It's rare that two sides so perfectly matched meet, but with Real Salt Lake once again taking on Seattle Sounders, a tactical battle was inevitable. With Seattle focusing in wide areas and RSL creating through the middle, the match was more tactical than technical in its nature.
Stopping wide play
There are two sides to this coin: On one hand, we should consider how well Seattle was able to get crosses into the box. On the other, we should consider that those rarely had any real effect.
A six-for-38 crossing rate — about 16 percent success, including corners — speaks to the cross quality. It's a low mark for Seattle, but the number must be a little startling — allowing 38 crosses is a bit dangerous. But by and large, those were rushed, and the central defenders — Borchers and Watson-Siriboe, largely — were able to clear most of the danger.
Understandably, Seattle focused their crossing efforts on their right side. With Mauro Rosales and Christian Tiffert taking up positions there, RSL relied heavily on Chris Wingert, who performed well, especially given the glut of attack coming on that side.
Flipping the midfield
To clog up the passing lanes in Seattle's attack, Jason Kreis made an interesting decision to switch the sides Ned Grabavoy and Will Johnson operated on. With Grabavoy on the left, Rosales and Tiffert were able to pick up play a bit, but we more easily regained possession on that side.
Johnson on the right allowed an excellent partnership with Tony Beltran, forcing Seattle's play outside the final third. Combined with Seattle's generally right-sided play, the other flank was RSL's. With Johnson cutting in just a bit more central than he usually does when playing on the left, clogging passing lanes effectively.
With Grabavoy and Johnson switching sides and playing in channels, Kyle Beckerman was left to control the center of the park. His defensive contribution was largely acting as a body in the center — Seattle's penchant for avoiding the center of the park in attack meant he wasn't called on as he is against other MLS sides.
As a result, Beckerman acted more as a distributing central midfielder, occupying the middle third almost exclusively. It's a stark contrast from the occasions in which he's deployed in an anchoring role and acts as a third center back — on Friday, he was tasked with transitioning from defense to attack.
With Javier Morales taking up his typical wider positions, the connection between the two was strengthened: Beckerman picked the ball up in the middle of the park, pushed it off to Morales, and the attack moved forward. Additionally, Alvaro Saborio, in fine hold-up form, was a vital cog as RSL looked to build in attack.
Real Salt Lake got its Western Conference Semifinal series off to a good start on Friday, tying Seattle Sounders FC 0-0 at CenturyLink Field to set itself up nicely for Thursday’s return leg at Rio Tinto Stadium.
Here are a few interesting numbers from Friday’s first leg:
The amount of goals RSL has conceded in four games against Seattle this year. The Claret-and-Cobalt has kept Sounders FC off the board for 389 straight minutes, last conceding against Seattle in the 61st minute of the second leg of last year’s Western Conference Semifinal on Nov. 2, 2011.
The number of consecutive scoreless draws RSL has played across all competitions.
The number of minutes RSL has gone since last conceding. The Claret-and-Cobalt last gave up a goal in the 17th minute of the team’s 2-1 win at L.A. on Oct. 6.
The number of saves Nick Rimando made on Friday night. Four of those stops were absolutely spectacular.
The number of stitches Rimando got after Friday’s game. Rimando suffered a facial laceration and a broken nose – which was re-set after the match – when he collided with Seattle midfielder Christian Tiffert in the 66th minute of Friday’s game.
The number of postseason minutes captain Kyle Beckerman and Rimando have played for RSL. The pair has played every single playoff minute in the team’s history.
The number of RSL playoff games midfielder Will Johnson has appeared in. Johnson has appeared in all of the Claret-and-Cobalt’s postseason matches.
The number of consecutive sell-outs of Rio Tinto Stadium RSL is shooting for on Thursday night. A limited amount of tickets to the match are still available and can be purchased here.
Of the 13 all-time meetings between RSL and Seattle across all competitions only three - a 4-1 Seattle win in the 2011 U.S. Open Cup and both 2011 Western Conference Semifinal games - have been decided by more than one goal.
The number of times RSL has advanced from a home elimination game in six tries. The Claret-and-Cobalt will be hoping for number 2 on Thursday night.
