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RSL is finding success with simple tactics, capitalizing on chances

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MLS: Colorado Rapids at Real Salt Lake Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

Rumbles of fear are already being heard within the Real Salt Lake fan base. The club has not been stringing together many pass sequences nor have they been creating many scoring opportunities. In fact, they are dead last when it comes to the number of passes and second to last in chances created.

2016 MLS Passing Statistics
Courtesy of Squawka.
2016 MLS Chance Creation Statistics
Courtesy of Squawka.

While this may seem troubling to long-time fans of the club, numbers such as these are much to do about nothing. For instance, the Claret-and-Cobalt have adopted a quick transition style of soccer over their traditional possession based system. RSL is using Route One in essence.

Route One soccer is an attacking tactic by which long-balls are favored over short passes to get the ball far up-field, sometimes apparently aimlessly, for a club’s speedy and tall, powerful strikers to chase. Either utilizing the wingers to work their way past the defense and feed the central attacker or simply hoofing the ball to the lone target man, the No 9’s job is simple: get the ball into the back of the net at any cost, using most or all of his body. This is easily the most functional form of no-nonsense soccer and is easily the most unwatchable at times.

The reason that passing is not a huge issue is because the majority of players in the middle of the pitch are bypassed. Instead of relying on the tiresome business of passing the ball, the entire process is avoided altogether. It has proved to be an efficient process in terms of the club’s time and personnel. Utilizing Route One, for example, meant that the Republic of Ireland was able to attend the 1990 FIFA World Cup and Wimbledon Football Club was able to capture the FA Cup in the late 1980s. It also meant that these two organizations only had to play with two players – the goalkeeper and target man – just kidding.

In all seriousness, though, Route One soccer has been used for a long time and even if RSL are just starting to use it doesn’t mean there is reason to panic (just yet, at least).

When employing Route One soccer, passing becomes less of an issue since, most of the time, the entire midfield is taken out of the equation. Chance creation, on the other hand, is still vital but only in a sense. Because a club is willing to concede most of the possession to the opposition when using direct styles of play, it results in the club getting less time to create chances and instead relies on the quality of chances they do create.

One again, quality over quantity.

Of the shots RSL has taken, the club has managed to set the league gold standard for shot accuracy, just take a look:

2016 MLS Shot Statistics
Courtesy of Squawka.

Six percentage points above both the San Jose Earthquakes and Orlando City SC, the Claret-and-Cobalt has capitalized on opportunities.

Real also leads the league in goals off of set-pieces.

2016 MLS Set-piece Statistics
Courtesy of Squawka.

Being able to convert on big opportunities is arguably more important than simply creating chances. Too often we see a club create a high number of scoring opportunities but squander big opportunities such as a free-kick from right outside the 18-yard box. So instead of worrying about the simple number of chances created, RSL fans should be concerned with the amount of chances missed – a league low of three in 2016.

Sooner, rather than later, it would be beneficial for RSL to start opting for a series of passes over indirect long-balls, but until then Route One has been the path to success in 2016.

A single point away from the top of the league, the Claret-and-Cobalt have adopted the Leicester City style of play. Like the Foxes in the Premier League, RSL is among the MLS’s worst in retaining possession. While some may suggest that the use of direct soccer in this day and age is a bit archaic, both RSL and Leicester are showing it is a great system when your players know how to play it perfectly.

Defending well and not over-playing the ball, these teams get the ball up-field quickly using both pace and efficiency to punish the opposition. They give the ball away a lot simply because they play a lot of quick, long passes forward into the attacking third of the pitch.

It is understandable to think that the current RSL squad is defying logic but I am not suggesting they need to change anything because I actually think they will win playing as they are. Just as Leicester is doing it in the top domestic league in the world, it will be fascinating to see if Real Salt Lake can invigorate fans and prove doubting pundits wrong yet again.