Real Salt Lake faces an absolute must-win on Tuesday night, when it will take on C.S. Herediano in a decisive CONCACAF Champions League Group 2 match. Of course, few things lead to a loss of tactical cohesion quite like these must-win games. RSL will have to stay supremely focused in several areas if it's to get the result it needs at Rio Tinto Stadium on Tuesday.
Posturing: Defensive or offensive
In order to progress, Jason Kreis's side must win by either a 1-0 scoreline or by two clear goals. It's one of those tough scenarios that requires some intense concentration from all involved. It raises questions about the approach to the match.
As a first option, RSL could score a goal then opt for a more defensive posture, as a single goal by Herediano brings the necessary scoreline to 3-1 — it could be a big ask against a defensively resolute side. With Jamison Olave a doubt, a usually solid partnership of Nat Borchers of Chris Schuler could be tested significantly.
As a second option, RSL could go in guns blazing, secure in the knowledge that regardless, they'll need at least a goal to go forward — and there are few better ways to get a goal than to simply go for it.
Defender Nat Borchers — unsurprisingly — would choose the first option: "We're going to have some patience, just make sure everything's switched on defensively, and the goals are going to come."
Missing puzzle pieces
With Alvaro Saborio out through yellow card accumulation, and Fabian Espindola and Jamison Olave in doubt for Tuesday, Jason Kreis will certainly be wringing his hands over the decisions he'll soon be forced to make.
Saborio's absence is perhaps the biggest: RSL's leading goalscorer — this season, in CONCACAF Champions League, and overall — is certain to be missed, as there are no other real hold-up players on the team. Justin Braun will be hoping to fill that role, but until his on-ball ability reaches a higher level, he may struggle for minutes.
Fabian Espindola's potential absence, compounded with Saborio's, would be doubly concerning: Already, Paulo Jr. is likely to start, but having him in as the available-first-choice striker would necessitate a potential shift in approach. With both Saborio and Espindola absent, RSL would be forced into either changing shape, continuing with Emiliano Bonfigli, or giving Justin Braun a chance.
An absence to Olave would be the easiest to solve: Chris Schuler has shown well since returning from his foot injury, and I suspect if called upon, he'd continue that fine form.
Approach play from the midfield
With some shift in personnel inevitable, the key will likely be in the play of Will Johnson and, should he be deemed fit, Ned Grabavoy. Both would need to get forward at will, burst into the box, and connect with Javier Morales.
This would abdicate some responsibility on the forwards, leaving less need to swing long balls in and providing more work for Herediano's defensive line. As they'll be secure with a draw, RSL will need to apply significant pressure there.
It will be the second-consecutive year that RSL will face the Sounders in the Western Conference Semis. We all remember last year’s series: The Claret-and-Cobalt turned in a dominating 3-0 win at Rio Tinto Stadium in the first leg and held on in Seattle to win 3-2 on aggregate and advance to the Western Conference Finals.
We’ll be back soon to talk about RSL’s huge, must-win CONCACAF Champions League match against C.S. Herediano at Rio Tinto Stadium on Tuesday night.
Kyle Beckerman and Nick Rimando were back. Paulo Jr. was withdrawn from the lineup through injury. Emiliano Bonfigli was handed his first start. With the story lines set in motion, one fell swoop of a red card changed everything.
Cards change games
It's pretty obvious, of course, that a red card changes the dynamic of a match. When Zach Scott was sent off in the 30th minute, Seattle went from thrusting forward in attack with aplomb but losing out in tempo to being further and further packed into its own half, with two reasonably flat lines of four players providing a difficult wall to break down.
Despite throwing on a second and third attacking midfielder (first Sebastian Velasquez, then David Viana), Kreis's side couldn't cut through the mess of players. Sebastian Velasquez had some good moments on the ball and nearly had a goal and David Viana had some great approach play, but without a big man in the box to hoist crosses toward, RSL had to attack on the ground, and Seattle did just enough to get by.
Despite the complaints of Seattle coach Sigi Schmid, the two yellows and subsequent red were both justified. The first came for Scott’s takedown of Fabian Espindola on the flank during a breakaway, and the second came when he crunched into Javier Morales from the back.
Breaking down the walls
It's easy to disparage the team after failing to capitalize on a man advantage, but that stream of thought tends to ignore the surprising defensive solidity of Seattle. By packing eight outfielders into a tight area, Seattle was able to effectively clog the passing lanes and restrict the movement of RSL's midfield.
As a result, Javier Morales was forced to drop deep, and Luis Gil and Jonny Steele were both pushed wide as they tried to break through. The introduction of Velasquez and Viana wasn't decisive, but with three players on the pitch capable of invention and close control, RSL looked significantly more likely to find the gaps. It's no coincidence that the best chances came after the 80th minute, when the method of approach was changed significantly.
