For the better part of two seasons, Real Salt Lake have been looking for an answer at No. 9.
Over the past two weeks, they may have found it. And in an unexpected place.
RSL head coach Mike Petke moved center midfielder Damir Kreilach into a more attacking role for the club’s game at the Colorado Rapids on Aug. 25. Petke explicitly told Kreilach that he wasn’t to strictly play as a No. 9, but that either he or usual No. 10 Albert Rusnak would have to occupy the center backs and make runs in behind while the other sat a bit deeper and handled more of the playmaking duties.
So far, the tactical tweak has paid off. RSL have scored six goals in each of their last two matches, a 6-0 win at the Rapids and a 6-2 thrashing of the LA Galaxy at Rio Tinto Stadium last weekend. They’ve been boosted by some mitigating circumstances (Colorado were down to nine men by halftime; LA have conceded the second-most goals in MLS this year), but the attack has been fluid and Kreilach and Rusnak have been producing. They combined for seven goals and one assist in the two blowouts, with Kreilach bagging a hat trick in the win against LA.
“I wanted to get the best players at the moment, the most experienced and the most in-form players on the field and we thought that could work in this way,” Petke told MLSsoccer.com on Thursday. “When we put Dami[r] and Albert up there, I did not identify to them, I refused to identify to them which one was the No. 9. It just had to be one of them had to occupy the center backs and act like a No. 9 in the movements and one had to drop in as the No. 10. And I think they’ve both done a fantastic job for a while now in those roles and understanding the right time to do those things.”
The uptick in production has been a welcome change for an RSL team that hasn’t gotten much out of their No. 9 in either of the last two years. The messy end to Yura Movsisyan’s time with the club this winter and the failed Alfredo Ortuño experiment this spring left the club without a proven option up top. Luis Silva has had success in the role in the past, but he’s struggled with injuries this season. Rookie Corey Baird performed admirably for a long stretch of the season, but he’s a natural winger that never played as a full-time No. 9 in his academy or college days. Having him fill the role for a Western Conference playoff hopeful in his first season as a pro was always a big ask.
It hasn’t been for Kreliach, who has done most of the dirty work as RSL’s point man while Rusnak operates in the open spaces around him. The 29-year-old can finish at least as well if not better than the other options RSL have used at striker this year, is big enough to bother opposing center backs, has the feet to combine well with Rusnak and wingers Joao Plata and Jefferson Savarino and the understanding to create gaps for them.
“It gives a lot more freedom to the two of them, but also if you include Joao and Jefferson on the wings it gives them at times a lot more space to expose behind, to isolate one-on-one,” said Petke. “Sometimes the center backs do not know where Damir is going to go or where Albert will pop up. Or perhaps both of them will drop in sometimes and the center backs are caught between going and staying, so it’s not just about Albert and Damir, it’s about the other players around them and how they can exploit areas vacated by Damir and Albert or how they can interchange with them.”
Moving Kreilach higher up the field has had another positive knock-on effect. It’s allowed Sunny Stephen to slot into the starting lineup alongside fellow defensive midfielder Kyle Beckerman. That’s given RSL more strength and mobility in the middle than when Beckerman partnered with Kreilach, who’s less defensively-minded than Sunny and struggled at times to build chemistry with Beckerman.
“I think it takes a lot of pressure off of our attacking players and our team in general to have both Sunny and Kyle in there,” said Petke. “It takes a lot of pressure off of Kyle, as well, as opposed to when we play with him and Damir and Damir is trying to get forward as much as possible. It leaves us less exposed on the counterattack and it gets another very experienced, in-form player onto the field for us.”
And though Petke didn’t want to commit to his tweaked setup for the rest of the season, it looks like the new approach will serve fourth-place RSL well down the stretch – and potentially into the playoffs.
“We’ve had many good moments this year and now we’re hitting a stride of sorts, but I’m certainly not ready to say we’re playing great and this is exactly who we want to be,” he said. “I always think there’s room for improvement.”