RSL

Postseason Preview: Real Salt Lake by Kevin Minkus

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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How it Happened: Week One by Drew Olsen

Hello friends. This is the first in what will hopefully be a weekly feature here at ASA by yours truly. First, the background: Not being a fan of any particular MLS team is hard. It's hard to follow an entire league of 19 teams. Seven or eight games a week are difficult to catch up on, even when they aren't all played at the same time. Previously, I've watched highlights and 'condensed games' to try to pick up which teams and players were playing well, but it just doesn't work. The only way to really learn a team's strengths, weaknesses and tendencies is by watching every minute of every game they play. There's no way I can do that with every team in MLS while still working a full-time job. Sorry.

My solution is this: I plan on committing to watching a full 90 minutes of three games per week. This gives me six teams that I'll feel that I truly know (at least for that week), and should certainly teach me a heckuva lot more than just if I just watched their highlight packages. Since this here is an analytical and statistic-focused blog, I'll break down each of the three games by one particular stat or Opta chalkboard image that I think told the story of the game for each team. Think this idea is idiotic? Love it? Please, let me know: feedback is always appreciated. But leave my mom out of this.

DC United vs. Columbus Crew

Stat that told the story for Columbus: 58% of successful passes in attacking half for the fullbacks

clb1

The above image is all of the completed passes for Crew fullbacks Waylon Francis and Josh Williams on Saturday. These two players are clearly defenders who aren't afraid to get forward, but the startling frequency with which they were able to get up the field against DC had to have alarm bells ringing for United fans. For folks who prefer numbers to images, here you are: 49 of the 85 passes that Francis and Williams completed (58%) were in the attacking half. That's a pretty solid attacking contribution from two guys who are listed along the back line.

This was made possible for Columbus by a couple of adjustments made by new coach Gregg Berhalter. Centerbacks Michael Parkhurst and Giancarlo Gonzalez split reallllly wide when in possession, allowing both fullbacks to get forward. This was made possible by holding midfielder Wil Trapp, who sat very deep to cover the gap between centerbacks. It's only one game, but it certainly looked like a good strategy in week one for Columbus.

Stat that told the story for DC: 1 attacking player's pass into the penalty area

dcu1

Really, the above image for Columbus tells a lot of the story for DC, as well: they got hammered because the Crew got the ball wide and stretched DC's shape like a bad hamstring. With a team full of new faces who clearly haven't learned to play with one another yet, the defense was abused by all the space Crew players were able to find. But I can't use the same stat for both teams, so here's what I got for United: one. One successful pass from any of the three players nominally deployed in attack (Eddie Johnson, Fabian Espindola, Luis Silva) that ended in the penalty box.

Seriously: take a look at the Opta Chalkboard above. I get that it's hard to complete passes in the 18, but for the three guys who are tasked with creating chances, there needs to be more than one completed pass that ends up there. Oh, and that one completed pass? It came from a free kick, and ended with a flick-on by Davy Arnaud that didn't even turn into a shot. There was a lot wrong with DC in 2013 and a lot wrong with DC last weekend, but if the new faces of Johnson and Espindola were expected to cure all attacking ills....Ben Olsen may be in for a rude awakening.

Portland Timbers vs. Philadelphia Union

Stat that told the story for Portland: 20 crosses in the second hour of the game

The Timbers came out for the season opener and were dealt a dose of their own medicine from the new-look Philadelphia Union. Playing in a 4-3-3, the Union clogged the center of the field, put a lot of pressure on Portland and really made it difficult for the home team to get into their possession game. But as any good team does, the Timbers made adjustments. After being credited with just two crosses from open play in the games first 35 minutes, Portland emphasized wide play with Michael Harrington getting forward and Darlington Nagbe flaring out wide. After the 35th minute, Opta credited Portland with 20 crosses from open play. Some of this was due to bombing the ball forward as they sought an equalizer late, but recording 10 times as many crosses was certainly the product of an adjustment made by the Timbers.

Stat that told the story for Philadelphia: 12 midfield interceptions & recoveries to start the game

As I said above, the Union started the game very strong, with their midfield really clogging up Portland's attempts to possess the ball. The midfield three of Maurice Edu, Brian Carroll and Vincent Nogueira seemed to be replicating some of what made Portland so successful in 2013: clogging the middle of the field and winning a majority of loose balls. Opta credits those three with 12 combined interceptions and recoveries in the game's first 22 minutes. However, as also noted above, Portland adjusted to the Union's set-up and began to emphasize wide play. The Union didn't really adjust to the adjustment, as the Timbers clearly became more and more comfortable as the game went on. After those 12 interceptions/recoveries in the first 22 minutes, Edu, Carroll and Nogueria only recorded seven more the rest of the game.

LA Galaxy vs. Real Salt Lake

Stat that told the story for LA: 2.39 expected goals; 0 actual goals

lag1

If you're at this site, chances are you know the concept behind expected goals. If not, scroll down a ways and read up. Anyway, look at the above image: that's not a map of shots that typically leads to a shutout. According to the numbers run by ASA's own Harrison Crow, a league average team would've finished 2.39 goals from those shots. They finished zero. If you aren't into the stats and would prefer the English commentator's version: Robbie Keane missed some sitters, Landon Donovan was unlucky not to finish any of his half-chances, and Juninho and Marcelo Sarvas combined for some speculative efforts that nearly bulged the ol' onion bag. Oh, and Nick Rimando had a magisterial day in net to keep his clean sheet.

