Last weekend, Real Salt Lake were staring at a bad situation: a league match on the road while coming down from the high of a signature win for the organization (and the entire North American soccer nation). Plus, the upcoming schedule included a home match against Rocky Mountain nemeses the Colorado Rapids just a few days later.
In other words, it was a recipe for a bad night as they visited New England last Saturday.
The regulars were physically tired and emotionally drained. So RSL coach Jason Kreis decided to rest seven regulars.
RSL’s best hope, then, was to draw up the perfect plan and hope that the non-regulars—the “reserve players,” as the postgame quote sheet referred to them—executed it with precision and discipline.
Which is exactly what they did, earning a highly intelligent and meaningful 2-0 win and picking up some additional momentum heading into Wednesday night’s Rocky Mountain clash with the Colorado Rapids (9 pm ET, watch online: MatchDay Live).
How, exactly, did they do it? And what does the result tell us about RSL as a club?
First, their possession was simplicity at its best. They were a one- and two-touch machine. Along with a strict attention to spacing, this allowed them immediately to seize the initiative against the home team.
Without the ball, RSL were also impressive. They pressed high – but only in the right spots. Whenever New England broke the pressure, the visitors rushed eight players behind the ball. Will Johnson and Ned Grabavoy, along the outside of RSL’s midfield diamond, did yeoman’s work in this regard. RSL forwards, meanwhile, patiently shepherded the New England attack toward trapping zones along the outside.
As three midfielders retreated and the forwards did their thing, RSL’s Collen Warner’s responsibility—keeping an eye on Revolution trigger man Shalrie Joseph—became infinitely more manageable. Warner, stationed at the top of the midfield diamond, was always the first to identify Joseph’s position and get close. From there, all four RSL midfielders communicated, passing the responsibility of tracking Joseph off from one to the next. It was more than effective. The Revs’ engineer was force to pull into deeper-lying positions in an attempt to make room for others.
Johnson was particularly effective. His work rate was typically critical to the tight midfield arrangement Kreis demands. Johnson tends to cram so far inside when the ball moves to the other side that he practically becomes another central midfielder.
But RSL’s strength these days, both from the regulars and the reserves, is reliable possession. Against NE, defend-and-counter was never the plan (although one smart, early ball did create the second goal). Instead, the visitors deployed what is becoming their hallmark, generally keeping the ball with such calm tidiness that New England had fewer chances to bother the back line. The Revs took just one shot on goal before halftime.
Young center backs can sometimes be drawn out of position. But RSL’s impressionable pair against the Revolution, Chris Schuler and Raushawn MacKenzie, held the line with military discipline. Since Johnson was tucking so far inside, there was rarely a need to scoot forward and challenge an attacker. RSL’s midfield had things covered, as they seem to often.
It is most likely in the midfield that Wednesday’s RSL-Colorado Rocky Mountain Cup encounter will be decided. With regulars Kyle Beckerman, Javier Morales, and Andy Williams back in the RSL lineup, fans can expect a full-blooded clash with Jeff Larentowicz and Pablo Mastroeni (if he can go).
But the key player might be the player Kreis chooses to replace Will Johnson—who saw a late red against the Revolution—in the fourth spot in the RSL midfield diamond. Kreis saw a great deal to be excited about from his reserves in New England. Warner’s skill on the ball will help the possession, but Jean Alexandre’s work-rate and strength in the tackle might better replicate Johnson’s role. Ned Grabavoy’s experience and good form makes him probable, too.
So many options, many of them made more viable by the strong performance against New England. Despite all the lineup changes—or perhaps because of them—it was a distinctly RSL performance.
Steve Davis’s “Talking Tactics” column appears every week on MLSsoccer.com