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.
Early in the offseason, Real Salt Lake owner Dell Loy Hansen suggested that the late season acquisition of Sebastian Jaime was a preemptive move with a 4-3-3 or a 4-2-3-1 formation in mind. After ending the 2014 season with a flurry of attacking options, RSL looked poised to operate with two wingers and a center forward working in tandem.
The 4-4-2 formation relies on a number nine, or a center forward, to play in the middle of the midfield, capable of holding up the ball and allowing the two wingers on either side to get involved into the play. Similar to the diamond 4-4-2, traditionally employed by the Claret-and-Cobalt, the 4-3-3 formation allows for a fluid template of play. The wingers in a 4-3-3, however, are able to contribute to every phase of play as the formation's extended tendencies allow more through balls, long shots, and crosses. With that in mind, let's discuss the potential options accordingly.
With Alvaro Saborio on the roster, it is clear who Jeff Cassar intends to be his primary number nine. At 6'0", Saborio fits the role of the tall target-man exceptionally well. His ability on the ball is second to only the maestro Javier Morales - and closely followed by skipper Kyle Beckerman. Saborio is a player that constantly finds himself inside the penalty box on every cross with the job to simply put goals on the board, and he has great heading skills and clinical finishing abilities.
Several members of MLSsoccer.com predicted that Saborio was going to have a breakout year in 2014 and be in competition for the Golden Boot. This prediction obviously never came to fruition, as Saborio broke a metatarsal during Costa Rica's World Cup camp. With Saborio again healthy, this could be the year that many expected of him, putting up record numbers and hot in pursuit of Golden Boot.
After having the traditional sophomore slump year, Devon Sandoval has come back hopefully rejuvenated from a late-season loan stint with the Carolina Railhawks of the NASL. While not up to the caliber of Saborio, Sandoval could play a large role in RSL's stacked 2015 schedule. Sandoval's ability to outmuscle defenders is second to none with other strikers his age. Sandoval has also found success in the RSL reserves that could be valuable for a stretched and depleted RSL throughout a stacked season. Despite it being unlikely that Sandoval will replace Saborio on the Claret-and-Cobalt's starting XI, Sandoval can provide depth and maybe push Saborio to excel.
Real Salt Lake finished the 2014 campaign with more than their fair share of strikers. With one of the deepest forward depth on a roster of any Major League Soccer club, RSL looked poised to have a real battle for starting roles. After the offseason unloading of Robbie Findley and Benji Lopez, the amount of available wingers drastically decreased. Now with three players officially on the roster as forwards, Cassar could find himself in a particularly troubling situation, needing at least two additional strikers on the field other than the center forward.
Starting out, and contingent on a healthy roster, RSL has starting wingers in Joao Plata on the left and Sebastian Jaime on the right. These assumptions are based off Plata's habitual tendency to pull to the left side of the pitch and play the ball into the box and Jaime's transformed role as a right winger at Chilean club Unión Española.
Plata's skill near the touchlines are second to none on the roster. In addition, with the aforementioned departure of Findley, Plata is arguably the most agile player on the squad making him an excellent option on the left wing. His quick flicks of the ball and speed allows him to beat opposing fullbacks to either deliver a killer cross from wide positions or to score from close range. His passing accuracy and technique on the ball make him a perfect trequartista ("playmaker" in Italian) for the Claret-and-Cobalt. (Modern trequartistas are found on the wing or in wide midfielder, taking the form of Spanish national teamer Joaquín or Real Madrid's Cristiano Ronaldo).
Jaime on the other hand has the skill set of a traditional winger. During his time in Salt Lake, Jaime has shown incredible dribbling skills and that he possesses more than his fair share of speed. RSL's newest Designated Player - well, if you don't count Joao Plata's newest contract with the club - has shown a tendency to drop closer to the midfielder and make himself available for almost any play, especially the counter-attack. With his innate ball control and ability to read the game in the final third, Jaime almost certainly has a starting XI position locked down.
Injury, however, can often change a squad and the bug has hit RSL early. While Plata will most likely retain his starting role for the Claret-and-Cobalt, he will miss the first couple of months of the season due to an injury obtained during practice. Therefore, less experienced or younger members of the squad could be vying for a starting XI role.
Olmes Garcia is one of the more obvious choices. This speedy striker has raw athleticism that makes him incredibly dangerous. Similar to Sandoval, Garcia also suffered from a sophomore slump in 2014 though he still managed to find the back of the net three times.
Unlike traditional wingers, however, Garcia is tall at 6-feet - especially when compared to Plata at 5'2". This followers a greater trend in MLS to use taller players - traditionally considered number nines - to fill these outside roles. Take for instance New England Revolution's acquisition of ex-Sporting Kanas City's center forward Teal Bunbury. Instead of slotting him up top, the Revs placed him on the wing to provide yet another goal-scoring threat. Like Bunbury, Garcia can not only perform the duties of an out-and-out winger, but he can also find himself in the box to play the ball off his head.
Other than Garcia the forward options on RSL dry up, so Cassar might look towards other players that have traditionally played in the midfield. Youngers Jordan Allen and Sebastian Saucedo are possible choices. Both with good technical abilities and ability to score goals - not to mention that Allen played the right winger role in the first half of the New England preseason match - these players could be competing for first team minutes early in their professional careers.
As this series comes to a close we would like to hear from you, the fans. What do you think about RSL's roster? Where will positional battles play a role and who are stand-outs to you? What do you think? Share your opinions in the comments section below.