Set pieces have been both a gift and a curse for Real Salt Lake in 2014. Despite RSL scoring 19 goals off set pieces - the second most in the league - RSL also dropped some points off set-pieces.
Soccer is a team sport, but individual errors have hurt RSL on set plays. A string of mistakes during the 2014 campaign resulted in RSL conceding a series of goals to the opposition in what can only be referred to as a troubling trend. The team gave up several set-piece goals, turning several wins into draws, ties into a losses and costing the team much needed points in the standings.
The pinnacle of this suffering occurred midseason when the Claret-and-Cobalt underwent a six-match winless streak in which lackluster set-piece defending contributed greatly. The trend was broken with a 2-1 win over New England but the troubling trend of set-piece defending continued. What was worse than Nick Rimando not being able to add to his shutout record was how easy the Revolution made it look.
It can be discussed and debated until we are blue in the face, but the fact remains that the beautiful game can consist of 90 minutes of incredible soccer and the match can be all undone by giving up a goal on a set play resulting in a loss.
Conceding the most goals off set pieces, neither Jeff Cassar nor his players made any excuses for the failures to defend. "We've obviously not been good enough on set pieces this year as a group," RSL defender Nat Borchers told reporters after the win over New England on July 4. "And it does come to really just deciding as an individual what you need to do to make sure your guy doesn't score."
If there is an area where the Claret-and-Cobalt could use improvement, cutting down on the errors that lead to set-piece goals is a top priority for the club in 2015.
In defending a set play, the players are already in a defensive posture and it really is just about not losing your individual battles. At the same time, however, the Xs and Os the coaching staff draws up on the boards for set plays don't mean much.
In other words, the players have to be smart and execute despite what was drawn up since the match is played in real time with individual battles and runs. Jostling for position has been the problem for RSL on many, dare I say most, of the set play goals they have conceded.
This isn't to say that the team has suffered a drastic increase in goals scored against them on set pieces from 2013 to 2014. Despite RSL winning less aerials battles in 2014 than the year before - 13.2 and 13.4, respectfully - RSL was able to improve radically at the end of the year. It could be argued that 2014 was a blip for RSL defensively, but it avoids the tricky question of whether this trend will continue.
With the departure of Nat Borchers, RSL fans would most definitely have a case for the club losing their best set play defender. Borchers was most definitely aggressive and tough in set-piece plays, but sometimes it is about the collective and how you hold the line. As the conductor of the backline, Borchers did his part in setting up the defense and he will surely be missed.
On the other hand, the Claret-and-Cobalt has reacquired Jamison Olave for the 2015 season. The raw, grit-filled nature of the 6-foot-3 Colombian will definitely be an asset for improvement. Last year the Red Bulls finished a full two places ahead of RSL in goals conceded on set-pieces and aerial battles won - Olave was a big part of these statistics. "The Verb" Olave does just enough to make sure the other guy does not score - an asset that the Claret-and-Cobalt can exploit.
Looking ahead to 2015, improvement in set play defending could provide Real Salt Lake with points that they would otherwise drop. If all of RSL's players contribute in smart defensive plays alongside Chris Schuler and Olave, maybe the Claret-and-Cobalt could find themselves in a more comfortable table position at the end of the year - seemingly avoiding the drama of will they or won't they play in the knockout rounds in the postseason. Not only could this be important to our success in the league, but it could also be essential as RSL attempts to make it to yet another CONCACAF Champions League Final.
Could Real Salt Lake be the first American club to capture a CONCACAF title? Set-piece defending could be the answer.