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RSL vs. Vancouver Tactical Preview: The 'Caps, a mere shadow of 2015

MLS: Real Salt Lake at Vancouver Whitecaps FC Anne-Marie Sorvin-USA TODAY Sports

After finishing second in the Western Conference in 2015, the Vancouver Whitecaps find themselves below the thin red line. The Whitecaps are undergoing change that comes with trading away key members of their squad evident of only two wins on the season sandwiched between winless streaks. With new pieces across the board, Vancouver is still trying to get the puzzle to fit together in the early part of the new season and could provide the opening for the Real Salt Lake attackers. In either case, this match will be full of speedy, tricky counter-attacking soccer the likes of which the Claret-and-Cobalt have not yet faced in 2016.

From Gold Standard to leaky, defensive struggles abound

Vancouver was a pillar of MLS defense last year after only allowing a league low of 36 goals against. The almost impenetrable wall manned by Steven Beitashour, Kendall Waston, Pa Modou Kah, and Jordan Harvey was enough to intimidate almost any opposition. Fast forward a year, however, and everything has changed for the Whitecaps.

Beitashour has taken his trade to Toronto FC and Kah finds himself on the bench more than on the pitch. Waston and Harvey are still starters but the offseason chances have overwhelmed the club enough to cause most Cap fans anxiety. The Caps are second in the league to only New York Red Bulls (13) and the Portland Timbers (13) with ten goals allowed. The defense has also suffered from a great number of individual errors that lead to goals. Just check out both of Dom Dwyer’s goals against the Caps several weeks ago:

In the run-up to the first goal, Whitecaps defenders gave Dwyer too much space to work in and gave the striker a clear look on goal. In the second, however, the Vancouver defenders fell asleep and did not mark their man on the far post, who happened to be Dwyer, which led to a tap in. In both cases it was not as much a squad collapse as it was silly individual errors — not to mention both goals came less than 20 seconds after the Caps turned over the ball.

Vancouver, much like RSL 2.0, utilizes their fullbacks in the attack. Unlike the Claret-and-Cobalt, however, Harvey has one of the most advanced position match-in and match-out of almost any defender in the league – with an average position just on the attacking side of the half field line.

Jordan Harvey's heat map during a Caps victory, defeat, and draw.
Courtesy of Squawka.

Like Harvey, Caps’ right-back Fraser Aird, on loan from Rangers FC, also gets into advanced positions. With both fullbacks advanced up the field, there is a lot of open space between the defender and their goal. This space has been easily exploited by attackers since Vancouver’s backline does not have the recovery speed of other defenses around the league, just check out former RSLer Alvaro Saborio score twice on Vancouver in the final minutes of last week’s 4-0 defeat at the hands of DC United:

Both times DC’s attack was able to work itself in behind the Whitecaps’ defense and punish them.

The space in between the opposition's defense and goal is specifically where RSL attackers have excelled this year. With both Joao Plata and "El Burrito" Juan Martinez, able to work their way into these positions, RSL could open up the already leaking defense that Vancouver relies upon. Moreover, it has been said it is only a matter of time before the dam opens up for Yura Movsisyan and the sub-par Caps' defense could be just the spark that could ignite Yura's anticipated goal streak.

In any case, though, the Claret-and-Cobalt attackers should find the Vancouver defense more to their liking after facing the two stingiest clubs in the league- the Colorado Rapids and Sporting Kansas City - when it comes to goals allowed the past two weeks. If RSL can break open the dam, the flood gates should be open for a major beat-down.

Goal scoring isn't a single skill, it's a variety of tactics

Vancouver was not the highest scoring club last year, but they were far from the bottom. With 45 goals notched last year, it appeared that Caps had finally figured out the attacking portion of their game.

For years the Whitecaps struggled to unlock the secrets of attacking soccer moving from one attacker to the next, never really finding the right formula. Then the club signed Octavio Rivero and Pedro Morales and the formula was finally working. Employing speedy wingers with the combination of the two aforementioned players the Vancouver attack flourished in 2015.

In 2016, however, it has been a different matter entirely despite limited personnel changes and even the addition of attacking options. Japanese national Masato Kudo was one of those highly praised offseason signings who has yet to make an impact for his new club.

Caps head coach Carl Robinson could be partly to blame for the club's offensive struggles. Not only did he switch up a winning formation/lineup, but he has also begun playing players out of position. For example, Robinson started playing Vancouver's No 10, Pedro Morales, deeper in the midfield. As a deep-lying playmaker, his output began to suffer.

In his regular position for the first two matches of the season, Morales created five scoring opportunities and averaged 77 percent passing accuracy. In the preceding three matches, Morales only manged to create two additional chances and maintain a 73 percent passing average - although his defensive actions doubled. Instead of being the clinical midfield director that MLS fans had come to expect, the Chilean was forced to rely more heavily on long-balls.

Whats more is that just over 41 percent of these long-balls are being dispersed down the left side of the pitch. While RSL divides their attacks down the flanks about evenly with a 1:1 ratio, Vancouver finds itself attacking down their right side only 32 percent of the time. It's not as if the Caps right side lacks in speed or talent, in fact it could be said that the players that occupy the opposite flanks are almost exact replicas of one another.

This heavy reliance on a single tactic has somewhat stagnated the Caps' attack. On average, the club used long-balls 19.3 percent of the time and have a goal conversion rate (goals/shots) of 9.5 percent. In contrast, the Claret-and-Cobalt also use about the same percentage of long-balls (19.2) but boast a 17 percent conversion rate. RSL's ability to use a variety of attacking tactics stands in stark contrast to the Caps' one prong approach.

A few more things to consider:

4. The Whitecaps have conceded more double goals to a single attacker during a match than any other club. Eight of the ten goals the Caps have conceded came from single player braces. In half of their matches in 2016, the Caps have conceded multiple goals to the same attacker. The first came in their season opener when they conceded twice to Ignacio Piatti and their last was merely last week when both Fabian Espindola and Saborio scored twice to give DC the victory. In fact, when an attacker scores against the Caps, he is almost 20 percent more likely to score again when compared any other club in the league.

3. RSL and Vancouver have a similar disciplinary record. Both clubs have ten yellow cards, but while most of the Caps' have accumulated due to tackles, RSL's is divided between tackles and referee perceived violent behavior. In either case, both teams are physical and it will transfer to the pitch.

2. Injuries taking their toll on Vancouver. The Whitecaps will be without the services of Morales due to a left hip strain and could also be without Rivero and Nicolas Mezquida, subsequently gutting most of Vancouver's attack.

Vancouver Whitecaps FC Injury Report
Courtesy of MLSsoccer.com.

1. Vancouver dominates the recent record when these clubs meet. The Caps have won the last four meetings of these sides – including all three meetings last season. The last time RSL claimed victory was back in 2013 under Jason Kreis. Could this be the match Jeff Cassar shakes off the monkey on his back that is the Vancouver Whitecaps FC?

Expected Lineups

Vancouver Whitecaps (4-4-2)

GK: Ousted

DEF: Aird, Waston, Parker, Harvey

MID: Techera, Laba, Teibert, Manneh

ATT: Kudo, Perez

RSL (4-3-3)

GK: Rimando

DEF: Beltran, Olave, Maund, Wingert

MID: Beckerman, Sunny, Allen

ATT: Martinez, Movsisyan, Plata

Keys to the match:

Get in behind Vancouver defense

Covering Vancouver's speedy attackers

Avoid Laba - Build through the flanks

Watch RSL on Saturday, April 16th at 8:00 p.m. Mountain Standard Time at Rio Tinto Stadium or on KMYU or MLS LIVE.