As Real Salt Lake's numbers have thinned in recent weeks, so have Jason Kreis' options in midfield. The diamond-four has remained in place, but RSL's head coach has been forced to play mix-and-match with the various combinations he has at his disposal.
But which works best? It's become tougher and tougher since Javier Morales was lost on May 7.
“We are going to have to answer questions about who is going to be the integral figure in there to create chances,” said Kreis. “Can other guys get a little more involved in the attacking third? Some of that is just going to take time.”
Prior to the injury, a starting midfield of Morales at the top of the diamond, Kyle Beckerman holding down the fort at the bottom and Ned Grabavoy and Will Johnson out wide, was a shoo-in for the bulk of their matches.
Now with the loss of Morales, and Will Johnson off at the Gold Cup, there is a lot more up in the air.
The result is that RSL have six players in the mix for the four midfield positions. Beckerman remains at holding mid, but Grabavoy, Andy Williams, Collen Warner, Nelson González and Luis Gil are competing for the other spots.
Here are some of the criteria that Kreis could use for deciding on who makes the starting 11:
Quite frankly, Salt Lake were lacking in this department against Columbus on Wednesday. And the younger guys — Gil (17 years old), González and Warner (both 22) — should bring plenty of energy. Yet none did in the 2-1 loss at Crew Stadium.
It’s hard to find a guy with more experience than Williams. The 33-year-old has played in 310 MLS matches and has seen it all over a 14-year MLS career. He just lacks the legs to go 90 minutes game after game. And although 27-year-old Grabavoy has only seen half as many matches as Williams, he also has a much-needed journeyman savvy that is valuable on the pitch.
González is a natural attacking player who gives the midfield a definite push up high and adds some excitement in the final third. Warner can do nifty things with the ball at his feet, and can set teammates up when around the penalty area. Williams and Grabavoy have a reputation as solid attack-minded players as well.
With the departure of Johnson, this becomes more of a struggle. He’s shown to take a defense first approach to the midfield that has helped RSL build a reputation as a stingy defense. Outside of Grabavoy (and Beckerman), the remaining midfielders lack this mindset to a great extent.
So how does Kreis mix this together? By choosing a good mix of all of these components. He could choose Grabavoy for his experience and defensive abilities, Williams for his poise on the ball and vision in the attack, and Gil or González for their youthful energy and their attacking presence. But at the end of the day, the mix needs to work and yield results.
“This is a moment in our season and in our club where the players have the answers,” said Kreis, “and it’s time for them to step forward.”