When an opponent comes to town, you generally know what to expect. You know who’s going to play, or at least the type of players who will play, and what approach they will use. You can isolate the possibilities to a couple lineups and a couple tactical tweaks.
Don’t even bother with Real Salt Lake this year. They have more lineup flexibility than anyone in MLS heading into 2019. They could throw out vastly different lineups — and playing styles — each week. You don’t just need a scouting report, you need a calculator.
Let’s just focus on the attack. There are five guys in contention to snatch a starting spot on the wing:
- Jefferson Savarino, Venezuelan international and No. 5 on the 2018 22 Under 22 rankings
- Corey Baird, 2018 MLS Rookie of the Year and recent US men’s national team call-up
- Joao Plata, perennial MLS starter with 48 career goals and 48 assists
- Albert Rusnak, the highest-paid player on the team (per the MLSPA)
- Bofo Saucedo, rising star that scored this dope goal last weekend:
Three players who could start at striker:
- Sam Johnson, recently signed using a Designated Player spot
- Damir Kreilach, the team’s leading scorer with 12 goals in 2018
- Corey Baird
And two players who could play as the attacking midfielder:
- Albert Rusnak
- Damir Kreilach
Any math majors want to work through those permutations? None of the players appear guaranteed a spot, and nobody excludes anyone else. It’s nearly perfectly democratic.
It’s not just the sheer quantity of lineups, either, but also the different types of playing styles they could form. They have players in each position with similar overall ability, but very different attributes. Therefore, they could use different systems without (theoretically) a dip in quality. For example, this lineup...
...functions very differently than this lineup:
Neither lineup stands out as obviously superior, but they each offer unique style. A team with the lightning fast Johnson at striker looks very different than a team with Kreilach at striker. A team with Rusnak and Baird on the wings poses different threats than a team with Savarino and Plata out wide.
Other teams have depth, but nobody can offer that type of variation.
The two wildcards that provide the most unpredictability are Rusnak and Kreilach. Rusnak has been the team’s attacking midfielder for the past two seasons, but Kreilach emerged as a new attacking option last season. After he transitioned from defensive midfielder to attacker, he finished the season as the team’s leading goal scorer (12) and third in assists (8).
Mike Petke fielded Kreilach and Rusnak together as unorthodox combo strikers/attacking midfielders in 2018, but the team went out and signed Johnson to a DP contract. One would think they wouldn’t sign a player to a DP contract without a plan for him to get on the field (though last year’s big striker signing, Alfredo Ortuno, might suggest otherwise). As a result, don’t be surprised to see Rusnak moved wide at times in 2019. Mauro Diaz served a similar function at times for FC Dallas in 2018.
RSL would lose the pace and 1-v-1 threat, but they would have an extra player to combine through the middle. It might not be Petke’s first option to move Rusnak out of the middle, but it’s an option. Unpredictability. Flexibility.
The team won’t stay perfectly healthy all year, and players will hit hot and cold streaks. I wouldn’t be shocked to see someone from the attacking corp get moved before the start of the season, either. But as it stands, RSL have something few other teams can match: meritocratic flexibility.
Is all that flexibility good for RSL? Well, that’s another question. I thought they could have used clearer ideas and a more predictable plan (for their own players) at times in 2018. The key will be to build core principles of play, and then allow the players to execute them in their own ways. If everything clicks, it’ll leave opponents with a nearly impossible task to find a solution.
Most teams give a hint throughout preseason of what they are trying to do. RSL aren’t. And that could be a major weapon throughout the year.