Real Salt Lake squares off against New England Revolution on Wednesday in their first match of the 2016 Desert Diamond Cup, and it's a match that should give most RSL fans something to which they can look forward: attack.
As the preseason has moved forward, RSL coach Jeff Cassar has gradually shifted the emphasis to attacking movement from defensive movement. It's probably even been taken at a faster clip than previous years because of the quick pace at which Real Salt Lake's CONCACAF Champions League match against Tigres in eight days.
As such, an attack-minded team might be something to expect, but with the gaping hole at center back still not filled, attention is likely to be split. Half of that might go toward integration with Jerry Akaminko, who is reported to be signing with the team as of today. That report has been somewhat rebuffed, but only to the extent of the team not having yet agreed a deal, or at least not having completed the signing.
The question then becomes whether ironing out the creases with a new center back is something that can happen in a week in training. If that's feasible, then maybe we do see a distinct focus on attacking movement; if it's not, maybe maintaining a strong defensive shape is preferable.
It's not like that's an either-or thing, but it's preseason, and it's important to ensure major themes and ideas are solidified during this time. It's not the only time that can happen, but avoiding the struggles of 2015 will be at the front of Cassar's mind. The team can't land themselves in a position where they're playing catch-up from March to October, and a good preseason is one way to start down the right path.
Focusing on major themes
If the team does focus on attacking movement during this one, expect to see the likes of Burrito Martinez, Joao Plata, Yura Movsisyan and Javier Morales involved in repeated interchanges. The big question, of course, is exactly how long they stay on the pitch — the 45-minute rotation has been preferred, but CONCACAF Champions League is in a week. (A week! Can you believe it?)
Because of this, it'll be paramount for us to pay attention to how players are interchanging, moving, and building play. Scoring goals — sure, that's important, but it's not the big thing. Getting shots away, though, is bigger, and being in good positions to take those shots is bigger still. See, these games aren't about absolute precision, even if it would be nice if it came that way. Instead, they're about high-level ideas, and execution is supposed to come as a natural result of iteration over the course of preseason. What we're seeing now is probably going to be a little rough around the edges, and it's on us to recognize the reasons for that.
But this match is certainly the last one where the first team can get away with that roughness. We'll want to see progress within the match, and we'll want to see good execution — not perfect — of the themes. If the execution is already near-perfect, it's easy to imagine that it's lacking in nuance and likely something that could be stopped without much trouble; if it's not even close, it may be lacking in grace and ease of understanding, and that could lead to a team that never quite gets it down.
Next week is when we'll be looking for excellent execution. Javier Morales might be aging, but we'll need him to look as pass-smart as he ever has; Yura Movsisyan might be a little rusty, but we'll need him showing the magic he showed that took him near the top of the Russian Premier League.
For now, this one's about the attack, but it won't stay that way. For as much pressure as there is in building a good attack, there's just as much pressure in holding the opposition without conceding a goal.
The addition of Jerry Akaminko
With the reported signing of Jerry Akaminko (or potential-signing, if you will), Jeff Cassar can start to think about breathing a sigh of relief — as can general manager Craig Waibel, no doubt. There's probably still a mountain of paperwork to get through, but it's looking more and more likely that that first-choice center back the team aimed for has been acquired.
I mentioned above that Cassar's thoughts may be split between developing the attacking half of the field, but with Akaminko apparently secured, he'll want to make sure that the back half of the field is set, too. While there's a natural defensive instinct that naturally plays a role, those instincts only take a player so far. Communication comes into the discussion in short order, and organizational abilities follows shortly after.