It seems like it was only yesterday that Real Salt Lake was on their way to Seattle to take on the Sounders on Oct. 17. These two sides just can't seem to stop playing each other, and with that, another entertaining match is likely to ensue in the first leg of the MLS Western Conference Semifinal.
Stopping wide play
The Sounders are an interesting matchup for more reasons than just historical: With their flank play, they represent a distinct ideological shift from Real Salt Lake's through-the-middle approach. Will Johnson and Ned Grabavoy will be forced to step into wider areas to challenge Seattle's full backs, and Chris Wingert and Tony Beltran will be forced to push a bit higher than they would against most sides to challenge Seattle's wingers.
This puts a bit more of an onus on Kyle Beckerman to cut out passes when Seattle transitions from the wide areas to more central areas, focusing acutely on players like Christian Tiffert and Mauro Rosales, the two biggest sources of Seattle's key passes.
On the defensive
Going behind in the first leg of a playoff series makes the second leg more difficult. It is perhaps fortunate, then, that RSL is going into this match with a brilliant defensive record, having conceded only three goals in 990 minutes of play across all competitions. It's a remarkable measure, but it doesn't stop goals from occurring.
Performances on the road have at times been lacking, evidenced by the fact that RSL has conceded 20 goals and scored only 19, leaving them with a negative differential away from home. But going on goal differential can be a bit misleading: San Jose has conceded 21 (+8 GD), Seattle 22 (+2 GD), LA Galaxy 27 (+1 GD), and Vancouver Whitecaps 24 (-14 GD).
Seattle has conceded only 11 goals at home, the best mark in all of MLS. It makes the proposition a bit trickier: Does Real Salt Lake come out and try to nick a goal or two against the team with the best home defensive record? I'm inclined to think that Jason Kreis recognizes this and will instruct his players to worry first about defending — something they've been quite good at in the last month or two — and to look for goals through counter attacking play.
It's been evident before (save in the most recent MLS match against them, though they did go down a man) that Seattle isn't afraid to commit players in attack. It could be an influential factor. I'm not saying RSL should bunker, mind — that's the sort of stuff the team’s never been great at. But if Seattle wants to swing crosses in with reckless abandon, RSL's back line — whoever it may be — will have the ability to deal with it. It's when wingers cut inside that there may be more worries.
A huge thanks goes out to Rancid drummer Branden Steineckert for writing, recording and producing "Believe RSL - Version II." Additional thanks to Isaac Halasima and Deep Blue Films - regular producers of RSL campaigns - for their creative contributions in the shooting, production and editing of this video.
Watch Branden's incredible follow-up to his original "Believe" anthem above. Trust us, you don't want to miss it.
RSL takes on Seattle in the first leg of the Western Conference Semifinal series on Friday night at 8 p.m MT on NBC Sports Network. The second leg will be at Rio Tinto Stadium on Nov. 8.
Ready for Friday night’s MLS Cup Playoff opener at Seattle?
We are too. Unfortunately, there's still over 48 hours left 'til the first leg of the Western Conference Semifinals kicks off on NBC Sports Network at 8 p.m. MT.
You'll just have to let the above 2012 season highlight package tide you over until then. Go ahead and enjoy the doozy of a video with your favorite candy bar. It is Halloween, after all.
Last week, we went in-depth on the various scenarios that would affect RSL’s playoff seeding, chances of hosting MLS Cup and potential qualification for CONCACAF Champions League. In that post, we told you we’d be back with an update after the regular season wrapped up this weekend.
Well, here we are. Let’s get right to it:
RSL secures No. 2 seed
As you probably know by now, Real Salt Lake’s 0-0 draw against Vancouver on Saturday combined with L.A.’s 1-0 win over Seattle on Sunday night gave RSL the Western Conference’s No. 2 seed for the MLS Cup Playoffs. The Claret-and-Cobalt will kick off its postseason campaign on Friday night at No. 3 seed Sounders FC (8 p.m. MT on NBC Sports Network). The return leg for that series will be on Thursday, Nov. 8 at Rio Tinto Stadium.
