Talking Tactics: How to win with 10 men? Ask RSL

Playing down a man is usually somewhere between devastating and a real bummer. On the road, it’s even more brutal.

But it doesn’t need to be an automatic death sentence. Just ask Real Salt Lake. Or Chivas USA, for that matter.

Early in RSL’s visit to the Goats last weekend, Real center back Nat Borchers found himself in a terrible position and chose to foul. Referee Kevin Stott appeared correct in judging that Borchers had denied a goal-scoring opportunity (the acronym-minded cheekily call it “DOGSO”), and RSL were left to defend an early lead for 70 long minutes.

How did Jason Kreis & Co. pull off the high-wire act?

There is no one best way to defend 10 vs. 11, but a few tactical templates do exist, and RSL coach Kreis chose perfectly Saturday.

It started with a solid 11-man strategy — so solid, in fact, they were able to retain it even when down to 10. Once Borchers hit the showers, the defensive orders of the day simply didn’t change. It was always about denying Chivas USA’s most dangerous attackers and cinching off the Goats’ preferred routes forward.

WATCH: 10-man RSL hold on to beat Chivas USA
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Chivas play much like RSL, with a tight diamond midfield out of the 4-4-2. Generally, Jorge Flores provides some width on the left, but the right side slants inside. So the attack generally goes through Nick LaBrocca in midfield or through a target man.

With Juan Pablo Ángel’s recent walk across the HDC hallway from LA to Chivas, the Goats attack became even more centrally oriented. And on Saturday, the home side paired Ángel with Alejandro Moreno, a move that further narrowed Chivas USA’s attack. Moreno wanders toward the touchline more than Ángel, but not as much as the younger and more nimble Justin Braun, who was left on the Goats’ sideline.

So RSL’s defensive plan was to stay narrow in defense and deny balls into Ángel; stay narrow in midfield and deny balls into LaBrocca. In short: Button up the middle, concede the flanks.

Borchers’ elimination did complicate one aspect, though: He and central partner Jámison Olave are big and bad when it comes to snuffing out crosses. Without him, there was a soft spot. So Kreis removed attack-minded midfielder Arturo Alvarez in favor of 6-foot-4 center back Chris Schuler. Now realigned into hybrid formation, something between a 4-3-2 and a 4-4-1, the plan was essentially the same.

Crafty second striker Fabián Espíndola provided the “hybrid.” Stationed left, he provided an outlet and a link to target man Álvaro Saborío. On defense, Espíndola remained slightly left and slightly behind Saborio, helping Will Johnson on that side and then slanting inside to provide extra defensive support and an attacking outlet when the ball migrated to RSL’s right side.

And it all worked brilliantly.

Key to the plan was not dropping too deep, as many teams do when defending a man down.

“We don’t want to drop and invite them to play,” goalkeeper Nick Rimando told reporters after the match. “We wanted to make sure to stay high. So I was trying to get our defenders and midfielders to step up and make sure we still play the same game, but with that extra 10 percent [effort].”

They did dig in for that crucial, extra 10 percent. And then some. Left back Tony Beltran was particularly effective, despite often being isolated on the flank. When down a man, the double team doesn’t come; your teammates trust your individual ability while they remain central to wipe out any forthcoming danger. And Beltran repaid that trust in full.

Meanwhile, Olave was more beastly than usual in dealing with crosses and with the Goats’ main threat, Ángel, who knows how to work the “six” as well as anyone in MLS history.

In midfield, Kyle Beckerman and Johnson were middle-clogging monsters, astutely understanding when to tackle and when to deny passing lanes. Even teenaged midfielder Luis Gil provided a good shift.

It was all well planned, well orchestrated, and well finished. Which is just about as opposite as can be from how it all went down in Kansas City.

Not to pick on anyone, but watch the final 10 to 15 minutes of Sporting Kansas City’s 3-2 loss to FC Dallas under similar circumstances and you’ll appreciate what RSL did that much more.

Sporting, also reduced to 10 men, defended tentatively rather than aggressively. At least one of Brek Shea’s telling crosses went completely unchallenged. And in the middle, SKC’s less locked-in center backs simply did not deal with danger as well as their RSL counterparts.

Kreis got the tactics right, but also recognized that even the shrewdest plan, as we say, only gets you so far. 

“I think a lot of it is tactical ... 50 percent [tactical] and 50 percent hard work,” he said. “I think the guys have to be in the right shape, the guys have to have a real sense of the passes they're going to allow, and the passes they're not going to allow.

"On top of that, they've got to work extremely hard. So all of the players for me tonight, after we got them in at halftime, had a real good idea of how we wanted to defend, and all of them were willing to do the defending.”