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RSL at San Jose Earthquakes tactical preview: A path diverged

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Can RSL clinch their playoff berth against the Quakes?

MLS: San Jose Earthquakes at Real Salt Lake Jeff Swinger-USA TODAY Sports

The match against the San Jose Earthquakes has greater implications than normal. On Saturday, Real Salt Lake has a chance to clinch a playoff spot with a win at Avaya Stadium. Having gone through a seven match win-less streak, the Quakes will hope to keep their post-season dreams alive against the Claret-and-Cobalt. When the window of opportunity closing for San Jose, RSL can expect a dangerous opponent with nothing to lose so this cannot be a match that the visitors can lolly-gag through and hope to get a result – least they forget the Houston Dynamo match.

The MLS Horseshoe Theory

In political science there is a theory that asserts that rather than the extremes being at opposite ends of a linear spectrum, they in fact closely resemble one another, much like the end of a horseshoe. While I will definitely stay away from any political innuendos, the theory can also hold true in the sports world.

RSL, for instance, has had a knack for coming back from losing positions in 2016. The Quakes, on the other hand, have had the characteristic of protecting the lead. These two things may seem a comparison of apples to oranges, but hear it out.

So between the two of them, no other clubs have won or lost more matches by a one goal margin. A single goal is more important to these teams than most as they will absorb pressure with a one goal lead and trailing will push for more than just a draw.

The similarities do not stop there, however. Both teams will play with width and favor an attacking flank – right side for the Quakes and left for the RSL. Because they are so similar, opponents also play similar when facing either club. Opponents will put San Jose and Real players under pressure which often leads to them conceding possession.

With such a similar style of play, RSL should find it easier to unlock the San Jose defense despite the Quakes only conceding 35 goals – third least amount in 2016.

Keys to the Match

Under Dominic Kinnear the Quakes have moved away from the Bash-Brother persona to traditional 4-4-2 counter attacking side. With that in mind, the 2016 iteration of San Jose is likely to:

1. Lose aerial duels,

2. Concede many individual errors,

3. Shoot a lot, but finish rarely,

4. And field a consistent lineup.

As a result, there are several keys to the match that RSL can exploit:

1. Exploit aerial duels in San Jose’s box. The Quakes have conceded the fourth most headed goals in 2016. With nine headed goals tallied against them, the five that RSL have conceded seem minuscule. If RSL is strong in both boxes, the Claret-and-Cobalt have a chance to walk away with all three points.

2. Make the most of San Jose’s tendency to suffer from many individual errors. Whether it is defensive or offensive, the Quakes attempt to utilize individual skill to create chances. The difference between the two squads is where RSL and Juan Manuel Martinez excel, San Jose struggles. The Quakes are likely to concede in some way or another from an individual error and that is where RSL must exploit, especially on the road.

3. Resolve to bend but to not break. Of the 357 shots taken by the Quakes this year, only 29 of them have found the back of the net. Holding a mere 8 percent conversion rate, San Jose has struggled to finishing scoring chances. RSL, on the other hand, has found it much easier to score than the opposition. Therefore, RSL needs to resolve to concede shots but not goals. Let the Quakes take shots from low percentage areas but keep the higher percentage areas locked-down.

4. Needs to be wary of the San Jose’s chemistry. Unlike the Claret-and-Cobalt who often rotate their Starting XI, the Quakes have field one of the most consistent starting lineups in the league. As a result, each San Jose player knows the tendencies of the players around him and how to use it best to his advantage. The one bright light here is since Quincy Amarikwa is likely to miss this match, RSL might be spared from an attacking corps that is completely in-sync.


This is the match that RSL needs to separate the chaff from the wheat. With only three matches left in the 2016 season, the Claret-and-Cobalt have a chance to book their ticket into the post-season - with a little help from the Colorado Rapids, ironically. With points slipping away from the club in droves the last four matches, RSL needs to grind out a win in order to achieve some resemblance of form before the playoff semi-finals and hopefully book Rio Tinto as the venue. Whatever happens, don’t take your eyes of the screen.

Watch RSL take on the San Jose Earthquakes at 8:30 MST on KMYU (Channel 12) or listen to the match on ESPN 700.