Playing in a free role, Velasquez was able to take up positions both deep and in the box, confusing markers and disrupting continuity. It nearly paid off when he had a shot bobble off Michael Gspurning deep into stoppage time.
Kyle Beckerman the pass master
RSL's captain and chief deep-lying playmaker hardly put a foot wrong against Seattle. His efforts can be boiled down into one statistic: 123 passes accurately completed, 137 attempted. It's the first time this season that any one player has completed 100 or more passes in one MLS match this year.
That he did this all after flying into Seattle late Tuesday night after a national team camp is even more remarkable. He may not have played, but match preparation isn't exactly a zero-effort thing.
The captain can hold his head high after that performance. He was in rare form.
Real Salt Lake picked up a valuable point on Wednesday night, moving closer to clinching a top-three seed in the Western Conference by playing 10-man Seattle Sounders FC to a 0-0 draw at CenturyLink Field.
Here are some interesting numbers from the match:
The number of points RSL needs in its season-finale against Vancouver at Rio Tinto Stadium on Oct. 27 to clinch a top-three seed in the Western Conference and avoid the 4-v-5 seed knockout game. The Claret-and-Cobalt would also clinch a spot in the top-three with a loss or tie by fourth-place L.A. in either of its remaining two games.
The number of goals RSL conceded in three games against Seattle this season.
RSL’s record in its last nine games across all competitions. The Claret-and-Cobalt is unbeaten in its last five matches.
The number of goals Real Salt Lake has given up in its last nine games. In all, RSL has outscored its opposition 12-3 in those last nine games across all competitions.
The number of passes RSL captain Kyle Beckerman completed on Wednesday night, the highest single-game total of any MLS player this year. In all, Beckerman – who flew into Seattle late Tuesday night/early Wednesday morning on a plane chartered by RSL ownership after dressing in the U.S.’s 3-1 win over Guatemala in Kansas City on Tuesday – was 123 for 137 on Wednesday night. He was the first MLS player this year to surpass 100 passes completed in a match.
The number of career shutouts RSL goalie Nick Rimando has after Wednesday’s clean sheet. That total is second in MLS history, trailing only FC Dallas ‘keeper Kevin Hartman.
The number of minutes RSL forward Emiliano Bonfigli played on Wednesday night, the most he’s played in any MLS game this year. Wednesday’s game was Bonfigli’s first-ever start for RSL.
The minute in which RSL midfielder David Viana entered Wednesday’s match. It was the RSL/MLS debut for Viana, who signed with the Claret-and-Cobalt on Sept. 15.
Real Salt Lake and Seattle Sounders are two sides of the same coin: Both are known in MLS for their attacking play, but the former represents a build-through-the-middle mentality, and the latter one more focused on building from wide. As it has so many times since Seattle came into the league, this clash of styles is sure to result in some scintillating play.
But for all the attacking mentality in the world, though, both sides will be suffering from international absences — RSL unarguably more so than the Western Conference rivals.
Coping with absences
The first and most important question is likely how Jason Kreis will deal with the absences of Will Johnson, Alvaro Saborio, Ned Grabavoy, and likely Nick Rimando and Kyle Beckerman. It becomes a difficult proposition, replacing five key players, and it leaves the club facing yet another match with a depleted core. It's a far cry from the one missing piece from Kreis's "best eleven," which is sure to create some frustration.
Grabavoy and Johnson are both noted "two-way" players with strengths in attack and defense as well as possession maintenance. Their likely replacements, Luis Gil and Jonny Steele, are less balanced — Gil is a better attacker than a defender, and Steele the opposite. With Beckerman very unlikely to start (though it does depend on USMNT coach Jurgen Klinsmann's use of him against Guatemala), Yordany Alvarez will need to be doubly aware of the threats presented.
No Eddie, No Cry
However, Seattle will be dealing with absences of their own. Eddie Johnson — a vital cog in Friday's U.S. win over Antigua and Barbuda — gets a free pass from RSL fans for a day, particularly as he's likely to feature against Guatemala, and thus would be doubtful for a Seattle match. Super doubtful. Incredibly doubtful. We're giving him a ride home — a classy move, to be sure — but it's not as if he'll be expected to play.
Without Eddie Johnson's quality on headers and goalscoring ability (he's sitting at 14 goals), Seattle's typically strong crossing (excepting corners) — tied for the best accuracy with Colorado Rapids at 26.4 percent — will undoubtedly suffer. With RSL's Borlave contingent in contention, expect that rate to be a distant goal.
Seattle's passing accuracy, 76.9 percent, compared to RSL's 81.4 percent, and general passing statistics are illustrative of a team that doesn't necessarily build through possession in the same way as Kreis's side. But with passing lanes a bit more open than usual, the flank-heavy Seattle side may be given an opportunity to play a bit more centrally.
