Human spirit! xDAWG!! Face-melting madness!!!
A GIF is worth a thousand words:
Literally nothing about RSL’s season was explicable or predictable other than, I guess, the fact Pablo Mastroeni would have his guys emptying the tank more completely and more often than any other coach in the league. That kind of buy-in can make up for a lot of shortcomings.
And woo boy, did RSL have lots of shortcomings. They weren’t great tactically, they lost their best player to a season-ending injury by mid-April, they didn’t add much high-end talent, and there were about a dozen points in the regular season when it felt like the bottom was going to drop out.
That it never did is a credit to the culture Mastroeni & his staff has created, as well as to the players themselves. These guys went out there and played HARD every single week no matter how far down the bench Pablo had to go (he had to go pretty, pretty far!), and the fans rewarded them with consistent sell-outs and raucous crowds.
I don’t know what it’s building towards because I’m not sure how many of these guys will be back as key pieces, and I frankly don’t think the ceiling on Mastroeni’s tactical approach is all that high. But my word, was this season a success in so many ways.
Formation and Tactics
Mastroeni shuffled through one formation after another – 4-2-3-1, 3-4-2-1, 3-5-2, and then eventually into a flat-ish, classic 4-4-2 by the time the home stretch rolled around.
Whatever the formation was, though, here were the three principles they lived by:
- Hit a ton of long balls.
- Switch the field of play a ton.
- Hit a ton of crosses.
It all comes down to “make the field as big as you can as fast as you can,” and when you combine that with a commitment to get multiple runners in the box, then you’ve got yourself an ideology to build around.
On the flip side, always playing long means you don’t turn the ball over in bad spots all that much, so RSL weren’t particularly vulnerable to counterpressing or counterattacks.
Going 3W-0L-1D out the gates is really, really high on the list, and set the tone for the rest of the season even as Damir Kreilach and Aaron Herrera got hurt, and as David Ochoa proved to be persona non grata. Precisely nobody would’ve picked the Claret-and-Cobalt to be on 10 points by mid-March if you’d tell us those were the parameters.
But as great as that was, and as fun as the 4W-1L-0D stretch in May was, and as amazing as the 2-1 win in Seattle was in August (maybe the quintessential xDAWG performance), the only possible answer is the Decision Day win over visiting Portland. This was functionally a playoff game – win or the season’s over – and they answered the bell:
Armchair Analyst: RSL beat Portland 3-1
RSL hadn’t had a home playoff game since 2019. This turned into one for the fans, and they went berserk when the team gifted them with a time-capsule performance. RSL did all the typical Mastroeni stuff in terms of making the field big and getting numbers forward, but they were also finding time and space to put together slick combinations through midfield and cut the Timbers apart.
It was probably the best they looked all year, and it came in the most important game of the year after a month on the struggle bus. Incredible vibes.
This is one of the two worst, most brainless fouls I can recall in MLS postseason history:
RED CARD: Rubio Rubín, Real Salt Lake - 52nd minute
RSL had lots of other matches that were worse than what they put forth in Austin on Sunday evening, and I think things got to their absolute lowest during the five-game winless skid ahead of Decision Day. There was not much belief in the team outside of the locker room at that point.
But this was just so unnecessary, and completely undid what had been a dream start – up 2-0 on the road (though 2-1 by the time of Rubio Rubin's red), playing good ball and xDAWG’ing them to death.
The inexplicable season was capped by one of the most inexplicable red cards in recent memory, one that made the eventual result, dramatic as it was, something of a fait accompli.
So, so many. Let’s go:
- Zac MacMath had a very good year as a full-time starter for the first time since 2014.
- Sergio Cordova, the on-loan winger, evolved into much more of a true No. 9 as the year went along.
- Andrew Brody! We – the gang at Extratime – had him 5th team All-MLS (yeah, we give out our own awards) for the year he put in at left back. He was a source of constant energy and attacking urgency, as well as quality.
- I love Jasper Loffelsend. An All-American right back at Pitt, RSL drafted him in the fourth round and turned him into one of the most fun and dynamic box-to-box midfielders in the league.
- Bode Hidalgo probably didn’t play enough to merit “revelation” inclusion, but I’m putting him here anyway because livewire wingers who are clever in the box don’t grow on trees.
When so many of your best players are hurt – Kreilach, Herrera and Bobby Wood all missed huge chunks of time – and so many others either underperform or leave – Ochoa, Albert Rusnak, Everton Luiz – you need to be able to develop guys further down the depth chart into competitors.
Unless, of course, you go out and spend big and hey look, it’s time for…
The single most disappointing thing is Kreilach’s injury. Let’s make sure we understand that, because if he’s good for 2,700 minutes this year then RSL’s hosting LA this past weekend instead of traveling to Austin.
But the other big disappointment (and maybe the biggest in certain segments of the fanbase) is ownership did not go out and go HAM during the summer transfer window. Bringing Jefferson Savarino back as a DP was a good move, and I love grabbing Diego Luna from the USL Championship (please let him be the American JaviMo!). Bryan Oviedo and Braian Ojeda both had some very nice moments down the stretch, too.
These, however, were not the type of franchise-altering moves fans wanted, or the team truly needed. So when the sale happened last winter, RSL fans were dreaming of a team with Kreilach and three new DPs.
Instead they got one new DP, no Kreilach and a lot of wondering about what might have been.
Five Players to Build Around
- Savarino (W): He can play other spots (AM, second striker), but he’s one of the best wingers in the league and should play there exclusively in 2023.
- Cordova (FW): Make the loan from Augsburg permanent, fellas. Cordova’s got all the measurables, and as he embraced the role of a center forward he looked more and more dangerous. 8g/1a in 16 games (all comps) since mid-July speaks well of what could come.
- Justen Glad (CB): Still irreplaceable back there. If they’re truly shopping him (as has been rumored), they’re nuts.
- Brody (LB/RB): He adds value on either side and is maybe the poster child for xDAWG.
- Loffelsend (CM/RM/RB): Any player who works that hard to find space for himself and create space for others adds value, and his skill level is high as well.
Make the Cordova loan permanent as soon as you can even if it takes making him a DP (and throw the No. 9 on him instead of that out-of-place No. 10 kit), and then add another DP winger. Once that’s taken care of, it’s time to figure out if the offers for Herrera and Pablo Ruiz this winter – offers which I expect will be coming – are the right ones to take. Given the state of the rest of the roster, and my suspicion a Loffelsend/Ojeda central midfield will be more functional and dynamic than one with Ruiz (who does not cover a ton of ground) in there, I’d be inclined towards selling and just getting the conveyor belt moving.
Because that’s what RSL have to start to become: the Wasatch version of Philly or Dallas. They’ve proven the ability to create depth out of thin air, and they’re now loaded with kids on the earlier part of their developmental curve.
So it’s time to sell and make room for the next generation to play. You can win while you do that – both Philly and Dallas do, right? – so why not RSL?