No matter which conference you happen to be in or facing, going up against a side in the thick of the playoff hunt is always going to provide some difficulties and question marks. DC United, standing on 41 points from 26 games, will be looking to put their best foot forward as they attempt to either move up in the standings or, at the very least, stay level with their fourth-place spot.
Stopping the slide
Jason Kreis may have pulled out all the stops to slow the slide into seeming despair (I don't contend it was, of course) to grab a draw against the Union, and it might seem he'll have to do it again. In this vital time of the season, rest becomes less and less an option as every point is valuable. With the Galaxy three behind us, and Whitecaps FC another three behind them, we'll want to ensure our standing doesn't slip too much. Dropping out of the playoff race is all but impossible now, but seeded standings are important.
But more than standings, Kreis will be worried about mentality going into the postseason. The matches are becoming more and more important to win, and with CONCACAF Champions League group play remaining a priority, our approach to these matches becomes all the more important.
Shots from distance
One of the issues that's affected Real Salt Lake is our reluctance to take shots from outside the box. Now, there could be a number of explanations about this: We prefer to work it in, or defenders tend to sit deeper against us, or we just don't have the long shot abilities we'd need to make it effective. I don't particularly buy any but the second.
To do this, we'll need to break into the final third a bit more regularly than we have been. We're averaging only 25 percent of our passing in the final third, and while this is down partly to our short passing options in the midfield, more thrust is essential. It is perhaps reassuring that United are only just ahead of us (25.5 percent) in this regard, but perhaps for different reasons. But both sides do put a large percentage of their shots on target — D.C. is at about 36 percent, while we're at about — wait for it — 36 percent.
We'll need more shots from our midfield, certainly. Of our 116 on-target scoring attempts, 54 percent have come from Alvaro Saborio (32), Fabian Espindola (22), and Paulo Junior (9). A further 25 percent come from Will Johnson (15), Javier Morales (8), and Kyle Beckerman (7). Between six players, we have 79 percent of our on-target shots, and that's certainly got to be spread a bit more. Luis Gil and Ned Grabavoy, in for a starting spot on plenty of occasions, will be looking to increase their shooting rate, accuracy be damned.
Goals -- and how they are conceded
It is interesting to see that we concede the third-fewest outside-the-box scoring attempts per match (4.7), while the Washingtonians (of the capital sort) concede the most (6.5). We also concede the fourth-fewest attempts from inside the box (6.3), while United concedes the third-most (8).
Here's where those two stats really break off, though: RSL is conceding the fifth-highest number of goals from attempts inside the box (30/169) – United, though conceding just as many inside the box, has faced 31 more shots (30/200). It balances things out in a fascinating way.
Real Salt Lake fans: There’s a big, big game down in Panama tonight.
RSL’s CONCACAF Champions League Group 2 opponents Tauro FC and CS Herediano are set to faceoff at 6 p.m. MT in Panama City. The match has huge CCL implications for RSL, which is currently in second-place in the Group and needs to use its remaining two matches to vault into first to qualify for the Knockout Stage.
Costa Rican champs Herediano are in the Group 2 driver’s seat, sitting in first place with a 1-0-0 record, three points ahead of Panamanian club Tauro (0-1-0) and tied on points with RSL (1-1-0), which has played one more game than both Central American sides.
A Tauro result would be huge for RSL. The Panamanian champs – which will be underdogs against higher-quality Herediano, despite the Costa Rican club's recent coaching change – could help the Claret-and-Cobalt in a big way if they pick up a point, allowing RSL a little more wiggle room than they currently have. An upset win would be an even bigger result, as it would move all three teams into a tie for first, giving RSL complete control of its own CCL destiny.
You can watch the game live on CONCACAF.com. Be sure to pull for Tauro.
Update: Unfortunately, Tauro couldn't quite pick up a result on Thursday night, losing to Herediano 1-0. Full Group 2 standings are below:
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Ready to get to know RSL captain Kyle Beckerman a little bit better?
We sure hope so, because you’re about to get that chance.
The NBC Sports Network will be documenting Beckerman’s every move from Thursday morning through Saturday night for an episode of its in-depth, day-in-the-life series “MLS 36.” Cameras will follow Beckerman everywhere he goes, taking viewers inside the dreadlocked dynamo’s world for 36 straight hours as he and his teammates prepare for Saturday night's big home match against D.C. United.
The 30-minute episode – which, as of writing, has no set air date – will be an exciting experience for Beckerman, who saw the “MLS 36” crew at work with San Jose’s Chris Wondolowski when the two players were in Philadelphia for July’s All-Star Game.
