There's a lot of talk about Real Salt Lake being vulnerable to wide play because of the nature of the narrow diamond tactical setup employed. So much, in fact, that it's seen as Seattle's biggest strength against a side they've failed to score against since the infamous 2011 Western Conference semifinal.
It's all a bit puzzling.
Make no mistake: Seattle is a side that trends wider than Real Salt Lake in attack. More dangerous play for Seattle comes from those areas than for RSL, who have long preferred a more measured approach. Kreis's side isn't exactly toothless from wide areas, but crossing isn't exactly where those goals are coming from most of the time.
Of course, we can easily look at some numbers to get a sense for the accuracy of this. First, let's look at the ways in which goals were scored in 2012.
|Headed||In the Box||Out of the Box|
You can easily see that the numbers aren't terribly different, save that Seattle simply scored more of them. All else would seem to fall under random variation. Now, this isn't to say that there aren't innate differences between the two sides, but that headed goals count is of particular interest.
Where do headed goals from? Crosses, usually. Now, there's no particularly easy way to capture the location of the assists those headed goals are coming from, but it's not hard to imagine that they're coming from crosses, right? There have been far too few lobbed balls over the top for fantastic headers in for my tastes. Wondergoals (wündergols?) and what.
The meat of the argument's right here, though. Let's look at the way in which the two sides conceded goals in 2012.
|Headed||In the Box||Out of the Box|
The plot thickens a bit here. The Sounders are clearly very good here, which is a little surprising, but if Seattle has somehow stumbled on a genuine issue with RSL's defense, you'd suspect other sides have figured that out, too. After all, the formation is far, far from a secret, right? When a side plays RSL, they expect basically the same tactical setup every single time. That's fair.
But to assume that Sigi and crew (not Crew) have apparently stumbled on the solution flies wide of the mark. Real Salt Lake have conceded as many headed goals as, say, San Jose. The only sides to do significantly better? Seattle Sounders (again, they should be praised for this) with six, and Sporting KC with a remarkable count of three. In the 2012 regular season. It's quite a mark.
The question, then, should be why are we not allowing more headed goals? There are two distinct reasons for this, to my mind. One: Nat Borchers and Jamison Olave (or Chris Schuler, or Kwame Watson-Siriboe) are very, very good in the air, as center backs should be. They often have little trouble knocking down balls that come that way.
Two: Real Salt Lake actually does defend from wide positions. Will Johnson and Ned Grabavoy track back - they don't just stand around in midfield once the opponent gains possession. As such, you can expect them shifting to cover wide areas alongside the fullback when necessary, and you can expect Kyle Beckerman and Javier Morales - yes, even the designated playmaker is involved in defending - to cover the middle of the park more.
At any rate, don't expect many headed goals on Thursday, even if Eddie Johnson recovers and plays in Thursday's match. Given that both these sides have been playing essentially their own game against each other for four matches in 2012 and the margin remains only a single goal, don't be surprised if it comes down to a fluke or, better yet, penalty kicks.
Not that I want that added stress, but who can resist?