As Real Salt Lake takes on New England Revolution later today, we're taking a moment to compose our thoughts about the first match in the Desert Diamond Cup.
Real Salt Lake certainly won't be making the Cup final (the absolute best they could hope for is an unlikely runner-up spot), given they're only playing the first two games of the tournament before departing for Monterrey, Mexico to take on Tigres in the CONCACAF Champions League.
Regardless, preseason retains some excitement and intrigue, and it does give us a chance to start to see something approaching our starting lineup for the big match that comes in just a week. With that in mind:
1. The lineup
We'll be watching this one with eager anticipation to see if Jeff Cassar and company put out a lineup that resembles a 'first-team' one. While we obviously don't know at this point what exactly counts as 'first-team', we can make some reasonable assumptions. If we're allowed to make an early prediction:
Rimando; Beltran, Olave, Akaminko, Phillips; Beckerman, Sunny; Burrito, Morales, Plata; Movsisyan
Now, we do have a question mark here, and that's because we don't know who will play alongside Jamison Olave. Will it be Jerry Akaminko, who is reported to have signed with Real Salt Lake? Will it be Aaron Maund instead? Could it be a wild card pick like Justen Glad?
Additionally, Sunny presents an interesting question: Has he done enough to start over Luke Mulholland? Will this be an opportunity for him to prove that? Will Mulholland instead be given a chance to push his way with the starters? There are more questions than answers at this point, and this may be the last great opportunity for the coaching staff to answer them ahead of next week. That doesn't mean that Saturday's match is useless — but it's unlikely that the team would have a strong desire to play bona fide starters just four days before the second-biggest match of the season. (The biggest comes at Rio Tinto Stadium in the return leg.)
But outside of the lineup, there's something to keep an eye on — and that's what the midfield pairing operates as.
2. The midfield pairing
If we do instead see Beckerman and Sunny paired together, pay attention to how they move as a unit — if they do at all. If Sunny is pushing forward to break up an attack or to apply additional pressure, what does Beckerman do in response? Expect him to respond in some way. But also look to see how the wingers tuck in if necessary, or if Yura Movsisyan comes back to double-up on a pressed player.
And when the attack kicks off, watch Sunny's runs and compare them with Luke Mulholland's. Will he push into the box, break out wide, or stay a little deeper to build play? How does he balance an attacking intent with defensive awareness?
Sunny has shown himself to be a talented player already, demonstrating a soft touch and smart pass, but he's also a hard-tackling midfielder. Will that land him in trouble?
And while we're talking about the midfield, there's one player we haven't seen yet in preseason that we might want to keep an eye on, if he does appear: Jordan Allen.
3. Jordan Allen
The young, talented attacker hasn't been seen in the last two Real Salt Lake preseason matches — he's a "known quantity," the club told somebody on Twitter — and that gives us a little pause for thought. He's apparently not injured, but he's been kept out of two matches now. Giving others a chance does make sense, but it also means there will be a little more for us to see if Allen plays in the attacking midfield spot.
We know he intends to play the role differently than Javier Morales. There's little reason to assume otherwise, too — he's a good player with the potential to be truly great, but Allen is certainly not your classic playmaker. That's fine, of course, because you don't need a playmaker there, and that's especially true in a flank-focused tactical outlay like ours. You can play an excellent attacking midfielder who's going to run at players more regularly and be just as good, if not better.
But to be better with that tactical idea, you have to have an excellent attacking midfielder. Clearly Allen isn't quite to Javi-level quality yet, but that ignores the fact that he's got every opportunity to pass him. If we see Allen today, let's pay attention to how he takes that position, and let's evaluate it after the fact.
And if we don't see him, let's wonder why: If he's being held back as a strategic concept to keep information out of Tigres' hands, we might not know for a week, at least. If it's for an injury, we'd like to understand what it is. If it's truly just because other players need to prove their worth, and that remains the case for this match, let's wonder if there's not any import in him seeing minutes.
Whatever the case, Jordan Allen will provide an intriguing assessment to be made.