I originally had an idea for an article about Real Salt Lake during their game against LAFC last Saturday. They were down 2-1 at the time, and I was planning to write about their strengths and weaknesses — a trophy-contending attack and award contenders in defense and at goalkeeper, but problems with passing and in midfield.
A pretty general topic, but they’re an interesting team, and they should be among the Western Conference’s elite this season. I could connect it back to whether they can reach that level.
Well, the rest of that game did not go as I expected. LAFC, of course playing their second-ever game, tacked on three more at Rio Tinto, obliterating RSL by a score of 5-1. That changed my plans for this article.
Instead of praising Real, their young players and their fun playing style, this has to take on an aura of “what went wrong?” We’ll explore that in conjunction with an assessment of how RSL can make themselves into a contender, and an appreciation for what has made them good. To do that, let’s look at the good of Real Salt Lake and the bad:
At their best, RSL are a thrilling attacking team. The “3” line of their 4-2-3-1, featuring Jefferson Savarino, Albert Rusnak and Joao Plata, is creative and aggressive on the ball. They take every opportunity to run at defenders and conjure productive sequences in the final third, creating their shots via close-range combination play and proactive movement on and off the ball.
According to WhoScored, RSL are third in team dribbles and second in successful team dribbles through two games; on an individual level, Savarino leads the league by a wide margin with 19 (Rusnak is 16th, with eight). This would indicate that they build attacks around individual on-ball runs and 1v1 attacks, especially when you consider that 74% of those total team dribbles came from attackers.
But their passing statistics tell us otherwise. Although it’s a very small sample size (same goes for all stats mentioned here), Plata is fifth in MLS in total attacking third passes and Rusnak is 12th, per American Soccer Analysis.
By comparison, the LA Galaxy, who are first in total dribbles, do not feature a player on the attacking third passes list until 29th place, where defender Rolf Feltscher checks in. Montreal, second in total dribbles, only have one player above 30th-place. By being prolific in both categories, RSL are a statistical irregularity.
Sitting relatively high in stats that measure individual and team attacking tendencies tells us 1) they’re balanced in what they do in the final third, 2) they are on the attack enough to compile these kinds of stats, and 3) they use one form of attack to help create opportunities for the other, or else they wouldn’t be so active in both. The eye test checks out here.
RSL’s general attacking pattern looks like this: They find the ball on the flanks, create space with clever dribbling, pass into that space to another attacker, and then that attacker dribbles to the goal with that space, where he can shoot or deliver a final ball. Here it is in practice from Week 1’s 1-1 draw at FC Dallas:
A good glimpse at RSL’s attack. They create space by dribbling around defenders and take advantage by passing into those gaps, where they can dribble again. Very fast, very direct, very talented. pic.twitter.com/bTrLvGIRqs
— Harrison Hamm (@harrisonhamm21) March 13, 2018
After Rusnak tracked down a second ball from a Matt Hedges header, Plata received it on the wing and dragged Carlos Gruezo out of midfield, allowing Rusnak to slip into that space. The Slovakian moved it along to Damir Kreilach, who then got it to the opposite flank for Savarino. Savarino shredded Maynor Figueroa and slipped it across goal.
Mike Petke gives his players the freedom to create and improvise. It makes for good soccer, and it can confound opposing teams who struggle to defend 1v1.
To make use of a productive attack, you must be able to get the ball on their feet, and you must give them opportunities to attack on the counter in space and in possession with numbers. No matter a team’s tactical philosophy, it is essential to consistently get your attacking players in varying types of creative positions, diversifying attacking patterns and generally increasing your chances on goal.
A midfield that can pass and outside backs capable of supporting attackers are the keys accomplishing this. RSL struggle in both areas.
Box-to-box midfielder Damir Kreilach, signed in the offseason to partner an aging Kyle Beckerman, looks fairly competent through two games, but he too often resorts to low-percentage long balls when in a position to distribute the ball forward. Especially without a strong hold-up No. 9 up front, those long balls are counterproductive.
Real won’t be a “Passing Team” in the mold of Columbus or NYCFC, and they don’t have to be because the attack is so direct and talented in space. But they haven’t been as efficient as they could be in build-up play. Kreilach has to be more willing to play the ball forward and on the ground. He and Beckerman also need to be more effective at linking an often-spread-out attacking shape.
It doesn’t help that the full-back tandem of Demar Phillips and Shawn Barry that Petke sent out in the first two games was an unmitigated disaster. Barry is solidly below-average. Phillips was ripped to shreds by the movement of LAFC’s attack, struggling mightily to track Diego Rossi as he gave up two goals and three assists to the Uruguayan. Neither is all that capable in possession, either.
Danilo Acosta, the 20-year-old preseason starter at right back, was apparently benched for disciplinary reasons, and Tony Beltran went down for nine months in preseason. Acosta should start soon, alleviating some concerns at the position.
They are a talented enough team to rebound quickly, and we saw Petke revive a sinking team last June. This situation is much less desperate than that one.