Real Salt Lake's agonizing 2-2 draw today against Orlando City SC left us scratching our heads a little bit.
For a team that looked so, so good in the last two matches (except, you know, when goals were conceded, but we've talked about that), the team went from looking like that to a hapless, goal-conceding wonder.
That quick transformation was actually not nearly as quick as it seemed: Throughout the second half, RSL looked like conceding. They were on the back foot, even as Joao Plata scored the second goal. Orlando was actively creating excellent chances, and the defense was happy to clear the ball for a corner or throw-in.
Olave and Maund can't erase each others mistakes: RSL needs a defender
As you watch the second goal, you can see how important it is to have an organizing center back in the mix. Aaron Maund and Jamison Olave are both immensely capable of dealing with a long pass like this, but neither of them have a clue what the other is doing.
What's more is that they can be prone toward a casual stroll when Nick rimando comes out, probably convinced that he's going to get the ball. In the 89th minute, for instance, Rimando has come out to claim the ball, and Chris Wingert is the only player coming back to make sure nothing terrible happens. Obviously, nothing truly terrible did happen here, but this is the sort of thing that costs teams games.
Just watch this. Aaron Maund — who is very fast — is extremely casual. Jamison Olave is lightly jogging. This sort of proclivity toward passing responsibility toward other defenders is completely unacceptable.
Phillips' red card costs RSL the midfield battle
You can probably explain some of that by rewinding to early in the first half. Demar Phillips managed to pick up two yellow cards in the first 20 minutes, and his being sent off created an imbalance in the team. Jeff Cassar opted to substitute Stephen Sunday, and, on the face of things, that was a good move. It retained a focus on creating chances — RSL hadn't scored yet, after all — and being aggressive, but it also removed a focus on gaining possession in the midfield.
That hurt RSL as they soldiered on, and it became increasingly clear that Sunny has already won himself a starting role. Not only did the team look lost without him, but the team continued to look lost with Luke Mulholland on the pitch. Whether that's down to preparation or something more significant is a big question — but clearly, Mulholland will have suffered having missed some of preseason.
Additionally, that aggressiveness was lost by RSL after scoring that second goal — they no longer looked to push forward or to win the ball in advanced positions; rather, they were content to let play come toward their center backs.
By losing the midfield battle, RSL was forced to try to build through the flanks, and while Joao Plata and Burrito Martinez were both playing, they were able to make a difference. However, once the game shifted and Plata was removed, that option was removed, and Yura Movsisyan was forced to run and run and run. This brought him back even deeper, and it moved the line of confrontation deep enough that the long pass was a viable option to build play.
The first goal RSL conceded comes down to the midfield — and we'll break out the whys and wherefores of that in the coming days. The second goal was partly down to the defense, but it was also down to having no midfield of substance.
The second half paints a not-so-rosy picture of Real Salt Lake's midfield, and that's probably because they were playing with only one holding midfielder for much of it, and then when Luke Mulholland came in, there was no depth to it. The team played a conservative style, and it killed them. Luke Mulholland could have been pressing, or Javier Morales could have been — literally anything would have been better than just giving Orlando City free passes from just inside their own half.
Forwards don't win matches on their own
Our third and final point today is a short one: Real Salt Lake cannot win by forwards alone. If they're to succeed, they need those forwards to be part of a rich interchange with the midfield. They need support from their full backs. In the second half, Real Salt Lake came out conservative, and it gutted their ability to do that. This, considering both sides had 10 men, was unnecessary. That one second half goal didn't erase the attitude, and when Javier Morales, Kyle Beckerman, and Luke Mulholland are level on defense, there's hardly any reason to have forwards playing.
So what's Real Salt Lake supposed to do in this case? It's always hard when you're playing with 10 men, because your plans account for 11 — but it's necessary to shift plans and accommodate for your new situation. Orlando was able to do that with some classic route-one football; Real Salt Lake simply sat back and accepted the thrashing.
For that, they didn't deserve three points, so it's probably entirely just that they only got one.