A couple of weeks ago the Seattle Sounders played a very depleted San Jose Earthquakes team. And because so many of San Jose's key players were missing, we really had no idea how the team would set up. This week we play a Real Salt Lake team that's nearly as depleted as that Quakes team, but there's no confusion about how they'll play.
Salt Lake's tactical consistency is metronomic. Through the rebuilds and redesigns that transform the rest of the league from season to season, the RSL midfield diamond has been a constant. It's a machine built on two central axles: Javier Morales in front and Kyle Beckerman in back. But Beckerman is away on national team duty, so can the machine still operate? Salt Lake prioritizes the system over any one player, but he's an important player.
|Javier Morales||By far the most important with their other key players out. Cagey offensive creator. Will draw set pieces.|
|Nat Borchers||Stout central defender sporting a viking beard these days. Should dominate the air enough to make high crosses mostly pointless.|
|Ned Grabavoy||Box to box midfield shuttler on the side of the diamond. Will both apply defensive pressure and pop up in the box on late runs.|
In fact, they've got a lot of players missing. Start ticking off the names that come to mind when you think of Salt Lake. Who are their impact players? Beckerman, of course. Nick Rimando? Gone. . he's also with the national team. Alvaro Saborio? He's away with Costa Rica (and now it sounds like he's injured for most of the season). This year you would add Joao Plata, who's had an explosive start to the season with six goal already. But he left the last match with an injury and is questionable to play this week. The one star who's left with the team is Morales, and he will be asked to carry the offense in Seattle.
The dense midfield and positional discipline of the diamond mean that they are a strong favorite to have a possession advantage in any match. And that continues into this season, where they are third in the league in maintaining possession and fifth in total passes per game. The goal of that possession is to build offensive chances in numbers and to prevent opponent chances by starving them of the ball. And from a distance it's succeeding emphatically. They have the best goal differential in the league, outscored only by the Sounders and tied for the fourth best goals against. Which is the major reason that they're the only undefeated team left in the league.
But zoom in a bit and there's a hint of mirage. Saborio has six of those goals, on 35 shots for a strike rate of 17%. That's high, and almost certainly wouldn't hold up if Saborio's season weren't (apparently) over. But it's nothing compared to Plata's. The Ecuadorian also has 6 goals, but on 18 shots. A 33% strike rate over a large sample size is very, very silly. As a team, they have the 6th fewest shots in the league which is not a rate that will keep them in the top tier of goalscoring teams over the long run.
There are some concerns defensively as well. Despite an above average goals against total, they allow more shots in the box than any team in the league. Though you'll remember that New England were in the same situation when we played them and they shut out Seattle. A statistical anomaly isn't a promise, especially when projecting a sample as small as a single match. But I'm comfortable saying the RSL defense either hasn't been nearly as good as their GA would indicate or Rimando's influence is so massive that a team that leaks shots like a sieve can consistently prevent goals with him in front of net.
There are a few keys to attacking RSL's diamond. One is to switch sides of the field quickly to take advantage of the space created when the entire midfield four drifts to a side to defend the ball there. That means central midfield pivots who can make quick, accurate long passes and wingers who can receive them with aggressive first touches. Osvaldo Alonso is tremendous at the former, and he will be key to setting up Seattle chances even if he doesn't drift forward into the attack himself.
The second is not getting run over in central midfield. By tucking the sides in and pulling a forward back they create short passing lanes for as many as five players at once, even in the attacking third. Trying to defend that with just two defensive midfielders would be madness. A 4-3-3 with Alonso, Gonzalo Pineda, and one of Brad Evans or Andy Rose would help balance the numbers. As would help from fullbacks who can pinch in, which would a good opportunity for Evans at right back.
Another key is to attack the box on the ground rather than swing in high crosses. Borchers and Chris Schuler should dominate any balls in the air, especially given that the Sounders have little attacking height. Instead, driving at elbow of the box will force them to play with their feet, and force the RSL fullbacks to stay at home and neuter their contributions to the offense. An ideal Seattle attack is Alonso quickly switching the ball between Lamar Neagle and Marco Pappa to find gaps in the laterally moving midfield, and then that winger quickly getting into the box for a chance.
And somewhat contradictorily, RSL is fairly weak against set pieces. Though the two center backs are good in the air, the rest of the team is fairly poor at dealing with set pieces. So a chance to bring Chad Marshall forward on a corner or free kick may be a significant scoring opportunity for the Sounders.
Overall, RSL is not as good as their record indicates, even with all of their players in place. And without them, they might not even be a league average team — especially on the road. But Seattle isn't whole either. Clint Dempsey and DeAndre Yedlin are away from the team. Lamar Neagle is still recovering from a minor injury. And with the long term loss of Djimi Traore we don't know who'll pair Marshall in central defense. I would still favor Seattle to win this one, but if we get the tactics wrong it could be a replay of New England.