It's not often that a Real Salt Lake goal is the direct result of a tactical decision, but Jason Kreis's move to a 3-4-3 late in the second half of Saturday's 1-1 draw against the Colorado Rapids falls into that category.
Changing shape: 3-4-3
When he pulled Lovel Palmer from the match and dropped in Devon Sandoval, Jason Kreis pushed Real Salt Lake into a near-desperate 3-4-3 formation, and he did it with some success. With Chris Schuler as a slightly withdrawn left back, Tony Beltran as an adventurous right back, and Kwame Watson-Siriboe in the middle, there was always a certain risk involved, and for a moment it did seem as if Colorado would find a goal. If not for a fine performance from Nick Rimando, they would have.
The midfield was where the more interesting movement took place; with a largely right-sided attack, owing to Beltran's runs on that side of the pitch, swathes of the midfield were left rather empty. With Luis Gil on the right flank and Sebastian Velasquez on the left, Ned Grabavoy and Kyle Beckerman were left largely to patrol the midfield; the former was inevitably pushed higher up the pitch than the latter. Devon Sandoval and Alvaro Saborio formed a double-target front line, while Joao Plata played in a slightly withdrawn forward role.
Through Beltran's runs down the right, Luis Gil was given a greater opportunity to influence the match, and it's telling that it was through his hard work on the edge of the box that the goal arose. Joao Plata's awareness again proved crucial as well, and it's increasingly hard to fault Saborio's finishing prowess. Subtly important and easy to ignore, though, was the run by Sandoval, which drew one of two defenders away from Saborio, opening the shooting opportunity, which Saborio took with immaculate poise.
Unsurprisingly, Kyle Beckerman domineered the midfield, leaving Colorado with scant few opportunities to control possession; of course, given their long-ball counterattacking strategy (incredibly effective as it was), this was perhaps no surprise. Beckerman — nor any other RSL midfielder — wasn't forced into tackles or even interceptions, leaving the player free to spray passes across the pitch. With 83 of 101 passes successful, it's clear who controlled the affair. Sebastian Velasquez, too, had a fantastic night in the pass, completing 68 of 77 passes and maintaining possession.
It's hard to tactically account for errors when a player like Jamison Olave isn't in the side to plow through everyone. With this in mind, several Real Salt Lake players will rather be kicking themselves after allowing Colorado Rapids a number of chances simply from mistakes on the ball. Chris Schuler was guilty during the conceded goal, but errors fell in most areas and weren't confined to a single player. Whether this is down to nervousness or concentration or some third factor is difficult to say with any definitive voice. Whatever the case, Jason Kreis and company will be looking for those to be erased moving forward.
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.
Miss Nick Rimando's Q&A with KSL 5's Jason Shepherd earlier Thursday?
Don't worry, we've got you covered. Catch the entire chat above - and don't forget to show up to Rio Tinto Stadium prior to Saturday's 4 p.m. kickoff to see a ceremony honoring Nick for becoming the second player in MLS history to reach 100 career shutouts.
I'm convinced that true rivalries must have more than just a geographic component. There needs to be a strong element of competitiveness between the rivals, and the nail-biting nature of the games between Real Salt Lake and the Colorado Rapids have added to the richness of the Rocky Mountain Cup. There have been so many great moments in the Rocky Mountain Cup over the years; bulletin board material, last-minute game-winning goals, big-time saves, questionable calls, questionable no-calls, red cards, and skirmishes, just to name a few.
My favorite RMC moment – so far – was the RSL-Colorado game on Oct. 24, 2009, the final day of regular season play that year. It wasn't so memorable because of the game itself – RSL won 3-0 – but everything else that went on that night. Let me set the stage for you.
Going into the final day of the 2009 season, one playoff spot was up for grabs. As the day's games kicked off, that final spot belonged to none other than the Rapids who were sitting on 40 points. Right on their heels were FC Dallas, D.C. United, and Toronto FC, each with 39 points. RSL was the final team with a mathematical chance at the playoff spot with 37 points. In order for RSL to make the playoffs, they would need to leapfrog the three aforementioned teams and beat the Rapids. A win by either Dallas, D.C., or Toronto would automatically eliminate RSL.
