“They’re big on possession. They’re the No. 1 possession-oriented team in the league,” defender Justen Glad said at training.
“Maybe [they’re a challenge] because they’re the No. 1 team that possess the ball,” midfielder Sebastian “Bofo” Saucedo said.
They were the first words out of head coach Mike Petke’s mouth as well: “They’re the No. 1 possession team in the league.”
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That message came across loud and clear in preparation for RSL's clash against Atlanta on Friday night at Rio Tinto Stadium (9 pm ET | UniMás, Twitter; MLS LIVE on DAZN in Canada).
What does it really mean for Petke & Co., though? It may mean even more of a challenge than the free-flowing attack "Tata" Martino used to win MLS Cup with Atlanta in 2018, with a September victory over RSL along the way:
“A bit of a new system compared to last year, but to us it’s more organized defensively and explosive on the transition,” Petke said of the current vintage of the Five Stripes under new head coach Frank de Boer. “The game two years ago here, they were explosive and they were opened up for us to counter them at that point, but they also did a good job on the counter press then. This year, they’re still going to counter-press and be aggressive, but they do get much more organized defensively.”
Salt Lake still see ATLUTD as a fearsome opponent, even if the reigning champs found good results hard to come by early in the season. The only difference this year, in RSL's view: They’re more sound defensively and they dominate the ball more.
It has made for some interesting discussions among the coaching staff this week.
“Our possession is the starting point,” Petke said. “Our ability to shift them and find gaps, and at times be intelligent, maybe even sitting off a little bit to allow them to come out and allow them to open up a little bit. We’re talking about and figuring out how to break down a team that’s going to come in and have possession and get organized defensively and make it difficult for us.”
RSL are preparing for three elements in the match: controlling the ball when they have it, limiting Atlanta in transition, and how they find and take their opportunities against a disciplined, counterattacking team.
“Having a lot of movement and being calm on the ball and having that quality,” Glad said. “There were spurts last game where we were very good on the ball and got out of tight situations just off of player movement and quality touches.”
With RSL just above the playoff line in the Western Conference and winners of their last two games, they'll be looking to build on recent performances, including a spirited 3-0 home win over Toronto FC last week.
Saucedo knows taking advantage of any chances they get will be big because Atlanta’s front line have shown they can put their chances away.
“Obviously they have special players, but so do we. We just have to take advantage,” Saucedo said.