“It's strange, for sure," Beckerman told reporters when asked about “MLS 36” after training on Tuesday. "It's cool. I'll try and represent the club the right way. That’s why I agreed to do it. I want to get Real Salt Lake out there."
Real Salt Lake head coach Jason Kreis has moved up yet another notch in the all-time hierarchy of MLS managers.
Friday’s scoreless draw at Philadelphia moved Kreis past former Colorado coach Tim Hankinson and into sole possession of seventh-place all-time in regular season points with 257. Kreis got to 257 points in significantly less time than Hankinson, reaching the mark in 18 less games than the former Rapids boss.
The 257 point total puts the 39-year-old Kreis fifth amongst active MLS coaches. On the active list, Kreis trails only Seattle’s Sigi Schmid, L.A.’s Bruce Arena, Houston’s Dominic Kinnear and San Jose’s Frank Yallop, all of whom have coached at least 97 more regular season games than the Claret-and-Cobalt boss.
It’s also worth noting that Kreis is just one of two coaches – along with former New England manager Steve Nicol – to claim a spot in the top-seven while coaching only one MLS team.
Kreis still has a little ways to go to catch former Kansas City head man Bob Gansler for sixth-place, probably needing about one more year to make up the 48 point deficit on the ex-Wizards coach.
Friday's goalless draw against the Philadelphia Union was indeed a tactically fascinating one, but not for the reasons one would have expected going into the weekend. The draw — an uptick in RSL's road form — saw Jason Kreis presenting his side a little differently than it has been in some time. Exactly how different? That's another question altogether.
Briefly, though, let's go over some elements of the tactical preview: What did we see? What didn't we see?Goals, and how they make games
Right. Everybody knows that goals change games, but this was specifically about the timing of goals — when the Union found goals most frequently. That was, of course, in the 15 minute interval around either side of the half, as well as in the final 15 minutes. It is to our credit, then, that we didn't concede a goal, but it does make this point rather difficult to discuss.
Lacking for style
As discussed, the Union are rather lacking in, well, personality. On the pitch, I mean. And you know? That seemed to be the case again — at least in attack. But in defense, the side was relentless in their pressing action. It allowed RSL little time on the ball, disrupting attempts to really create a significant flow to proceedings.
The Union were in superb defensive form: 17/21 tackles won, 21 interceptions, and 24 clearances speak to that fact. Remarkably, they conceded only a single corner and committed only three fouls in their half (of nine total), none of which were within striking distance.
Consistency dismissed: a new look
RSL's revised approach to the match involved a surprising departure from Kreis's diamond 4-4-2 (or, if you will, a 4-1-2-1-2, as Opta records it). Some dubbed it a 4-1-4-1, but I'll dispute that just a bit. What we saw was our narrow diamond, as it usually is set out, but with an additional attacking midfielder flitting from spot to spot, looking for openings. Perhaps a more fitting label is a 4-4-1-1, or, if you follow from the 4-1-2-1-2, a 4-1-2-2-1.
How does that change matters? Will Johnson and Ned Grabavoy still very much operated in their own swathe of midfield, with Grabavoy taking up right-sided attacking positions and Johnson supporting Beckerman in ball-winning measures. Luis Gil, too, was a bit further forward, but still very much the systemic tip-of-the-diamond player.
Javier Morales — inevitably the one floating in that free role — found himself at times ahead of sole striker for the night, Alvaro Saborio, at times behind the midfield, and largely in the thick of things. Was it an inspired move? It's hard to say, really, as a three-point result didn't come along with the change. But with five midfielders in there, four of which were engaged in defensive responsibilities and one generally left out of it, RSL was certainly not overrun by the Union midfield.
Perhaps that was the goal: Contain the Union, ensure a shutout, and hope for a bit of magic from Javier Morales and Alvaro Saborio. By freeing up Morales from the pressing game, Kreis ensured he got at least a good half out of his playmaker — and after a grueling week, that might have been just the goal.
When RSL takes on the Philadelphia Union on Friday, they'll be looking at a side struggling to establish an identity. The Union, 16 points off a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, might look to RSL an alluring opponent: one, perhaps, that should present an easy three points.
As we've seen this season, that's so rarely the case.
Goals – And how they make games
For all the renewed belief from a strong CCL performance, RSL underestimating the Union would be perhaps fatal. Any lack of concentration is readily exploitable, with the lion's share of Union goals coming at vital times: 30 percent come in the final 15 minutes of the first half, while 25 percent come at the end of the second half. A lack of attention to detail is ripe for error here.