That afternoon, before heading to Rio Tinto, RSL fans eagerly tuned into the early game on the East Coast: Toronto at New York. We were able to sit back and relax after not too long thanks to a brilliant showing by New York. The Red Bulls scored early and often, thrashing Toronto 5-0 to eliminate TFC from playoff contention at 39 points. One down, three to go.
Then it was off to Rio Tinto where, coincidentally, the final three games that would determine RSL's fate (Colorado at RSL, Dallas at Seattle, D.C. at Kansas City) all kicked off at roughly the same time. Facing a must-win situation, RSL came out flying. Robbie Findley hit pay-dirt twice in the first half hour, ending the drama early as it became apparent that Colorado didn't have the horses to equalize on this night. RSL went on to win 3-0, putting them level with Colorado at 40 points but ahead based on tiebreakers. Two down, two to go.
While RSL was putting a bow on their game, things were getting interesting elsewhere. Dallas gave us an early scare at Seattle when Atiba Harris put them up 1-0, but the expansion Sounders scored twice early in the second half and hung on to win, knocking Dallas out of playoff contention. Three down, one to go.
The D.C. at Kansas City game was going along fine at 1-1 with RSL owning the tiebreaker over D.C. Then suddenly, it looked like the clock had struck midnight and RSL would turn back into a pumpkin - Julius James put D.C. ahead in the 82nd minute. From then on it was all Kansas City on the offensive, but it appeared D.C. would hold on. At this point, almost every member of the media at Rio Tinto was ignoring the final minutes of RSL's win and we were all glued to the TV watching KC and D.C. Then, in second-half stoppage time, RSL got the miracle they needed - a controversial handball gave the Wizards a penalty on the last kick of the game. Claudio Lopez buried it, ending the match 2-2 and putting RSL through to the playoffs.
Without those four matches going exactly the right way, RSL would have watched the playoffs from the couch. Instead, they went on to win MLS Cup. It was a magical night all around, and it's officially my favorite Rocky Mountain Cup game of all time.
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
According to a tweet from MLSsoccer.com Chicago reporter Anthony Zilis, U.S. Men's National Team manager Jurgen Klinsmann indicated on Wednesday at a Gold Cup press conference in Chicago that Real Salt Lake goalkeeper Nick Rimando will back-up Aston Villa's Brad Guzan for the U.S. while first-choice 'keeper Tim Howard is out injured.
Howard will miss the U.S.'s World Cup Qualifiers on March 22 against Costa Rica and on March 26 at Mexico due to a back injury.
Klinnsmann: (paraphrased) Nice of Friedel to offer, but we're fine with Guzan, then Rimando as backup. #usmnt
— Anthony Zilis (@adzilis) March 13, 2013
— Anthony Zilis (@adzilis) March 13, 2013
Fantastic infographic from RSL's Ben Barnes detailing the history of the Rocky Mountain Cup Presented by Mark Miller Subaru ahead of the Claret-and-Cobalt's Saturday home opener at Rio Tinto Stadium against the Colorado Rapids. Check it out:
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.
RSL suffered its first loss of the season on Saturday, giving up a second-half goal to fall 1-0 at D.C. United.
Here are a few interesting figures from Saturday’s match:
RSL is now 0-6-3 all-time in matches at D.C. The Claret-and-Cobalt is 0-5-3 at United in MLS matches and 0-1-0 at the Black-and-Red in Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup action.
RSL is winless in matches at D.C., Houston, Dallas, Vancouver and Toronto.
Claret-and-Cobalt rookie midfielder John Stertzer made his professional debut on Saturday, playing nine minutes after coming on in the 81st for midfielder Khari Stephenson. A D.C. area native and University of Maryland product, Stertzer had a number of family and friends in attendance at Saturday's match.
Real Salt Lake defender Lovel Palmer made his club debut when he entered Saturday’s match for Abdoulie Mansally in the 66th minute. Palmer had a strong showing on Saturday, bombing up the left flank and nearly scoring an equalizer with a shot from distance.
Real Salt Lake was shown four yellow cards in Saturday’s match. The Claret-and-Cobalt now has six cards this season, two less than league leaders Chivas USA and tied for the second-most in the league with Sporting Kansas City.
RSL has won six consecutive Rocky Mountain Cups over the Colorado Rapids. The Claret-and-Cobalt will take on the Rapids in the home opener at Rio Tinto Stadium on Saturday.
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.