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Sounders vs. Real Salt Lake: Three Questions

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RSL Soapbox explains what has made Freddy Juarez such a successful first-year coach.

MLS: Real Salt Lake at New England Revolution Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

Real Salt Lake visits the Seattle Sounders in the MLS Playoffs for the first time since the two teams engaged in two epic series in 2011 and 2012 (which they split). This RSL team is quite a bit different — aside from Nick Rimando and Kyle Beckerman — and has even switched coaches since their 2019 regular season visit to Seattle. They’re coming off a hard-fought 2-1 victory over the Portland Timbers in the last round. We asked Matt Montgomery of RSL Soapbox to give us the lowdown (our answers to his questions can be found on that site):

1. Freddy Juarez seems to have exceeded expectations as a first-time head coach. How would you describe his coaching style?

This is an interesting question, in part because there was a general consensus that Juarez was the tactical mind behind RSL during Mike Petke’s tenure. But over the last three months, I think we’ve learned that’s generally just not as much the case as we’d thought. He’s immediately set about implementing a possession-oriented approach, and it’s paid dividends. The general shape is more or less the same — a roughly constructed 4-2-3-1 — but we’re seeing something a bit different now.

The team is actually a more defensively stout side (which is not what I’d have expected when we fired our former centerback coach, but soccer is weird) that has started looking better in transition. Obviously possession has been a big part of that, too, with Petke not really minding if it was completely ceded to the opposition. Juarez values that highly, and it’s been the foundation of our play from August forward. That transition was more or less immediate for the side. While there have bumps here or there, the team has adopted it quite well.

Off-the-field, Juarez is a soft-spoken, well-considered coach. He’s quick to explain his decision-making process, which has been a breath of fresh air. He’s taken some risks in his coaching, and he’s held his hands up when those risks didn’t work out quite the way he’d hoped. He doesn’t feel like a first-year coach in that regard.

2. It seems like Juarez is a bit more likely to play matchups as opposed to having a hard-and-fast starting XI. What do you think influences his decisions tonight?

He certainly said as much in an interview this week, but by and large, I think that’s around his starting center forward and his starting center backs. The rest seems to shake itself out fairly naturally. It’s definitely a departure from Petke and Waibel, who talked often about just wanting to get the best players on the field. This feels a bit more purposeful, and I think it’s working well.

That said, for his decisions tonight, he might also be influenced by the relatively short turnaround time between these matches. If we see changes, I’d imagine someone like Sam Johnson, who is fast and lethal, comes into the game. He won’t get as involved in attacking play, preferring to make deep runs to hold the ball at his feet, but he’s a potent goalscoring threat at the same time. If Johnson comes into the match, expect Corey Baird to be the one sitting; Damir Kreilach has become a hugely influential figure for this side, and I don’t think we’d sacrifice his presence.

We might also see Justen Glad come in at centerback. He’s often clocked as the fastest player on the squad — or nearly the fastest, depending on the year — and he reads the game better than, say, Marcelo Silva. If we’re to counter players like Jordan Morris and Raul Rudidiaz, he could be vital.

3. I know it’s been seven years since these teams met in the playoffs, but those were some epic matches. Do RSL fans still feel like this is a bit of a rivalry?

Seven years! Wow. Has it really been that long? It feels like we’re constantly coming up against each other, despite the reality. That might speak to the presence of some sort of rivalry, but I don’t think it’s felt especially strongly from most Salt Lake supporters. In part, that’s down to the fact that despite having Ozzie Alonso facing off against Kyle Beckerman for a long period, nothing ever truly ignited the sparks between us. They’ve just been good matches (more or less — excepting, of course, the numerous times I visited Century Link Field only for RSL to get demolished.)

Instead of a rivalry, this feels more like two good teams coming up against each other. I think that’s a good place to be. At the same time, I wouldn’t mind a bit of a kerfuffle or two really making this MLS Cup Playoff Soccer™.