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Sounder Strategy: RSL Rematch

Real Salt Lake’s attacking talent has come alive in April

MLS: Real Salt Lake at Seattle Sounders FC Steven Bisig-USA TODAY Sports

Back in March, the Seattle Sounders picked apart a Real Salt Lake team with one-touch passes, flicks, and dummies on the way to a 2-0 home win. But the Sounders will be expecting a very different kind of game in Utah, where they have not won in MLS play since Mario Martínez’s moment of playoff magic over 10 years ago. While Seattle settled themselves with a tenacious home victory against Minnesota, Salt Lake have stabilized their woeful start with three wins in four matches across MLS and Open Cup play. Let’s look at how the Sounders cracked the code against the Loons, and how they might end the run of rough results in Sandy, Utah.

What’s New With RSL?

Plenty has changed since the Sounders dominated RSL in early March. Newcomer Andrés Gómez has won a starting spot on the wing and contributed a goal and four assists in those matches. While veteran attacker Justin Meram was traded away this week, the remaining RSL attackers have shown signs of life through the play of Gómez and Jefferson Savarino. Still, Salt Lake’s defense is a major concern, as the team has conceded the most goals per match and second most expected goals behind CF Montréal.

On the Sounders’ side, the injury bug has bitten key players. Raúl Ruidíaz, Cristian Roldan, and Nouhou are all out for Saturday’s match. While a Seattle team of mostly reserve players fought to an epic, 5-4 victory in U.S. Open Cup play on Wednesday, Real Salt Lake started a more MLS-heavy lineup in a 3-1 victory over Las Vegas Lights FC that required extra time. Notable players such as Pablo Ruiz, Justen Glad, and Damir Kreilach started, with the latter playing a full 120 minutes.

Sussing Out Seattle

Against the Loons last Saturday, the Sounders controlled the game throughout but struggled to find the final pass. Cristian Roldan’s absence was notable yet again, as the team’s attacking combinations in the final third were lacking. While Albert Rusnák played nominally as a winger, the Sounders midfielder tried to find a more comfortable home in the right half-space supporting an overlapping Alex Roldan on the touchline:

The Sounders’ ideal attacking shape in the first half, with Rusnák in the half space feeding passes to an overlapping Alex Roldan.

Though the team was able to work the ball up field with this attacking shape, things broke down around the box. Héber found it difficult to affect this match with his back to goal. Minnesota’s centerbacks stayed glued to his back and forced errant touches while Seattle’s attackers provided fewer options. While Rusnák has incredible instincts in the center of the pitch, there were notable moments when a first-choice wide attacker like Roldan or Morris may have recognized a run better run.

The Sounders front four struggled to connect in the first half.

As the half progressed, Rusnák spent more time with João Paulo in the center, and gave us some dazzling runs like this one:

Rusnák parts the seas centrally, then finds Léo Chú in space.

Not to throw any shade at Obed Vargas, who I thought had a good shift against Minnesota and a much-improved performance over the match in Portland, but Rusnák brings a unique level of skill to Seattle’s possession in the middle. Once Jordan Morris subbed on in the second half, the Sounders were able to keep Minnesota pinned in their own end. In fact, it was another central run from Rusnák that led to two blocked shots and a throw-in deep in Minnesota’s half — the throw-in that Rusnák buried off a layoff from Fredy Montero.

Real Talk

The RSL attack has finally come to life, with seven goals in their last three matches. With Damir Kreilach limited due to injury, Jefferson Savarino has taken a larger creative role in the middle of the pitch, drifting inside from the left wing to facilitate possession. In the following clip, defensive midfielder Pablo Ruiz has dropped back in front of his centerbacks to receive the ball and start RSL’s possession. Savarino has moved inside to occupy a gaping space between San Jose’s lines in their 4-3-3 shape:

Jefferson Savarino finds space centrally between San Jose’s lines and a quick turn leads to an opportunity.

Ruiz is able to avoid the pressure of San Jose’s forward line. The Quakes’ midfield three is too worried about RSL’s fullback out wide and too slow to react to cut off the passing lane to Savarino. RSL’s speedy forward Anderson Julio helps open the gap for Savarino by occupying San Jose’s centerbacks. This sequence shows how quickly Savarino can receive the ball on the turn and give chances to RSL’s fast forwards.

On the other wing, Andrés Gómez has found a rhythm:

Andrés Gómez shows his skill with a clever turn and cross.

The U22 Initiative signing scored his first goal for the club last weekend, and appears to be a legitimate threat on the right side to complement Savarino.

Keys to Victory Against RSL

Attack the fullbacks

RSL’s fullbacks have been a defensive liability, and injuries are exacerbating the problem. Homegrown Bode Hidalgo, starting with Andrew Brody out injured, has good physical tools but is raw defensively. In this sequence, Hidalgo gets his body positioning all wrong, and a run across his face by Cade Cowell earns a wide-open chance.

RSL fullback Bode Hidalgo gets turned around by Cade Cowell’s run, but the attacker cannot capitalize.

Both Brody and fullback Brayan Vera are questionable for Saturday with injuries. Léo Chú and Jordan Morris need to force their replacements into difficult situations out wide.

More Tiki Taka

The interplay between the Roldan brothers, Lodeiro, and Jordan Morris was a sight to see in March. This match is an opportunity for Héber to rebound against a team the Sounders shredded with quick passing. RSL’s defense are still struggling with forwards who can drop off the line, as Jeremy Ebobisse did last weekend:

Jeremy Ebobisse tracks back to join the build-up, then explodes past RSL’s defense.

Defense Starts Up Top

Brian Schmetzer consistently preaches that great defensive performances start with Seattle’s attacking players. The hard work to track back and press keeps the back line from facing no-win situations. With both defensive stalwarts Cristian Roldan and Nouhou absent, and facing the likes of Savarino and Gómez on the counter, Seattle will need a team effort to prevent dangerous transition opportunities.

Playing away in Sandy has been a slog for a decade. Injuries notwithstanding, Seattle will feature a rested team, ready to play at altitude. For a team with Supporters’ Shield ambitions, it is high time for a win at RSL.

Note: All statistics via

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