Today, Real Salt Lake sits with three consecutive wins in all competitions. That's nice, but what's nicer still is that they've done that while looking more than just good. They've looked better than at any point in 2015, and they're probably rivaling already the best moments of 2014.
Being back around the playoff hunt is a huge positive, but doing so the right way — by playing well, rallying the group around a common cause, and playing with true joy — is the most encouraging thing of all.
When Jeff Cassar and crew implemented this 4-3-3 setup that we've seen RSL playing now for most of the season, there was some well-warranted skepticism. It looked incomplete and not quite ready. But slowly, it started to come together, and it really took off — unsurprisingly, perhaps — when Joao Plata returned to fitness. It's a system that fits him well, and Saturday was a great indicator as to why that's the case.
Let's rewind a little bit and talk about the midfield. In the diamond 4-4-2 setup employed by Jason Kreis — and to some extent, Jeff Cassar, though in some different ways — the midfield was the fulcrum, and there wasn't much option if they got locked out of a game. Play a staunch midfield with two compact banks of four, and it was easy to shut them down if you were content to play for long balls over the top.
And that's kind of how it went toward the end of Kreis's run at RSL. Now, that's not to say that if he'd stuck around, he would have kept with the setup. That would be uncharitable and probably inaccurate, but the writing seemed sort of on the wall.
This 4-3-3 gives Real Salt Lake new life. It does gut the midfield a little bit, but that's by design. It does rely a little bit more heavily on one or two players running a bit more, but it solves for that with wide forwards. And let's be clear about that — at no point has the team really succeeded in this setup by playing a forward and two wingers. Maybe that's because RSL has no true wingers on the team (you could make an argument for Demar Phillips or Abdoulie Mansally, I suppose).
Regardless, what you now see are two of the three forwards — and it's not just a case of the central striker staying up — coming back and helping defensively. Whether that's taking responsibility for some play wide or central is nearly inconsequential — it's team defending, and as long as they're organized about it, that's the important part.
And with that defensive problem more or less solved on paper — and that doesn't mean it's equivalent to what came before, of course — the team has a greater chance to make an offensive impact. What started this season as a flaw, with excessive clearances, wayward long passes, and a genuine lack of understanding at times, has become route-one play. A deep midfielder or a defender lobs the ball up field, where the attackers will try to win the ball.
Here's the kicker — if they don't win the ball in an aerial duel, Real Salt Lake is actually set up surprisingly well to win the second ball. With both of the wide forwards able to tuck inside, they can apply pressure if a defender has gained possession, or they can make a run at a loose ball. From there, the midfield can bring themselves into play, and Real Salt Lake suddenly looks like a team that can handle a possession game.
Of course, there are other options, and they inevitably include building possession from the back. That's been a success in recent weeks, too, and it's hard to talk about this team without mentioning that. Building play up either flank has been vital, and that's particularly true on the right side of the field with Tony Beltran's play continuing to come along in leaps and bounds. His combination play with Javier Morales has to be some of the best you can hope for from a right back at this level. He's a possession-oriented right back, and he's spending a fair chunk of his time in the attacking third.
You can see similar trends with Abdoulie Mansally, who has been fantastic in his own way, particularly when it comes to bursting past opposing players. This lends a separate dynamic to each flank, and that's something worth exploring in more depth at some point.
Needless to say, there's a lot to be happy with from Real Salt Lake, and indications right now are such that it doesn't feel like these are short-term aberrations from some unthinkable norm, but that RSL is establishing a new norm. It can't have come soon enough.