Postseason Preview: Real Salt Lake / by Kevin Minkus

@kevinminkus

2018 in Review

After an encouraging 2017 featuring the emergence of a handful of exciting young talent, Real Salt Lake seemed poised to take a step forward in 2018. Technically they did, by making the playoffs on the last day of the regular season, courtesy of an epic collapse from the LA Galaxy. RSL found themselves in that precarious position thanks to a lot of inconsistency. The team’s stretch run, for example, featured a 6-2 dismantling of the Galaxy followed by a home draw to Minnesota, and a 1-1 tie at Kansas City (maybe RSL’s best performance of the year given the context) followed by two blowout losses to Portland. Those painful ups and downs are what happens when you build a team on still-developing stars - it’s just a part of the process. Here it is in graphical form, with their 4-game rolling xGD:

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The upward trend is encouraging! Until the last 8 weeks or so. Real Salt Lake will need to put together a playoff performance that looks more like the peaks than the valleys if it wants to make a deep run

Stats to pay attention to:

  • 0.096 xG per Shot

Salt Lake’s average shot quality is the second-lowest in the league. They have creative attackers, but too often settle for shots from distance, and actually double-down on that when they’re trailing - their xG per shot drops to 0.07. If RSL goes down early, that tendency to waste possession will make it difficult to come back from behind.

  • 1.3 missed tackles per 90 for Kyle Beckerman

Beckerman has looked a step slow at times this year, and stats bear that out. He’s whiffing on more tackles per 90 than any other season we have data for:

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This lack of midfield steel has meant RSL is open to being picked apart down the middle.

Formation

Mike Petke played with a few variations on the team’s 4-2-3-1 down the stretch. What is maybe their best look got pasted by Portland in the last game of their regular season, and a frankly odd group made up of a lot of second-stringers destroyed New England the game before. So, anyone’s guess is as good as mine as to who Petke gives the nod to here for the knockout round. That it is so difficult to pick out a starting 11 for RSL speaks to the team’s inconsistency.

Knockout Round Matchup

Most of this preview has so far focused on the negatives, maybe understandably- 538 has Salt Lake at only 29% to advance against LAFC. But all that means that RSL can play stress-free, with minimal expectations, and any playoff experience that RSL can get their kids will pay dividends down the road. The pressure will all be on LAFC at home.

Tactically, LAFC is a fantastic passing team, especially in the middle of the park and in transition, where RSL is particularly susceptible. LAFC picked at exactly that in the teams’ last two meetings, though the most recent of those was more than two months ago. Defensively, LAFC is also weak in the middle though, and if Albert Rusnak and Joao Plata can find space to create chances, RSL will get their opportunities. One player poised to take advantage of those opportunities is Rookie of the Year favorite Corey Baird. Baird has put up stellar numbers, and RSL will need him to show up big if they want to pull off the upset.

Why RSL Won’t Make MLS Cup

The MLS playoffs are a grind, and they require a team to be on every single game. One inconsistent performance is enough to crater a team’s hopes. RSL have not managed that consistent play, particularly against playoff-level competition, all season. Their defense specifically has been easily exposed, and if Beckerman, at the end of a long season, doesn’t have the legs to keep up, they will especially struggle.

Why RSL WILL make MLS Cup

There are no truly dominant teams in the West - everyone has an exposable flaw - and when Salt Lake’s young stars all click they can keep up with anyone. They have a legendary goalkeeper in Nick Rimando (it’s a bit shameful I’ve gotten this far into the article without mentioning him), and he has it in him to be the difference maker in a game. The team’s youthful core is still growing and developing, but they’ve definitively improved as the season has gone on. If they can up their game one more level for the playoffs, they have it in them to surprise people.