Stat that told the story for RSL: Joao Plata's complete game

I'm cheating a little here because that's not a real stat, but any time there's a 1-0 game, it's tough to leave out any conversation about the lone goal scorer. In this case, that's the diminutive Ecuadorian, Joao Plata. Plata debuted for Toronto FC three seasons ago, and it seems like he's been around for a lot longer than your average 22-year-old. But it's true. Plata is only 22, and if Saturday night is any indication, he could be in for his best season in MLS yet. Not only was Plata's finish on the game's only goal very cool, he was consistently playing with a lot more tactical awareness than I've seen out of him in the past. Whether it was setting up Alvaro Saborio for golden chances or making intelligent runs to stretch the defense and open up space for Javier Morales, Plata had a very, very good game against LA.

Game of the Week: Real Salt Lake vs. Portland Timbers by Drew Olsen

A look at the 4-2 scoreline may give the appearance that Real Salt Lake shredded Portland's defense in an wide-open free-for-all. On the contrary, two of RSL's goals came directly from corner kicks, while a third was courtesy of the generosity and stone touch of Futty Danso (who was also marking Schuler on RSL's first goal). Credit should of course go to Salt Lake for piling on the pressure, but what really characterized Real Salt Lake's play on Sunday was not a free-flowing attack, but rather excellent team defense and a commitment to attacking via the flanks. No Space for Portland

Throughout the match, Real Salt Lake's defensive shape remained resolute, and never came close to being broken down by Portland's 4-3-3. Kyle Beckerman was, as ever, the linchpin of RSL's midfield, leading the team in aerial duels won with 6 (of 7) and tackles (4, tied with Tony Beltran), and contributing 6 clearances. However, the incessant pressure of Sebastian Velazquez and Luis Gil—who it should be noted are 19 and 22 years old, respectively—along with the fullback pairing of Beltran (who led RSL in touches with 76) and Chris Wingert/Lovel Palmer, never allowed any space for Diego Valeri or Darlington Nagbe to work their magic in the midfield. Many of Portland's forays into the penalty area stemmed from Rodney Wallace collecting the ball in wide positions and sending in listless crosses (0-for-6) that were easily dealt with by Nat Borchers. Forward Ryan Johnson was kept in check all game, limited to a mere 18 touches in his 59 minutes on the field.

The entirety of Portland's productive offensive output consisted of Will Johnson's free kick goal, Piquionne's soaring headed goal, and a 77th minute shot from Alhassan after a slick dribbling spell through the heart of RSL's midfield. For the entire game, Portland had only two successful dribbles and three successful crosses in the attacking third (one of which was Jewsbury's beautiful assist).

Defending from the Front

The only change in the starting lineup for Real Salt Lake to start the game was Devon Sandoval replacing an ailing Alvaro Saborio. While few would argue that Sandoval is the better player, his kinetic style, defensive workrate, and ability to get into wide spaces provided problems for the Great Wall of Gambia.

Chalkboards of Devon Sandoval vs. Portland (left) and Alvaro Saborio vs. Los Angeles (right)

RSLvPor-11-11-Sandoval RSLvLA-11-07-Saborio

As you can see, the defense starts from the front. Sandoval pressured wide all game long, trying to disrupt Portland's rhythm in the defensive half of the field. Of Sandoval's 43 actions against Portland, only 11 (25.6%) took place in the center third of the field, compared to 15 of 28 (53.6%) for Saborio against Los Angeles. Sandoval also pressured back more than Saborio did: 8 of 43 (18.6%) actions by Sandoval took place in RSL's half of the field, compared to a meager 2 of 28 for Saborio (7.1%).

Stretching the Diamond

What really stuck out about the way that Real Salt Lake played, however, was the way that their midfield “diamond” stretched from touchline-to-touchline, with Velazquez manning the left, Gil hugging the right, and Morales drifting from side-to-side, looking for an inch of space wherever he could find it.

Here is a chalkboard of passes attempted by Real Salt Lake, along with the percentage of passes attempted from each section of the field:

RSLvPOR-11-11-RSLBallPossessionAreas     RSLvPOR-RSLPossessionNinthed

And here are all of the passes attempted by Portland, along with the percentage breakdown:

RSLvPOR-11-11-PORBallPossessionAreas     RSLvPOR-PORPossessionNinthed

Real Salt Lake attempted only 13.6% of their passes from the central attacking portions of the field, while 64.3% of their passes came from the wide attacking areas. Portland, by contrast, attempted 18.9% of their passes from the central areas, and 58.6% of their passes coming from the wide attacking zones.

RSL ratio of wide-attacking passes to central-attacking passes: 4.73-to-1 POR ratio of wide-attacking passes to central-attacking passes: 3.10-to-1

Real Salt Lake took their chances against Portland's flank defense rather than try to fight through Will Johnson and Diego Chara. The gambit worked well, as all eight of RSL's key passes and assists came from wide positions.

Three questions for leg 2 in Portland:

1. Will Saborio be healthy? If so, Sandoval will likely see the bench again as Findley's speed will serve as an outlet against a high-pressing, possibly desperate Timbers squad, unless...

2. Kreis opts for the 4-2-3-1? Beckerman and Yordany Alvarez were deployed in a double pivot at Los Angeles a few weeks ago, and while the results were not exactly convincing, it perhaps implies (or at least I'm inferring) that Kreis may want to take a more conservative approach on the road in the playoffs.

3. Ryan Johnson or Frederic Piquionne? Ryan Johnson has put in a workmanlike effort thus far in the playoffs, but with his playing time diminishing each game (83 min @ SEA, 69 min v SEA, 59 min @ RSL) and Piquionne finally healthy (and able to leap clear over Nat Borchers), it may be time for Piquionne to crack the starting lineup.