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Sounders v. Real Salt Lake: Six Questions with the opposition

Tuesday night’s playoff game (7:30 PM PT, FS1/FOX Deportes) demands more.

MLS: Real Salt Lake at Seattle Sounders FC Stephen Brashear-USA TODAY Sports

Over the years the Seattle Sounders and Real Salt Lake have become more and more intertwined. RSL won their title in Seattle. Our two blogs started on SBN that same year. They took a great content creator. Sounders took a great GM, and then another GM, and then the head coach.

Tuesday’s matchup between the No. 2 seed Seattle Sounders and the No. 7 seed RSL features sides that struggled in the last months of the season. RSL went 3-4-0 in October and November. Sounders went 2-3-3. In their history Seattle has barely edged Real, going 16-14-6, +1 across all competitions.

In the playoffs history does not matter. On Tuesday the options are straight ahead or full stop — no excuses, no narratives — just 90 minutes, or a dreadful 120 and maybe even penalty kicks.

For RSL Soapbox, Matt Montgomery answers six questions to help prepare you for the first playoff match of the second season.

SaH: First and foremost, what significant injuries does Real Salt Lake have?

RSLSB: Somewhat surprisingly, we are by and large injury free. Marcelo Silva, who is easily a starting center back for this team, only just recovered from injury, and he should be available. Bobby Wood has spent a lot of the season injured, and while I wouldn’t expect him to start, he should be available off the bench. Beyond that, unless there’s something that hasn’t yet been announced, it appears we’re luckily coming in rather unscathed.

SaH: Do you expect Seattle to have any advantage since Freddy Juarez was with y’all back in August?

RSLSB: Because of Freddy? No. I think any advantage for Seattle is because they’re a team with better players. If anything, his presence on the sidelines is a bit of a disadvantage, because there’s likely to be some raw feelings that haven’t quite been dealt with. It’s often said that Pablo Mastroeni is a great motivator (is it true? I have no idea. I’m not in the locker room. I guess I can definitely say that we finished .03 PPG ahead of where we were when Freddy Juarez left.), and I would frankly be shocked if he didn’t try to capitalize on the feelings of the team that way. Coaches love stuff like that.

SaH: What changes did Pablo Mastroeni make when he took over?

RSLSB: Well, it’s a funny thing. When Pablo Mastroeni took over the team, he said he wasn’t going to change much. That lasted all of maybe two weeks before he took the team in a different tactical direction. Where we were a strong defensive team that made the occasional bad mistake, we became a weak defensive team that aimed to score more goals than the opponent at all times.

The way we got there was by removing a defender from the mix, moving instead to a 3-5-2. And while you might be thinking, “Hey, a 3-5-2 usually has wing backs, so it’s sort of a more defensive formation!”, I’d agree with you generally speaking. But in the case of Mastroeni’s 3-5-2, he’s playing attacking players in the wing back spots — Justin Meram, Jonathan Menendez and Maikel Chang, chiefly. Those are not wing backs. We’ll get to more of this in the next question, but it’s not a traditional take on the formation, and it sees RSL playing with three — or sometimes just two — defenders at any given moment.

The positive spin on this is that it’s freed up Albert Rusnak to have a greater impact on the game, and he’s been at his statistical best since that change. He plays almost a free role, floating wherever he pleases. Sometimes that means he’s playing alongside the center backs in the attack, which is always a little strange for me.

Of course, all of this about a 3-5-2 might be for naught: In our last match of the season, Pablo Mastroeni restored the formation to a 4-2-3-1, which is what the team was playing before he took over. They once again looked defensively sound. What does that mean for this match? I wish I knew.

SaH: Yes, RSL has four strong attackers, but is the real secret weapon on offense Aaron Herrera, a right centerback?

RSLSB: So, Aaron Herrera. You know what’s weird about his role? I’d argue he’s playing a nominally defensive right back role, with some occasional forays into right center back territory, but by and large, RSL ends up playing in an asymmetrical shape, with one right back, two center backs, and no left back. Those center backs end up in basically a 3-5-2 shape without a right center back. It’s really strange.

So, with that context, we can come to a greater understanding of how weird it is that Aaron Herrera managed a staggering 11 assists during the regular season. The plurality (and I suspect the majority) of those have been to Damir Kreilach, who he’s formed a really nice connection with. Kreilach’s ability to get free for a header has been a vital part of Herrera’s statistical success, just as Herrera’s ability to swing in a cross from deep has been a vital part of Kreilach’s goalscoring efforts.

Is he a secret weapon? I mean, maybe. I don’t know if it’s really a secret at this point. Our real secret weapon is — well, maybe I’ll tell you after the match. (Just kidding, our secret weapon is Aaron Herrera.)

SaH: Which of those attackers is most important to stop?

RSLSB: It’s got to be Damir Kreilach. His ability to get free of center backs is quite good, and his finishing ability once he’s free is very, very good. He can score with his head (it helps that he is quite tall), he can score with his feet, and he has an uncanny ability to create magical moments with his goalscoring. Any team can technically stop Kreilach, but he just has a real way of not being stopped. (Smart players are just the best.)

SaH: Why does Salt Lake struggle on the road and how will they fix that on Tuesday night? i

RSLSB: Two factors here, and the first is that all road teams struggle to a certain extent in the league. The second is that we have a certain naive quality the really comes out on the road. We have a tendency to commit players forward — sometimes, we’ll end up with five players forming a line in the box while possession is in the middle third. If you give up the ball in that situation — which is certainly a thing that can happen, especially in MLS — you might end up in a really bad situation. And that’s what continues to happen.

Weirdly, RSL’s last two wins have come on the road. I’m not sure I totally understand why, but it’s why we’re here, so I’ll take it. Maybe it’s the thing you should be most worried about.

Check out the RSL Soapbox previews and the Reverse.

You can also follow Matt’s gaming website Don’t Eat the Meeples, which is strong advice.

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