While a lot of the talk before today's match against Tigres has focused on the magnitude of the match, we've been a little guilty of assuming this will be an intensely difficult task for Real Salt Lake.
We're not backing down from that assertion, of course. Nobody thinks this will be an easy one. Still, we should try to be a little less fatalistic about things, because there are things RSL can do to make things a little easier on themselves — and, potentially, to earn points on the road.
Mind the midfield
This is probably easier said than done, but success for Real Salt Lake goes right through the middle. The likely starting trio of Kyle Beckerman, Stephen Sunday, and Javier Morales will be tasked with keeping possession, building attacks, and stopping breakaways. It's not exactly an easy thing, but this is a group that has every chance to solve that problem.
Sunny is the big question mark, simply because we haven't seen him in a competitive match for the team yet. Early signs have been overwhelmingly positive, but they're still just signs, and we have no certainty yet. But if he can continue to break up play just inside the RSL half — where fouls are often not as costly — his impact could be substantial.
Beckerman's impact might initially be thought of as a destroyer, but it actually goes much deeper. As much as Morales controls the melody and timbre of the match, Beckerman controls the tempo and rhythm. As he goes, so goes the team. If he's slowing play down, everyone slows down around him. He's the metronome — the heartbeat, as we're so fond of saying.
Finally, Morales's creativity will be essential, but let's actually get to him with our next item.
Allow creativity to flow
This is where Morales really comes to the fore. There are few players in this league that can unleash the raw creativity Morales does with regularity. His ability to spot a run or to initiate one becomes particularly important here, because it's nothing if he's creative on his own. In sport, individual creativity without team cohesion might as well be called failure, because it doesn't lead to successful attacks.
For this to succeed, Joao Plata and Burrito Martinez have to be making smart runs. The diagonal passing that Morales excels at — threading the needle, if you will — needs a target, and these two are the best options. Both are excellent dribblers, and both can make quick, bursting runs. Further, the two are different enough in their attacking intentions that it becomes difficult for defenders when they switch sides.
For instance, Burrito might be more prone toward cutting outside, then inside again to send a cross from just inside the box, while Plata might be more prone toward dribbling diagonally toward the center of the box. Both, however, will make diagonal runs when the other has the ball, opening new avenues of play.
We know from Tuesday's CONCACAF Champions League matches that there will be opportunity to capitalize on an open midfield, and I don't expect Tigres will be an exception to that. Real Salt Lake has a clear opportunity here, and we expect that to be doubly the case with Tigres unlikely to take a defensive stance at home.
Capitalize on opportunities
All those opportunities we'd like RSL to create are meaningless if their finishing is poor. We have three players whose finishing should be on-point to find success, and the most important one is Yura Movsisyan. I purposefully avoided mentioning him above, because his movement is likely to be more vertical than it is horizontal, and we can expect that Morales won't get the same opportunities to cut through the middle of the field to him.
With all that, Movsisyan has to display a soft touch and a quick shot. If the wide players and Morales get their jobs done properly, he'll have crosses coming in toward him. He simply has to be ready to put one or two of them away. He's said he only needs one chance — this is the time for him to prove it.
Don't get caught out
All this talk about attack is worthless if Real Salt Lake can't keep Tigres from scoring quick, counterattacking goals. If Aaron Maund and Jamison Olave push forward too often, they'll likely be sent chasing a long pass. If they overcommit near the midfield line, expect Tigres to create a chance.
To avoid this, it might make sense to take a more divided approach than the team typically took last year. Instead of pushing up as a unit and attempting to play an offside trap without a truly communicative center back, the defenders could send only one fullback forward at a time and retain both center backs at the defensive base of the field's middle third.
This would necessitate that Beckerman or Sunny stays in a more reserved position, but it would also allow for some defensive strengths to emerge. It could open chances for one of the center backs to push forward to attempt to win the ball higher, but it would also allow the defenders to shift into an ad hoc three-man backline when needed.