When we look back at that match against Chivas USA, it's easy to think that we lost because we were poor. We're a little lucky in this case, because so often we think something's the case and on further examination, it's more complex.
Really, in this case, it's mostly that we were awful. But if we're to be honest, we can also see that Chivas USA managed us perfectly. They provided us essentially no space to operate inside the box, particularly in the second half. And when they provided a bit of space, it was coordinated in such a way that the space quickly ran out.
As such, moving us toward the flanks provided Chivas with the opportunity to force the confrontation in two directions: Either we could move backward, or we could throw a ball into the box. Neither is an option that's typically successful for us — especially without Alvaro Saborio firing on all cylinders (or even most of them.) Moving backward just increased our frustration, which did nothing for our creativity. Firing in a ball for Chivas's center backs to clear — Bobby Burling was particularly good here — was a fruitless endeavor. And when we did find space inside the box, and when it was reasonably good space, too, we became our own worst enemies, overthinking our movement and options.
But it was about more than just the space provided or not — when Chivas USA got the ball, they committed two or three players forward, and they were active in continuing those attacks. They didn't go forward with numbers, but they did what they've probably struggled with most this season. They played as a team focused on one thing: Looking good. Not winning, not getting a point — those things are external to Chivas's season at this point.
We can harp on about Real Salt Lake not doing enough to finish chances early, and we'd be right to. But we shouldn't simply ignore the tricky fact about Chivas USA: In the last week, they went from a team with nothing to lose. But this match saw player after player operating like they did have something to lose — an opportunity for a job in 2015. Those players who might have relaxed because they're contracted with MLS for some years to come? They have no reason to relax now. Those who are hoping to continue with an MLS club going forward will have to show why they deserve to.
And that's the tricky thing. After looking simply fed up with playing soccer, Chivas USA's squad gained an external motivation.
What's troubling, though, was the lack of sharpness from Real Salt Lake throughout. Chances flowed early and often for RSL, but a general inability to finish, poor execution from set pieces, and a palpable frustration through the second half were damning factors.
We can and should blame our team for our failures. We underestimated Chivas USA — a fatal mistake. We should have come better prepared. We should have made more of our early chances. But at least we have some sense of why their motivation was better than it's looked in weeks, and it does give us an opportunity to look at this as more than a puzzle with a photo of the sky and no box to assist us.
Did we lack motivation? It's hard to say. After dropping out of the Supporters Shield race but still considering ourselves a lock for the playoffs despite not being quite there yet, you wouldn't be blamed for thinking that may be the case.
There are approaches we can take to better serve our attempts to break down staunch, compact defenses. I won't pretend to know what they are — not immediately. In the coming weeks, we'll face sides better at nearly everything than Chivas USA — and motivation won't be something we have questions about. But if they play a compact defense, can we get past them?