But RSL, too, hold similar numbers: 27 percent of their goals come in the 15-minute interval following the half (the Union sit at 25 percent) and 19 percent come in the final 15 minutes — the two most common intervals for goals from the Claret-and-Cobalt. If both sides put forth strong efforts in approaching the goal during these intervals, we might well see a bit of a goal-fest from two sides that haven't exactly been swimming in the goals as of late.
Lacking for style
As the team with the worst crossing record in MLS faces off against the team with the third-worst record — 19 percent of RSL's crosses were accurate, while 23 percent of the Union's crosses were accurate — spectators can rest relatively assured that an aerial battle isn't set to ensue.
But while the Claret-and-Cobalt present a strong on-the-ground passing game, having made the second-highest amount of passes in the league with 81 percent accuracy, the Union seem to be a side lacking in a distinctive playing style. They don't present a strong threat on the ground, either: The fewest key passes in the league, the fewest passes in the final third in the league, the third-fewest goals in the league, and the second-fewest shots taken seem to indicate a general lack of attacking threat from the Pennsylvanian side.
For a player like Alvaro Saborio, the Union must look a tasty meal. The striker, who has seven goals in his last seven games, won’t have to deal with talented outside back Sheanon Williams, who picked up a red card in Philly’s last game and will miss Friday’s contest due to suspension.
Typically a defensive midfielder, Amobi Okugo has been asked to fill a role at center back as the Union, unusually shallow in defensive depth, look to find their footing in MLS play. In their last three league matches, the Union has had three different combinations of their starting back four. Okugo at the back may seem a surprise, but the young player will be looking to combine well with Union captain Carlos Valdes.
But as the Nowak "allocation money is king" era unfolded, the Union dispensed of two-year-starting defender Danny Califf, their hand seemingly weakened — but the arrival of former Chicago Fire defender Bakary Soumare from French third division club US Boulogne could still be the solution to that particular puzzle.
While RSL's fortunes have, at times, been a bit unkind at the back, the rise of Kwame Watson-Siriboe and Nat Borchers as a veritable defensive pairing has been a revelation. With Chris Schuler marching toward a return, Watson-Siriboe will be looking to continue his strong statement that he's deserving of a starting spot — even with injury concerns out of the way.
A Champions League match is always an exciting thing: It affords an opportunity to see tactical approaches MLS coaches simply don't use. On Tuesday, Tauro rolled in with a defensively minded 3-5-2 lineup designed to win a point, but Real Salt Lake's tactical mindset was exactly what was needed for a refreshing win.
Building from possession
A consummate midfield performance allowed Real Salt Lake to really build attacks from effective spells of possession. The match was marked by strong efforts from Will Johnson (39/44 in passing), who was spread across the midfield; Ned Grabavoy (41/49 in passing, three key passes), who built on the right side and connected play expertly; Javier Morales (45/60, four key passes), who displayed that killer mentality and expert dribbling ability he's known for; and Kyle Beckerman (49/54), who, before his red, shunted a number of balls out left for Kenny Mansally, opening play and forcing the issue.
It was perhaps a little surprising that we lacked a real midfield presence on the left side of midfield. Will Johnson continued to play just in front of Kyle, closing down play, while Ned's positioning was almost entirely right-sided. It was a slightly lop-sided approach, but some balance was afforded in the bursting runs of defender Kenny Mansally, who filled the left side quite ably.
It was through sustained spells of possession that we kept the match on our side, but it was one good break that really set it alight. Paulo's evocative run into the box, showing the full height of his close control, and Saborio's instinctive finishing was exactly what we expect from the striker. The second goal came from possession, but it was a superb strike from distance, the box filling with players, that sealed matters for the evening.
Despite crafting chance after chance from midfield possession, the two that found the back of the net were found in other ways. It's a funny game, isn't it?
Compact without the ball
In the world stage, Barcelona stands above others when possession football is the goal. It is often said that their former manager, Pep Guardiola, enforced a strategic approach in which the side, when losing possession, would attempt to regain it within six seconds, and if they did not, they would form a very compact wall of players — often all 10 outfielders in an 18-yard bunch across the pitch — and contain play until they won the ball back through less grueling means.
We're no Barcelona. That much is obvious. But last night, we saw our side playing with that same mindset. Once we didn't immediately win the ball back — which did happen quite frequently — we simply dropped into wall just inside our half. This allowed us to prevent long balls from finding their targets through a concerted offside-line effort while keeping passing lanes awfully clogged.