Seattle also lists slightly to its right side — 11 percent of its passes move left, 15 percent right (RSL is essentially flipped), but without Adam Johansson, who is away with Sweden, they could struggle to build on that side.
Real Salt Lake midfielder Luis Gil featured in the U.S. U-20 National Team's 2-1 loss to Canada at the Marbella Cup in Marbella, Spain on Wednesday, coming on as a halftime substitution and playing the final 45 minutes just days after he went the full 90 in RSL's 2-1 win at L.A.
Wednesday's defeat drops the U.S. U-20's to 0-1-0 in the Marbella Cup. Head Coach Tab Ramos's side next plays on Friday, when the team will take on Scotland in the second of three friendlies at the Marbella Cup. The U.S. U-20's will close out the tournament by playing Azerbaijan on Oct. 16.
RSL played an absolutely insane Reserve match down at America First Field on Wednesday morning, tying the Houston Dynamo Reserves 5-5 – yeah, you read that right, there were 10 total goals – in the club’s Reserve League finale.
A couple of quick observations from the match:
Big game for the front line
Starting forwards Emiliano Bonfigli and Justin Braun both had huge games against the Dynamo, with Bonfigli notching a hat trick and Braun registering three assists on Wednesday morning.
Bonfigli scored in the 11th, 60th and 69th minutes. His second goal was his finest, with the Argentine striker running onto a through ball in the right side of the area before catching Houston goalie Tyler Deric off his line with a fantastic chip from 15 yards.
Braun didn’t have any goals, but he was just as impressive as Bonfigli. The Salt Lake City native was strong in possession, good off the ball and – most importantly – lethal with the final pass, assisting on David Viana’s 25th minute goal, Bonfigli’s 60th minute strike and Sebastian Velasquez’s 69th minute score.
While they won’t be displacing red-hot regulars Alvaro Saborio or Fabian Espindola in the First XI in the near future, it was good to see Braun and Bonfigli perform so well on Wednesday morning. It'd be huge for RSL if either of those two could contribute - even a little bit - down the stretch.
RSL newcomer David Viana also had a strong game on Wednesday, scoring a goal and looking active in the midfield before coming off in the 77th minute.
“In the first half I thought David did a very good job,” RSL Reserves Coach Jeff Cassar said after the game. “He’s dynamic, got great feet, good vision; I think that he started to run out of gas a little bit in the second half after he’s been traveling a lot and stuff like that. It was just a solid performance for him and one to build on for sure.”
The Portuguese youth international passed well, was good – and very calm – when on the ball and decent off of it, too. He’s still learning RSL’s system and his defense is still coming along, but he’s clearly a talented player. He might not play much of a role for RSL this season, but he’s definitely someone to keep an eye on in the future.
Real Salt Lake took a step in the right direction Saturday night, beating LA Galaxy 2-1 at the Home Depot Center, placing them five points clear of the defending champions and in second place in the Western Conference.
Here are some interesting numbers from the Claret-and-Cobalt’s victory in Southern California.
RSL is now sitting on a four-game winning streak across all competitions after Saturday’s victory. In addition, Saturday’s game was the fourth multi-goal game of 2012 for Claret-and-Cobalt forward Fabían Espíndola.
Real Salt Lake’s record at the Home Depot Center in 2012. RSL outscored its opposition 12-2 in its four games at the Carson, Calif. facility this year.
Real Salt Lake is the first team in MLS history to leave the Home Depot Center with two wins against LA Galaxy in a single season.
The number of goals Fabían Espíndola has at the Home Depot Center in 2012. The Argentine forward – who, in addition to his two goals on Saturday, scored twice at Chivas USA on June 16 and once at L.A. on March 10 – also has three assists at the HDC this season.
The amount of minutes it took for the Galaxy and RSL to notch all three goals on Saturday night, one from the Irishman Robbie Keane (17’) and two from Fabían Espíndola (25’ & 28’).
Saturday’s victory extended RSL’s club record to 17 wins in the 2012 regular season.
Real Salt Lake’s 2-1 win at L.A. on Saturday was a bit strange in that all three goals – all scored before the 28th minute – didn’t suggest much tactically. All of the goals were nicely taken, but they were in such close proximity to each other that a natural lull in defending might be as much the culprit as anything else.
Tactically, it was in the remaining 75 minutes in which the match really played out. Indeed, the more tactically fascinating portion of the match was the second set of 45 minutes. It is, as always, a funny game.
Saturday's match was a chippy affair, with RSL conceding 12 fouls and possession changing hands at times rapidly. Despite the foul count (surprisingly just below RSL's season average of 13), they were all basically in the middle third. This had two practical effects: 1) Play was broken up and the Galaxy didn't have a chance to build toward goal. 2) David Beckham and Juninho, when taking free kicks, were too far off to really put them toward goal, so they were limited to lofted free kicks into the box. RSL had no particular problem dealing with these, though there were a few tight moments.
