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Sounders at Real Salt Lake: Three Questions

Seattle attempts to beat the beatable at 6:39 PM PT (MLS Season Pass) Saturday night.

MLS: Seattle Sounders FC at Real Salt Lake
Jordan Morris will need to believe that Seattle’s road record at Sandy does not matter.
Melissa Majchrzak-USA TODAY Sports

You already know the Seattle Sounders road record in Sandy, Utah is abject. You know that they have not won there since 2012 and not in the regular season since 2011. You’re probably aware of who Real Salt Lake is — as the only team the Sounders have faced more than RSL is the Galaxy.

You may not know that Salt Lake is bad this year — legitimately. Yes, they sit above the soft orange line that is the playoff demarcation this season, but that’s because 64% of teams make the playoffs.

Pablo Mastroeni’s squad is just 2-2-0, -1 at home this year. Brian Schmetzer is 2-2-0, +1 on the road. It’s a great day to break tradition and grab a road win in Utah. It should be in the low 70s with a beautiful sunset and the Sounders still have the Golden Boot leader, the clean sheet leader, two players in the top 3 for assists, two players in the top ten for interceptions and more rest for their starters after the midweek Open Cup extra time wins for both teams.

For Wasatch Soccer Sentinel, Matt answers Three Questions.

SaH: How will the Open Cup win impact the weekend’s match?

WSS: Only a handful of players played the full 120 minutes in that one, but among them were Braian Ojeda and Damir Kreilach, two players who could make a starting argument in normal conditions. Kreilach has already been listed as “probable” for the match, so I simply wouldn’t expect him to play — and I suppose at this point, I’m starting to wonder what his role with the team is and what it should be. Ojeda is a different story. He’s a capable midfielder whose primary quality appears to be his relentlessness, and 120 minutes means he’s not likely to appear in this one. He’s young enough that he could, but injuries to other players in the midfield could see him more needed than he is available. That’s a suboptimal position to be in as a team, and that’s probably the biggest impact.

Otherwise, I think we’re all just holding our breath that Justen Glad coming off in the 60th minute was not injury related and just a planned substitution. Glad didn’t make the injury report, but you never really know.

SaH: Real Salt Lake is mediocre at home, which is much better than they are on the road. The problems seem to be defensive. Is this a function of tactics or personnel?

WSS: This is a classic situation of a little from column A, a little from column B. I’d agree that the problems manifest most clearly in the team’s defending, but I think we also see them appear when the team struggles to score. This is a midfield that is simply being asked to do too much in both phases of play, and with only two players in central midfield slots, that sort of load is just not conducive to effective play. Now, does that mean they won’t figure it out for some matches? Absolutely not. We’ve seen this team put it together quite nicely twice, once against San Jose and once against Charlotte. But I lean towards skepticism that it’s reproducible, which is a painful position as a supporter — seeing greatness and thinking it’s going to just sort of randomly appear when you roll a critical success? I’d much rather see success week-in, week-out, even if it means hitting that top mark is a little less exciting.

I’ve somehow said all that without answering the question at hand: Is it tactics or personnel? I think it’s clear it’s both. We talked about some of that on Off the Crossbar this week, and I stand by this idea: RSL’s problem isn’t personnel depth, it’s that players 3 to 11 on the roster are about as good as players 12 to 18. The depth the team possesses is competitive for first-team minutes, and while that’s good in some cases, it’s not something you want across the board. A more advantageous position would be to have clearly better players on the roster than others and to be able to utilize those better players more regularly. Instead, RSL has four midfielders (Braian Ojeda, Pablo Ruiz, Jasper Löffelsend and Scott Caldwell) who are roughly at the same level with no clear starters.

That said, I also can’t look beyond the tactics of it all. When the same gaps in the midfield appear week-in, week-out, with the only variance being how badly RSL is punished for those gaps, then I suspect there are tactical things afoot. This is all complicated by a coach who actively and loudly proclaims that tactics are trivial compared to the proper functioning of the human being, or that “it’s not about tactics.” RSL coach Pablo Mastroeni veers into life coach territory when discussing this team, and it’s hard to come to grips with how that impacts the entirety of play.

SaH: I had Damir Kreilach on my fantasy team because I kept thinking he would finally play. I cut him. Does this mean he’s going to start again and do well?

WSS: Kreilach has been a player for Real Salt Lake whose name could have been written in the history books. He’s scored the biggest goals of the post-Kreis era, and he’s lifted this team single-handedly on occasion. However, Kreilach in 2023 is but a shadow of his former self. A back injury sustained in 2022 — one which required surgery to repair — has left him a shadow of his former self. He doesn’t look like the player he once was. His instincts, of course, are still there — look no further than his 120-minute performance in the U.S. Open Cup, where he scored twice in an important advancement win against Las Vegas Lights. Perhaps it’s a sign there’s life in Kreilach’s legs yet. Or perhaps it’s a player who can still score goals on occasion doing just that. Whatever the case, Kreilach represents a bit of tragedy in the story of Real Salt Lake. A once-great player, RSL’s captain, now seeing the field less than he’s on the bench or receiving medical treatment.

Maybe I’m wrong on all this, and Kreilach will go on a tear. If you take him off your team now, it sure feels bad when he does. (I think, at least. I’ve honestly not played enough fantasy to really advise you on this. I’m really good at putting together a team at the start of the season then ignoring them, so take my advice with a grain of salt.)

They won’t have a reverse today, but they will have an excellent preview.

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