Jason Kreis has often said that the goal is to be compact without the ball and expansive with, but last night, we saw that really ticking over. It's a tried-and-true strategy, and against a Tauro side that tried to hit us with midfield guile and craft, it was exactly what we needed. There's no better way to shut down a creative player than to afford them no space.
An affected red
Kyle Beckerman's red, thankfully, didn't change last night's result. The card, unlucky but perhaps deserved, gave Tauro the perfect opportunity to capitalize. It was a test for our defensive strength, but we passed with rather flying colors. They still had nary a real chance, which, all things considered, is a bit surprising. Some after-the-card stats — and keep in mind, these are all in about a 15-minute timespan:
- 25/46 passing, about 54% accuracy (361/428, about 84%, before the card).
- To contrast, Tauro was 107/127 passing after the red card, but only had one shot.
- 6/8 tackles won (13/16 before)
- 10 clearances (17 before)
- Four fouls, none in particularly dangerous positions (14 fouls before, none of which were in incredibly dangerous positions)
Goals change games. That's the saying. But as we saw, cards do, too. It was through a cohesive midfield performance that we made it out with only a few minor scratches.
As painful as Saturday's loss to FC Dallas was, it provided an interesting tactical matchup that ended almost predictably: Real Salt Lake attacked dutifully and nobly, while FC Dallas was rather content to sit back, soak up the pressure, and hit on the break.
Formations: Soaking Up the Pressure
As one might expect from a side that changes formation nearly every week, FC Dallas adapted to a possession-dominating side by sitting deep and allowing attacks to fly in. Of their 38 clearances through the match — one every 2.3 minutes — of which 17 were effective.
That approach saw RSL allowed somewhat in the attacking third, but with much of the action coming on the flanks. Of the home side's 498 passes and 84 percent pass accuracy, 154 were in the final third with 64 percent accuracy — a surprisingly typical final third passing rate. Before this weekend, only 24.63 percent of RSL's passes came in the final third (the lowest in the league), though the club holds the third spot in pass accuracy in the final third — 63 percent. Sound familiar?
Despite the eased pressure in the attacking half, FC Dallas kept RSL from working in the penalty box, by and large. Only six passes were attempted there, of which one was successful. However, 10 shots were found from inside the box — three headed shots, one of which was a goal — but with little real success.
The Ferreira Factor
David Ferreira's return from a long injury layoff — suffered on April 4, 2011, from which he returned on July 4, 2012 — has been remarkable and inspiring. He's grabbed two goals and six assists from ten matches — and one of each came against us on Saturday. That, too, might be inspiring if it hadn't sent us to our third straight defeat.
But all that came in spite of FC Dallas's lack of attacking play. He found two key passes, both of which were long balls from around the midfield stripe, and an assist on the counter to put us 1-0. That he ended us in stoppage time owed partly to his free role on the pitch, as he had plenty of room to work — especially with our defense pushing into the final third late on.
RSL and Rotation
With Tuesday's match looming, some rotation was necessary, but we're always looking to win at home. A strong squad was the statement perhaps needed — for fans and for the league — but it backfired in spectacular fashion. We'll be marching on to Tuesday with some rested players: Alvaro Saborio and Fabian Espindola, both likely to start in the Champions League, each played a half, Will Johnson was kept out, and Kyle Beckerman played just 15 minutes at the end of the match.
Those four are almost assured to start against Tauro, while a 90 minute effort from Javier Morales may put slight question marks over the likelihood that he starts. Despite Grabavoy, Beltran, Wingert and Watson-Siriboe going 90, those four are all likely to start as well.
It's a quick turnaround, but without intensive travel involved, Real Salt Lake could be in pole position to gain some footing in the CONCACAF Champions League — it is, after all, the competition for which the club has kept their core group of players together, and a loss here would be a bitter, bitter blow to all that.
FC Dallas is coming into this one on a bit of a hot note, having just defeated Vancouver 2-0 and Colorado 3-2. While those results have somewhat helped us maintain our position in the table, that sort of form coming into the Rio Tinto is slightly daunting.
Formations: Switching things up
This is an FC Dallas side that quite actively adapts their formation to the match at hand and their playing personnel available. They've ranged this season from playing a traditional 4-4-2 to, more recently, a 4-2-3-1 — all of this more recent action seems to have worked somewhat, as their form and results have improved significantly.
