Since holding steady to the diamond 4-4-2 formation in 2007, Real Salt Lake looks poised to tinker with formations this season and thus opening more doors for potential positional battles across the starting XI. In the second installment of this three-part series, we'll discuss key positional battles that may take place in the midfield.
If one thing is clear from RSL's first preseason match against the New England Revolution on Saturday, it's that Jeff Cassar and his staff look to be experimenting with either a 4-3-3 or a 4-2-3-1 formation. Moving away from the traditional diamond midfield will not only change the tactics on the field but will also cut down the number of midfielders on the pitch to three. Exchanging a midfielder for a striker in the Starting XI will also create more competition within the squad for the three starting roles.
For those unfamiliar with the 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1 formation, here is a brief explanation: (Quick note - While in the 4-2-3-1 formation the two wingers can be referred to as midfielders, they are often filled by forwards - so a team in this formation effectively has three midfielders on the pitch.)
Like many other formations, there is a variety of ways to set up the midfield but there are most commonly three ways used. The first is deploying a single horizontal line of central midfielders across the pitch allowing all three players to be equally involved in the offensive and defensive aspects of the game.
The next is setting up players in an inverted triangle were there is two attacking midfielders - or an attacking midfielder paired with an offensive box-to-box midfielder - and one defensive midfielder.
The third option is deploying a midfield triangle with one attacking midfielder, one box-to-box midfielder, and a defensive midfielder - similar to the formation used by the Portland Timbers. From the looks of the squad fielded by Cassar on Saturday, it looks as if RSL will experiment with the latter of these options, so the discussion will address the potential options accordingly.
Occupying the traditional number six role, or the bottom of the diamond, the defensive midfielder will continue to play an important role for the Claret-and-Cobalt. This position remains the skipper's position and it remains the most stable position on the roster. Kyle Beckerman is obviously the first-choice number six that will still screen the backline - think Diego Chara of the Portland Timbers.
In 2015, however, Beckerman's schedule could be full. At a club level he will be involved in the MLS regular season as well as the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup and CONCACAF Champions League. For the USMNT, he is likely to get called up to the CONCACAF Gold Cup because he provides a steady foundation, which the USMNT has lacked more recently.
After the loss of Cole Grossman, who is taking his services to Bob Bradley's Stabaek, RSL acquired Pecka - or Wellington De Jorge Estanislau Paeckart - from the Fort Lauderdale Strikers to occupy the secondary defensive midfielder position on the roster. Justen Glad, however, might have something to say about that. Could Glad finally break through to the senior team or will Glad play a pivotal role with the Real Monarchs? With his potential, Glad could compete with Pecka for the second-string defensive midfielder roster spot.
Think of this role as the Ned Grabavoy or Will Johnson role. The number eight is the workhorse of the team that will operate between the two eighteen-yard boxes. They are engines - roaming the pitch - that are equally responsible for providing offensive service and shouldering the defensive load. Ironically, Johnson has secured this position with the Portland Timbers.
As far as the RSL roster goes it appears that the Claret-and-Cobalt are limited in this option. The only two names that standout as number eights are Luke Mulholland and John Stertzer. While these players can create competition for the role - pushing the other to excel - the lack of depth here is something that RSL could address.
While RSL could look to scouting or trades to create depth at this position, the Claret-and-Cobalt could find what they are looking for in their academy. Fito Ovalle is an RSL academy product that played the number eight role in Saturday's first preseason match. The Layton native did well to read the flow of the match and had some very bright spots during the match. Ovalle, if signed by RSL, could provide depth and competition at this position. (Something RSL or the Monarchs should look into.)
Despite being locked down for years by Javier Morales, the number 10 spot seems to be opening up a little bit. During the offseason it was announced that Luis Gil would be wearing the number 10 kit and taking a larger role in the club. The way the Cassar spelled it out to the media suggests that Gil may be given the keys to the Claret-and-Cobalt's attack.
In spite of all the talk, Gil does not necessary have the starting role locked down. The veteran presence of Morales could still unseat Gil. Moreover, Morales may be moved to one of the winger slots to play as a creative winger - similar to Diego Valeri during the 2014 midseason for the Portland Timbers. In short, until the season starts it is unclear what role either Gil or Morales will play.
This role will also have competition for the secondary roster spot with Homegrown Sebastian Saucedo and recently drafted Lucas Baldin vie for first-team minutes. The creative prowess of these players will push those around them to excel and could even propel them into senior squad roles.
Much like Saucedo, "Baldin can play different roles in the attacking half of the field," RSL technical director Craig Waibel told media. "He is clean on the ball and will add another goal-dangerous option in our attack." With these two young attacking options, RSL look to be poised to have one of the best midfields in the league for years to come.