending side can place effective pressure on the midfield without having to cover forwards with multiple players. How many times have we seen Saborio with three players at his heels, only for him to make a pass back to an open midfield? It's illustrative of his influence, and when it's not there, Real Salt Lake quite naturally struggles in attack.
If there's one thing to be said about this Real Salt Lake side early on, it's that when they've conceded, they've had a response. Once again, after conceding a goal, RSL out-passed (77/97 to 45/61; 27/38 to 10/17 in the attacking half) their opponents. But with this late pressure, RSL's efforts backfired a bit, as they conceded another goal, and though the manner of it was hardly a tactical flaw, the three other shots FC Dallas took were not. Should this mentality continue, dividends will certainly be paid. Of greater concern should be the situations in which they concede.
U.S. national team midfielder Jermaine Jones has been ruled out of Tuesday’s World Cup qualifier at Mexico due to an ankle injury, possibly opening the door for RSL captain Kyle Beckerman to start for the Stars-and-Stripes at Estadio Azteca.
Beckerman came on as a late game defensive substitute in the U.S.’s 1-0 win over Costa Rica on Friday, entering the match in the 89th minute for forward Herculez Gomez.
The Claret-and-Cobalt captain has experience at Estadio Azteca, playing a very solid 90 minutes and starting the play that led to the goal in the U.S.’s historic 1-0 friendly win over El Tri in Mexico City on Aug. 15, 2012.
At least one prominent media member thinks Beckerman will get the start on Tuesday, with Sports Illustrated's Grant Wahl tweeting Sunday that he sees Beckerman coming into the midfield and Maurice Edu slotting in at center back.
Think we might see Edu in central defense, Beckerman replacing Jones vs Mexico.
— Grant Wahl (@GrantWahl) March 24, 2013
Beckerman, RSL defender Tony Beltran and RSL goalkeeper Nick Rimando will suit up for the U.S. at Mexico on Tuesday night. The match will kickoff at 8:30 p.m. MT and will be broadcast live on ESPN and Univision.
A makeshift Real Salt Lake lineup couldn’t quite get a result at FC Dallas on Saturday night, conceding twice in the final 20 minutes to fall 2-0 to FCD.
Here are a few interesting numbers from the match:
Saturday’s result moved RSL to 0-19-3 in Texas. The Claret-and-Cobalt is now 0-11-2 across all competitions at Dallas.
Real Salt Lake defender Nat Borchers made his first appearance of the season on Saturday night, starting and playing 90 minutes. Borchers had missed RSL’s first three games while rehabbing from offseason quad surgery.
Real Salt Lake forward Olmes Garcia entered Saturday’s match in the 77th minute. It was the MLS debut for the 20-year-old Garcia, who signed with RSL in February.
Garcia nearly scored a goal with the first touch of his MLS career, snapping a diving header off the near post in the 78th minute.
Real Salt Lake defender Chris Schuler had nine interceptions on Saturday night. Schuler leads the league with 38 interceptions this year, 14 more than second-place Aurelien Collin of Sporting Kansas City.