Their most recent two match ups illustrate clearly the different approaches they've taken (although they have technically played in the same formation, the differences are clear.) In their 3-2 win over Colorado a week ago (a win for which it is hard to not have some affection for the Texans) they employed a flank-heavy look and managed two goals from long shots. In Wednesday's result against Vancouver (staving off the wolves from RSL's backs, perhaps?), they played a bit deeper in the midfield and entirely surrendered the right flank. Indeed, in general, FC Dallas has proved a more left-sided team than most others.
For Real Salt Lake, who have been one of the most consistent sides — if not the singly most consistent — in approach and formation over the last four seasons (with varying levels of success, although I'd point quite firmly at RSL's generally excellent results), FC Dallas could employ a fairly static two-banks-of-four approach to stifle creativity in the final third.
But if the two matches we played earlier this season are any indication, RSL fans could be subject to some further late drama, having found the Claret-and-Cobalt already not lacking at all in that sort of flair.
The Ferreira Factor
All these tactical and strategic switches seem to be focused on getting the best out of returning attacking midfielder David Ferreira — the victim of a broken ankle from a bad tackle only weeks before Javier Morales was taken out of contention for most of 2011. His return has already seen him gather 707 minutes of play, during which he's found 26 key passes — giving him the second-best rate in MLS at one every 27.2 minutes — just over 3 per match on average. Of course, Javier Morales isn't far behind in fourth place, at 28.3 minutes per key pass.
With that excellent key pass rate come assists: Five assists from nine matches is nothing to shake a stick at. Ferreira is one of the major heartbeats of this Dallas side, and their uptick in form could be attributed almost directly to him. But having gone 90 minutes twice in the last 7 days, Schellas Hyndman may be inclined to rest his playmaker rather than risk fatigue so early after returning from a horrific injury.
RSL and Rotation
After three of RSL's four established international players went 90 minutes in midweek, changes are almost assuredly set to be rung in, especially with Tuesday's CONCACAF Champions League matchup against FC Tauro looming. Chances for Yordany Alvarez, Jonny Steele and perhaps Justin Braun seem to be coming, and given Kreis's recent comments, it would be hard to not imagine further changes. Whoever comes out, they'll need to watch for David Ferreira and his magical passing abilities. Further, a concentrated focus on attacking down the right side while remaining defensively solid on the left could lead to some very interesting switches in personnel.
It is worth considering that FC Dallas will be playing their third game in 8 days: Will this give RSL a chance to capitalize on tired legs without burning out their own? Suddenly, these Western Conference match-ups are looking very juicy indeed.
As told to Laura Kashiwase
1) I’m a big fisherman. I grew up fishing with my Dad. When I was younger, we would go to a park after soccer games fish for bit to relax. Now, I love fishing here in Utah. The Canyons down in Provo are great for trout and bass. It’s a lot of fun and I’m starting on my fly fishing game. Fishing is something I’ll do after practice because it doesn’t really require a lot of energy; I can just go to a lake and relax.
2) I love to dance and I love music. My favorite type of music is hip hop or dance music. If I could perform with any artist, it would be Michael Jackson. I love to sing even though I’m not good at it - I’d probably be better at dancing.
3) I’m a cartoon guy even though I’m 18. I watch a lot of "Family Guy" and anything that can make me laugh. My host mom also got me started on home decoration shows on HGTV and Oxygen, and I kind of got into it at one point and watch it here and there a little. She definitely got me into watching those shows, but they get interesting sometimes!
4) My favorite soccer team (besides RSL) is Real Madrid. I’m also a huge L.A. Lakers fan.
5) My family had a huge influence on me becoming a professional soccer player. My dad brought soccer into my life and taught me how to play, and my mom supported me all the way. I moved to Florida with the U-17 National team when I was 13, so that was a huge decision for them to let me leave home at such a young age.
6) Coming from Orange County, living in Utah was a big change for me. It’s much quieter here, but I think that’s a good thing. There are a lot fewer distractions and its calmer here, so it keeps me a lot more focused on soccer.
7) My mom has a little Chihuahua named Rocky. He’s not the prettiest dog, but she thinks he’s so ugly that he’s cute.
8) I love all types of shoes—dress shoes, running shoes, any type of shoes. I usually match my shoes to my outfit, unless it’s a lazy day. But the majority of the time my shoes will match my outfit. I’m a jacket guy too.
9) I’m a very quiet and shy person by nature, but once I get to know someone, it’s a whole different story from there.
10) I didn’t do anything special to celebrate my first MLS goal (August 16, 2011 v. New York). I just went home and relaxed and soaked it all in.