The Galaxy still got off plenty of shots, 20 to be exact. But seven of those were outside the box, well above even their average of three; of those, three were blocked, two were saved by Nick Rimando, and two were off target entirely. A further seven shots inside the box were blocked.
Excepting the goal by Robbie Keane, RSL did quite well to sniff out those chances with timely blocks. It was a fine performance on the defensive side of the ball: Nat Borchers had three blocks, Jamison Olave had two, and Tony Beltran and Alvaro Saborio each had two. It's particularly illustrative that Saborio had a couple: The man's always back on set pieces, and one or two instances aside, he's been vital there throughout 2012.
Closing out the match
When Jason Kreis used his final substitution to send Paulo Jr. on for Javier Morales, questions inevitably popped up about Kreis's game management. His first two subs were more defensively minded: Chris Schuler on for Tony Beltran and Yordany Alvarez on for Jonny Steele had the distinct feeling of Kreis battening down the hatches.
But when Paulo came on, he brought with him pace, energy and a desire to unleash attacks. He wasn't brought in to keep everyone sitting back — he brought with him an impetus to get forward and challenge the Galaxy defense alongside Espindola and Saborio. Four key passes (passes leading directly to shots) following his arrival in the 89th minute speaks to his impact.
It was not an intuitive substitution by Jason Kreis, but that elusive ability to spot a weakness in defenses seen in his playing and managerial careers requires an especially keen mind. At times, Kreis has been criticized for his substitutions, but this time, he got it quite right. Late on, when one would expect the Galaxy to be issuing their final thrusts at Real Salt Lake, they were worried about conceding a third. A goal didn't result — but at that point, all RSL needed was to distract their opponent.
The Los Angeles Galaxy is a tough side to play, not least because they've dumped huge amounts of money into their attacking front. But money doesn't exactly win matches — scoring goals does.
A remarkable division of responsibilities has seen the Galaxy spread the bulk of their scoring between four players: Robbie Keane, Landon Donovan, Juninho, and David Beckham. The latter two are known for their distance shooting, so let's start there.
Long shots: Juninho & Beckham
Juninho is one of those elusive midfielders who has a killer long-range shot. He's the Galaxy's leading passer, with his stats clocking in at about 56 passes per match with 87 percent accuracy, but nearly as important to the team is his ability to smash the ball from well outside the box. Five of his seven goals this season have come from beyond the 18, a rate only bested by his English comrade Beckham.
David Beckham, complaints about hair, hype and histrionics aside, has been one of the best players in MLS over the last few years. Whatever complaints are made about him, a quick reference to his seven goals — all from distance, four from free kicks — shows him as a frightening character to face off against.
To shut down the two, Real Salt Lake – which has only allowed two goals from beyond the 18 this year – will need to continue its fine efforts at closing players down from outside the box. This is where the absence of injured midfielder Ned Grabavoy will hurt. Likely fill-in Luis Gil – as much as he provides good attacking movement – isn’t always going to be in the right defensive positions.
It will take some excellent coaching, both from Jason Kreis and from the players on the pitch, to stop the pair from being overtly dangerous. Shut them down, and half of the worry is gone, so long as RSL isn’t busy conceding fouls near the edge of the box, or, as the area’s known in some circles, the Beckham Free Kick Zone.
In the box: Keane & Donovan
Robbie Keane is a striker proven at a high level, and that's largely because he's constantly working toward scoring. His 13 goals this season are no fluke: the man has a killer instinct. Of all MLS players this season to have taken at least five shots inside the box, he is the most accurate at 72 percent shot accuracy and a 62 percent goal conversion rate.
He's fed in two ways: the first is by David Beckham (another reason to afford the long-pass-maestro little space on the ball), but the second is by Landon Donovan. The attacking midfielder or forward — depending on the match and who you ask — who has scored nine goals this season and found a key pass for every 13 passes he makes. He's made more key passes (74) than all but two players: Javier Morales (75) and Graham Zusi (92).
Allowing Donovan too much time to work his magic would be disastrous, and with Robbie Keane lurking about, the defense will need to be on their best behavior. With Jamison Olave back in the side after a yellow card accumulation suspension, Kreis may opt to play a higher defensive line, with the Colombian defender's closing speed hopefully proving decisive.
Weakened ranks: No DeLaGarza
LA Galaxy won't be at their best: Central Defender AJ DeLaGarza is out (and perhaps for some time), leaving a gaping defensive hole. David Beckham is also a doubt — but if there's one thing to expect, it's for David Beckham to play through it to face off against Real Salt Lake.