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RSL vs. Sounders: Tactical Preview

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Real Salt Lake opens up Rio Tinto for the first time in the MLS season to the Seattle Sounders.

Jennifer Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

Real Salt Lake opens up Rio Tinto for the first home match of the 2016 MLS season to host the Seattle Sounders. Hoping to secure their first win in front of home fans, RSL will hope to revenge last year’s season finale in which they were trounced 3-1 by the Sounders at CenturyLink field. Having already lost their first match, RSL will attempt to make things difficult for the Sounders as they work towards taking the initiative in the series early.

Red card replacements

The Claret-and-Cobalt and the Rave Green got the short end of the stick last week when a fullback from both teams found themselves taking the long walk to the locker rooms. In RSL’s case it was left back Demar Phillips who earned a second yellow after a foul on Kyle Larin, while right back Oniel Fisher was given a straight red. Without their starting fullbacks, both team will have to use their depth to compensate.

Real will look to Chris Wingert to fill the position and Seattle will likely insert Tyrone Mears or Dylan Remick who spent last year on loan to Seattle Sounders 2. While Wingert isn’t much of a step down – actually a step up in some people’s opinion – both Mears and Remick are much more of a wildcard. In defense, Mears excels at man-to-man but is not always well positioned, especially after overlapping runs. Remick on the other hand is quite the opposite. In either case, both defenders allow something that either Joao Plata or Juan Martinez could exploit. With Mears leaving open space and Remick struggling in one-on-one situations, the RSL wingers will have their opportunities to open up the match. Still, neither replacement has played significant minutes during the preseason with the starting lineup, and this perhaps could open up an opportunity for the Claret-and-Cobalt to exploit.

In all, Wingert could be classified as more of a conservative defender while both substitute fullbacks for Seattle might just fit the mold of a wingback more than a fullback. In either case there are pros and cons, but with RSL’s tricky, creative wingers, the opposition’s replacement could open up just enough space to punish Seattle.

Old faces and new

Most of Seattle’s roster has remained unchanged due to financial restrictions. With the amount of money that the club is paying for some of its starters it is no wonder – Clint Dempsey for example. Sounders General Manager and ex-RSL GM, Garth Lagerwey suggested that the club would focus on fielding the best starting XI it could and looking to develop young talent. In other words, the club is lacking in depth. Unlike RSL, Seattle does not have any impact players off the bench, instead focusing on their starting XI.

Among the starting XI are new faces in Joevin Jones, formerly of the Chicago Fire, and young starlet Jordan Morris. Faces that are no longer with the club include star striker Obafemi Martins, impact players Lamar Neagle, Marco Pappa, Chad Barrett and once RSLer (even if it was just for a second) Andy Rose among others.

The loss of Martins will be a great concern moving forward for Seattle while RSL will find it relieved. So not only has Seattle’s attack diminished from last year but so too has their defense. Jones looked good, real good against Sporting Kansas City but he did lose possession twice as many times as he won it. Silly miscommunications with his new backline also opened up a few opportunities for Graham Zusi and Chance Meyers.

Even more is that Seattle is where RSL was a year ago. The club has recently changed its formation to a 4-3-3 leaving behind the 4-4-2. This means that many players are still adjusting to their new roles even within the starting XI. For instance, Morris is still learning his defensive duties. Playing in college and with the US national team as a central attacker, he is now employed on the wing and struggles to mark his man in defense. In such a case, Wingert with an overlapping run could punish the rookie by overloading the left side of the pitch. Other notable players being played out of position include Clint Dempsey who thrives as a secondary striker but also finds himself on the wing.

This is not the Seattle Sounders of 2015 and RSL should not treat it thus. RSL needs to find a way to seize the opportunity force the new style of Seattle play down their opposition’s throats. Very much part of the learning curve, RSL can teach Seattle a thing or two about the 4-3-3 after a year of their own transformation.

Finding the weak spot

Continuing the discussion about Seattle’s formation change, we can turn on sites on the weak spot in their formation thus far. Through their competitive matches against Club America and then SKC, the Sounder’s midfield has struggled. Built as more bruisers than technical players, the now three-man midfield is still gelling. In the simplest of terms, the midfield has yet to learn their positional roles in the 4-3-3.

Courtesy of FourFourTwo's Stat Zone.

The graphic above is the influence map of the Seattle players against SKC last Sunday. As you can see the three man midfield is a little out of whack. On paper Seattle lines up with a V-midfield with Osvaldo Alonso sitting behind Cristian Roldan – interchangeable with Erik Friberg – and Andreas Ivanschitz. In reality, and shown above, while both Alonso and Roldan stick to their positions and remained organized, Ivanschitz is given the license to or just takes it upon himself to roam. His absence from the left midfield opens up space between the left back and center back Chad Marshall, as well as the midfield and backline. This is promising for RSL since this is precisely the type of space Javier Morales looks to exploit.

Courtesy of FourFourTwo's Stat Zone.

It was this space, in fact, that caused Seattle to lose their opening match. Newly inked Portuguese defender for Sporting, Nuno Andre Coelho, decided to push up during a counter against 10 man Seattle and found himself with load of space 40 yards out. While this in most cases is not too dangerous the lack of urgency to close down the space allowed Coelho to let off a rocket that bounced under Stefan Frei for the lone goal of the match.

Without the midfield staying organized and Ivanschitz continuing to roam, the attacking quartet or RSL will be able to fold in and operate between the defense and midfield, exploiting space and creating opportunities.

Expected Lineups

Sounders(4-3-3)

GK: Frei

DEF: Remick, Ockford, Marshall, Jones

MID: Alonso, Friberg, Ivanschitz

ATT: Dempsey (C), Valdez, Morris

RSL (4-3-3)

GK: Rimando

DEF: Beltran, Olave, Maund, Wingert

MID: Beckerman, Sunny, Morales

ATT: Burrito, Movsisyan, Plata

Keys to the match:

Find/exploit space in between the defense and midfield

Play with intent

Exploit the lack of chemistry and formational understanding

Watch RSL kickoff their first home match of the 2016 season on Saturday, March 12th at 2 p.m. Mountain Standard Time at Rio Tinto or on KMYU or MLS LIVE.