Opinion: RSL lacks genuine plan for dealing with compact, resolute defenses

Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

It's often said — or it should be said, at least — that a side shouldn't stray too far from their genetic makeup, insofar as they should stick to what they're good at. This includes and is certainly not limited to Real Salt Lake, who, when the goings have gotten a bit tough, have abandoned their makeup in favor of something altogether foreign.

Of course, using "genetic makeup" and such terminology implies a certain locked-in nature; it's anything but. These things can be changed through training over long periods of time or by changes in personnel. I think the point stands, though.

Let's ask ourselves: What is one thing — and let's not say "defending Steven Lenhart" or something equally sarcastic — we saw our side doing on Saturday in a valiant attempt to rescue the match? Crossing. And not just crossing a little — crossing a lot. But crossing isn't the problem, is it? There's nothing wrong with sending a cross into the box to disrupt a defense; there is, however, plenty wrong with the way in which we went about it. One would like to think that it became our first option late in the match, but the truth is that it was there from the time we conceded that dreadful second goal against San Jose.

All told, we put in 43 crosses on the night. Of those, 10 were corner kicks. Roughly half of those crosses came in the first half. Only one in the second half led directly to a shot. Not exactly the friendliest statistics one could ever meet, are they?

A walk through the chalkboards for the match is even more revealing. We completed plenty of passes, thereby controlling possession, but the number of passes completed in the final third — excepting on the flanks — bordered woefully close to that great round number, zero. (Or, if you like, nil. I don't mind if you use that one.) There were four passes completed that ended in the box in the second half.

So what was it we did that was unlike ourselves? We were so desperate to make a difference in the match, that we attempted to get into positions as far up the pitch as possible. We ceded our patience in favor of something less favorable, landing us high up the pitch on the flanks — hardly the most viable position for us, considering flinging the ball into the box without someone entirely dominant in the air to receive was nonsensical. Had we Saborio in the side, I might think differently, but not significantly: Saborio is a good striker in the air, but with 10 opposition players in the box (plenty of them sizable) who are well-practiced in that scenario, he stands nary a chance.

Why did we do it, then, if it's not how we do things? Desperation's an easy and perhaps somewhat cheap final answer, but if it guides us to finding a more definitive conclusion, it's worth exploring. We saw our Supporters Shield hopes slipping before our eyes, and we lunged desperately to get them back. (Or use your own metaphor here — I was never very good at them.) So, yeah, that made a difference, but it doesn't tell us why we adopted that particular approach.

It surely comes down to the fact that San Jose knew that if they stayed compact and focused with 10 or 11 men defending, we would find our options severely limited. They knew that if they limited our options in the middle, we would be in a very difficult position — we are not a side with natural width, after all. So they let us do our thing, which was exactly what they knew we couldn't do well. One can hardly blame their negative approach, particularly as they look to find a playoff spot in a very crowded Western Conference.

It still doesn't explain our decision-making process, but perhaps that's because there wasn't much of one. We were not prepared for that scenario, so we didn't have a process to follow in the first place — or so it appeared, at the very least. Whether this comes down to the makeup of our side — a fair argument, if you ask me — or to hubris on the parts of players or coaches, it's something we need to continue exploring. At times, we've attempted a change of formation to counter those strategies, and they've worked fairly if not spectacularly. But against a resolute side that doesn't give much of a hoot or a holler if we change our formation, it wasn't the solution. There should be no surprise there.

We will encounter that strategy again. One wouldn't be surprised if we encountered it as soon as Tuesday. You know, that Open Cup Final we're all so excited about.

If we're not ready for an all-out defensive stance from DC United — who have been so poor in league play and would count themselves lucky to finish with anything (aside from the first place in next year's draft) from the season — we could be in for a long, long night. If we're not substantially better on the counter, and we give up a goal, don't expect any semblance of space from the league's worst team. They won't give it to us.

How might Real Salt Lake solve this problem they've been encountering for so long? That's a bigger question.

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