Claret-and-Cobalt unlikely to host MLS Cup
Unfortunately, it’s not looking very likely that RSL will host MLS Cup should the team advance all the way to the final. The Claret-and-Cobalt would only host MLS Cup at Rio Tinto Stadium on Dec. 1 if it was playing Chicago or Houston. One of the Fire or the Dynamo will be eliminated on Wednesday night, when the two teams play each other in the Eastern Conference knockout game at Toyota Park outside Chicago.
If RSL qualifies for MLS Cup against Kansas City, D.C. or New York, it would play the game on the road.
Cup or bust for CCL qualification
Had RSL won on Saturday, it would’ve finished the season in third-place in MLS and thereby could’ve qualified for the 2013/14 CONCACAF Champions League if: A) The team made MLS Cup or B) San Jose and/or Kansas City made MLS Cup.
Of course, the Claret-and-Cobalt didn’t win on Saturday, it drew. That result left the team in fifth-place in the overall MLS standings, meaning that the only way it can qualify for the 2013/14 CCL is by advancing to MLS Cup.
The takeaway, as always: Let’s just win the whole thing.
Any time you've got 90 minutes with no goals, there's a chance the match was a bit on the boring side — Real Salt Lake’s scoreless draw against Vancouver on Saturday was no big exception. But with plenty of lineup changes and some interesting substitutions, there was plenty of tactical interest to be had.
With backup goalie Kyle Reynish on for regular ‘keeper Nick Rimando, and Chris Wingert and Kwame Watson-Siriboe as the central defenders in front of him, there was always a slight risk that continuity could be disrupted and defensive posturing rendered obsolete. Much to their credit, the slightly makeshift back line did well to snuff out chances before they started — all while both outside backs Tony Beltran and Kenny Mansally were both able to get forward with ease and aplomb.
With Javier Morales out and Will Johnson not starting, the midfield did struggle a bit to create clear chances, but Jonny Steele's defensive contribution (4/4 tackling, 3 interceptions) was a bright spot. Luis Gil failed to inject himself fully in the tip of the diamond, but Ned Grabavoy was in fine passing form and Kyle Beckerman was his usual strong self.
With the game bordering on boring through most of the first and second halves, late substitutions promised at least some sort of shift in momentum. For Real Salt Lake, the arrival on the scene of Sebastian Velasquez, Will Johnson and David Viana did just that.
The most notable was certainly Sebastian Velasquez, who took the opportunity, as they say, with both hands. With late runs into the box, exciting dribbling ability, and a demand for the ball, he showed a hunger and drive that set things alight late on.
Will Johnson, on the other hand, didn't have too much to do — set up as a right back in a shift from his usual left back spot (when moving into a defensive position), with Tony Beltran going to the left, he got forward well but wasn't able to really change the affair in a substantial way. With only 12 minutes on the pitch, that wasn't entirely surprising.
David Viana came on and played 19 minutes in his home debut, but he, like most, didn't show anything entirely too exciting. As a newcomer to the system, the fact that he's getting minutes at all speaks well of his ability, but if he is handed another chance in 2012, he'll want to be more of an impact.
Heading into the playoffs, RSL has done as well in the last five games of the season, gaining more points in the last five matches of the regular season (11) than in any other season. Whether this affects the long-term viability of the playoff campaign is difficult to say definitively, but Jason Kreis is a firm believer that form carries over. It's hard to see it not having at least some impact.
Real Salt Lake played Vancouver Whitecaps FC to a 0-0 draw at Rio Tinto Stadium in the club’s regular season finale on Saturday. We’ll eschew taking a look at that game, however, in favor of looking ahead to the Claret-and-Cobalt’s Western Conference Semifinal series against Seattle Sounders FC.
The series – a rematch of last year’s Western Conference Semi – begins with the first leg on Friday night at Seattle. The return leg will be held at Rio Tinto Stadium on Thursday, Nov. 8.
Here are a few interesting numbers ahead of the playoff matchup:
Real Salt Lake’s margin of victory over Seattle in last year’s Western Conference Semifinal. RSL beat Seattle 3-0 at Rio Tinto Stadium in the first leg of that series and advanced to the Conference Final by limiting Sounders FC to a 2-0 win at CenturyLink Field in the second leg.
Seattle’s record in MLS Cup Playoffs series since the team joined the league in 2009.
