Real Salt Lake faces Colorado on Saturday for the second time in less than a month, and although most of the squad is returning to fitness, there remain questions across the board.
With Javier Morales approaching full fitness, Jason Kreis is set to make his first big decision of the new-look 2013 lineup. WIll Luis Gil drop to the bench, with Morales taking his place? Or will Velasquez go to the bench, with Gil dropping deeper in midfield? Will Javier Morales even start on Saturday? While that one seems a bit of a doubt, but it's worth consideration.
Let's talk hypothetically. If Gil stays on, he drops into a position he hasn't played yet this season, but RSL gets a more seasoned player on the pitch. If Velasquez stays on, he continues in his position, building on strong performances there. Experience with Jason Kreis might lead one to believe that Gil stays on, given Kreis's preference for continuing with veteran players, but the fight for places is as big as RSL has had in a while.
Robbie Findley is likely to miss Saturday, which means Alvaro Saborio will again be partnered by somebody in the rotating cast of characters that is the RSL forward line. Joao Plata, should he recover sufficiently, is the most natural big-man-little-man fit, but he's apparently been struggling with a hamstring strain. Devon Sandoval has worked hard, presents some interesting options, but might not be the most natural fit next to Saborio. Olmes Garcia is full of raw, unmistakable talent, but he's just that: Raw.
Sandoval seems the most likely pick: Risking Joao Plata at this point might not be the most unreasonable thing in the world, but there's little chance he goes for a full 90 minutes with injury concerns close by.
Sandoval up top alongside Saborio would be a tactically interesting move. The two are both in a strong mold, work well with their backs to goal, and will help bring the midfield into attack; with two hold-up players, more attacking opportunities for players like Velasquez, Gil, Morales and Grabavoy emerge. Likewise, with two stronger forwards, defenders are forced out of their "cover Saborio endlessly" mentality, and when he he's got room, goals are scored. Additionally, the opportunities at set pieces — at least to distract the defending side — emerge with two dangerous players in the box.
Last time we played Colorado — a scant few weeks ago — Deshorn Brown found himself breaking past the defense time after time after time. Chris Schuler and Kwame Watson-Siriboe struggled as a pair that night. With Colorado at their home ground, they're likely to be continuing on a more attacking bent, but having Nat Borchers back in the side could make a bit of difference.
The fullbacks will need to be extra aware: Mansally and Beltran should continue to trade attacking moments, with one of the two deeper at any given moment. This will allow them to tuck in a bit (but not much) more centrally to help defend the counter.
The Rocky Mountain Cup: RSL tested, C.J. Brown approved.
The Claret-and-Cobalt take on the Rapids at Dick's Sporting Goods Park at 5:30 p.m. MT on Saturday. Watch live on NBC Sports Network.
MLSsoccer.com took a closer look on Wednesday morning at RSL's spectacular set play goal against Seattle, with Jason Saghini breaking down Luis Gil's first half strike in the site's "Anatomy of a Goal" series.
Saghini does a great job of breaking down the play, which RSL midfielder Javier Morales - who wasn't even in the game for the goal - drew up in practice last week.
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.