Real Salt Lake will look to continue a five-game unbeaten run on Saturday when they host Vancouver Whitecaps — a team that, only a week prior, was roasted in a 4-0 thrashing by D.C. United.
But it's also a game that might not feature Javier Morales from the outset, and that makes us a little worried about the outcome. We haven't found a like-for-like replacement basically ever, and we're still trying to figure out how we replace his influence.
Jordan Allen, Luke Mulholland, and Javier Morales
Last week, we saw Luke Mulholland start in place of Javier Morales, who was unavailable from the outset as he recovers from a broken rib. There's talk now that Morales is still suffering, and that he isn't ready to start again. That leaves us with an opening in the attacking midfield spot, and we've seen both Allen and Mulholland in that position. We can start to explore options.
But Stephen Sunday has suffered some sort of lower leg injury, and that could influence the lineup. Will John Stertzer be selected to replace him? Mulholland himself? All our discussions ought be couched in that sort of question.
Here's why Luke Mulholland shouldn't be starting for Javier Morales. It's his passing chart against Colorado Rapids while playing in Morales' stead.
Yes, I know Colorado played a strong defensive game, but he didn't fulfill the responsibilities of the position — at least as I understand them. He did better with ball recoveries, but he wasn't tearing up the pitch with his control of the game.
This young kid is probably our best bet to replace Morales outright — and that's down in part to how he's played, but it's also about how he reads the game.
What we see here is that Allen is completing passes frequently in wide positions, but he's struggling more in central positions. And obviously, you can't easily compare passing charts from different matches, but we can see a player who is highly involved in the attacking half of the game.
He has some work to do to really make himself that first-choice backup, but he's at least able to complete passes regularly. He needs to get better in possession high up the pitch, of course, and I don't think anyone's too interested in denying that.
Perhaps the biggest problem RSL faces with Morales out is replacing his influence. Joao Plata is starting to show that he can replace some of it, but he isn't going to be a like-for-like replacement at any point in his career.
Let's start with a chart. This is Plata's passing during the same period in which Mulholland played in Morales's position against Colorado Rapids.
He's more central, he's in more dangerous positions, and he's getting involved deep only slightly less frequently than Mulholland. Yes, they're very different sorts of players — and it's worth considering that Plata had two key passes (potential assists, if you will) after Morales came on. That's not too surprising. He also scored the only goal of the game from a Morales pass. Again, not too surprising.
The biggest issue with playing Plata in the central position? He isn't a pure creator — he's a better finisher, and he needs to be on the end of amazing passes sometimes. Of course, he also leads the team in assists, so what do I know?
Taking a step back: Looking at 2014, 2015 records
But if we take a step back and look at 2014, we can see an RSL team that's being better led and better coached — even if their record after five games was similar then. And that should make us look at 2015 again, because, really, our record isn't totally dissimilar. After five games, we had three draws and two wins — both in 2014 and 2015. This year, we're sitting with three wins and two draws.
What's changed? Let's take a look at our draws and see if we can find anything.
- March 15, San Jose: RSL drew 3-3 with San Jose after conceding a goal early, rescuing a 3-1 lead, then conceding two more as the game waned on.
- March 22, LA Galaxy: RSL led for only 15 minutes as Robbie Keane stuck a dagger in us
- April 5, Sporting KC: No goals. Sporting KC received a red card in the 83rd minute. RSL was outshot 20-5 (9-1 with shots on target.)
- March 7, Portland Timbers: A 0-0 draw, and RSL was outshot 18-9 (6-2 on target.)
- March 14, Philadelphia Union: RSL rescued this one late with an Alvaro Saborio penalty kick. Jamison Olave scored for RSL in the 55th minute. In the 58th minute, he scored an own goal against RSL.
- April 11, Sporting KC: Another 0-0 draw.
- March 6, Orlando City: 2-2 draw; RSL conceded twice late. Demar Phillips was sent off for RSL in the 20th minute. Darwin Ceren was sent off for Orlando City to end the first half.
- March 19, Portland Timbers: 2-2 draw; RSL conceded twice in the last 15 minutes of the match. Kyle Beckerman and Jamison Olave were both sent off for RSL.
What's the difference? Well, RSL's draws this year have been correlated with red cards. We know that's an issue, but there's also plenty of room to speculate about MLS referees showing more red cards this year. (It sure feels like it, but you never know — it was the highest it had been in a while as of earlier this year, though.)
I guess that raises the question: Is RSL actually better than they have been in years past? I don't know if there's an easy, straightforward answer.