The difference in the number of matches Seattle has played across all competitions this year (44, including one friendly) and the number of matches RSL has played across all competitions this year (39). According to a recent Forbes study, when all other factors are equal – which, it should be noted, isn’t necessarily the case with RSL and Seattle – a team that has played five more matches than its opponent entering a two-legged playoff series has about a five percent chance of winning said series. That's certainly a good omen for the Claret-and-Cobalt.
RSL’s record against Seattle in 2012. The Claret-and-Cobalt beat Sounders FC 1-0 at CenturyLink Field on May 12 and played the Cascadia club to a scoreless draw on both July 4 at Rio Tinto Stadium and Oct. 17 in the Pacific Northwest.
The number of goals RSL conceded in three games against Seattle this year.
The number of goals RSL scored in three games against Seattle this year.
Real Salt Lake’s all-time record when playing Sounders FC at CenturyLink Field. The Claret-and-Cobalt – which won MLS Cup 2009 at the stadium – has a 1.4 points per game average against Seattle at the stadium, the second-highest such average of all MLS teams.
Be one of the first 5,000 fans into Rio Tinto Stadium for tomorrow's regular season finale against Vancouver Whitecaps FC to snag an awesome Kyle Beckerman bobblehead.
Pair him up with the Nick Rimando bobblehead you got last year. Every bobble needs a friend and those two are sure to be best buds.
Bouncing back from a painful cup exit is a difficult thing to do for any side, but the Claret-and-Cobalt will want to avoid the "continental hangover" effect against Vancouver Whitecaps FC at Rio Tinto Stadium on Saturday.
With the match the final regular season contest before the start of MLS Cup playoffs, three questions will be on the top of Jason Kreis's mind: How does RSL approach the match? What personnel should be used, and who is available? And, finally: How does regular season form sit in the priority?
As detailed in Thursday's post on The Sovereign, there's plenty left to play for, even when we're just talking about the regular season. The pain of losing against Herediano is still there, but as it so often does, time marches on and the Claret-and-Cobalt are being pushed into another meaningful match. Despite the subdued build-up — it's hard to imagine it's easy to escalate after this week — it could still potentially affect RSL's ability to host the MLS Cup and to qualify for CONCACAF Champions League.
As such, finding the right balance will be critical for Jason Kreis. As much as fans have had a hard week, the players will feel it doubly so, and whether that's best solved by putting them in a high-pressure scenario or by having them relax a bit and just play is hard to really say effectively. This is, as they say, why he's paid the big bucks.
With two additional injury concerns coming out of the Herediano match, Jason Kreis has more than the approach to the match to worry about. Both Will Johnson and Chris Schuler came out of the match because of injury, and with Jamison Olave and Ned Grabavoy kept out of proceedings altogether on Tuesday, pickings are looking slim.
If Schuler and Olave are both out, it seems likely that Kwame Watson-Siriboe would be used if fit — but at this point, that may be a fairly substantial "if." The only other immediate option would be to push Chris Wingert inside, dropping Kenny Mansally in at left back.
If Grabavoy is indeed out, Luis Gil (if sufficiently recovered from mid-week and from illness) would almost certainly take his place; if Will Johnson is out, it's hard to look past Jonny Steele — if just for defensive contribution. Steele has, to my mind, received a lot of criticism for his play, some of it justified — but his work rate and defensive ability are the closest available in midfield next to Will Johnson's.
It's often bandied about that form is the deciding factor moving into playoffs, sometimes with some evidence, other times with significantly less than that. Regardless, RSL will want to keep Vancouver's form spotty — in their last nine matches, they've won just once, a solitary 4-0 victory over Western Conference whipping boys Chivas USA. Further, it seems odd, but with a win, RSL could find their best form since June.
After Real Salt Lake failed to win their last six matches to end 2011, there were concerns about the ability of the squad to respond positively in the playoffs. A strong win at home against Seattle aside, there wasn't much momentum to carry forward.
Regardless of the statistical realities (or irrealities, as the case may be) of form leading into playoffs, it stands to reckon that keeping his troops injury-free will be high on the priority list for Jason Kreis. If he's to go into playoffs with only one recognized center back available, an overwhelming sense of deja vu will pass over all of Utah. That may be as much an influencing factor as anything.