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Talking Tactics: RSL's youth wave and capitalizing on opportunities

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Peter G. Aiken-USA TODAY Sports

Real Salt Lake is now the only unbeaten team in the Western Conference – Orlando City SC still unbeaten in the East – after their 2-1 victory at Children's Mercy Park. Gaining steam early in the season has proven to be vital for many clubs so the Claret-and-Cobalt are in a good position averaging 2 points per match. Even more impressive was how a youth heavy RSL side was able to beat the then-perfect Sporting Kansas City. So far the results have been going RSL’s way, demonstrating much improvement from last year with possible far reaching effects into the 2016 campaign, but until then, here are some of the statistics that dominated the RSL, SKC match.

Try to look at your weakness and convert it into your strength

Whenever a free-kick is conceded on the pitch, it can be dangerous for the defending. Obviously, there are more dangerous areas than others and the area around the 18-yard box is chief among these. Players need to be extra cautious of threat from conceding in the defensive third and this played a large role in Saturday night’s match. In fact, the Claret-and-Cobalt’s only real weakness on the night was conceding a lot of free-kicks in dangerous positions.

RSL's committed fouls (RSL attacking to the right)
Courtesy of FourFourTwo's Stats Zone.

RSL committed five fouls within about 35 yards of their goal. Four resulted in free kicks and one was erroneously given as a penalty, instead it should have been a fifth free kick. Three more free kicks were conceded within about 40 yards of their goal and two more closer to the midfield circle. In total RSL conceded nine free kicks in their own half and when compared to Kansas City’s three, the numbers speak for themselves.

Despite struggling with set-piece defending in the past, RSL’s defense looked strong and organized against Kansas City. They could did not concede any goals during opposition free-kicks and more importantly RSL did not allow any SKC scoring opportunities to be created either.

With defense being a big talking point in the 2016 RSL season, RSL demonstrated that even without additional signing the defense is showing marks of improvement.

Making the most of your opportunities

In every match, there are 90 minutes. That means RSL players have 90 opportunities to make a positive impact for the club.

Coming into the night, the Claret-and-Cobalt did not always make the most of the 270 minutes played thus far. RSL maintained 48 percent of the possession through the first three matches of the 2016 regular season. During that same time, they created 15 chances. Breaking those numbers down means that a RSL player had the ball at his feet for 130 minutes and the created a scoring opportunity roughly every 8.66 minutes.

The RSL of Saturday night, however, seemed far removed from those mediocre number. Missing the majority of their creative attackers, it was assumed that chances were to be at a premium for the club but, in fact, that assumption couldn’t be farther from the truth.

RSL excelled, creating a high number of chances in relation to their limited possession. Actually, RSL was able to create about 87 percent of the scoring opportunities they had created in the first three matches in a single night. The club produced 13 chances with merely 37.4 percent possession. In more directly terms, the Claret-and-Cobalt created a scoring opportunity every 2.59 minutes.

Leading the charge was newly minted RSL No. 10, Joao Plata. The diminutive Ecuadorian produced seven chances against Sporting without the help of Javier Morales or "El Burrito" Juan Martinez. Capitalizing on his talents, Plata showed why he was bequeathed with the number 10 kit.

On the flipside, chances were there to be had for Yura Movsisyan. The Armenian striker had a decent game getting into space and pulling apart the defense. He was unable to convert, though, with bad luck on two good chances in the 38th and 57th minutes, created by John Stertzer and Luke Mulholland, respectfully.

With the creative juices flowing for RSL, there really is no ceiling offensively for the club at full strength, but if this match proved anything it is that, even without the big names, the RSL squad members can create and capitalize on opportunities.

A few more thoughts:

3. Playing the offside trap

Typically in a high line, defenders play about half way between the 18-yard box and the centerline, or even higher, hoping to catch attackers leaning beyond the defensive line. This is usually to put pressure on the opponent leading to more turnovers in advanced positions, which it did for RSL as many of their scoring chances came through winning the ball in the midfield. While it can leave the keeper stranded on an island, it prevents opportunistic strikers, like Dom Dwyer, from camping in and around the box.

By playing the high line, the Claret-and-Cobalt effectively annihilated the SKC offense. In total, a Sporting player was caught in an offside position eight times and cutting their scoring opportunities by 20 percent of the SKC’s average.

SKC's offside passes
Courtesy of FourFourTwo's Stats Zone.

2. High shot frequency

Like I said before, RSL only controlled 37.4 percent of the possession against Kansas City. Despite this, the Claret-and-Cobalt created a number of chances and out-shot the opposition more than 3-to-2. This was mostly the result of winning the ball in advanced positions and being able to go on a quick counter-attack.

Putting it another way, RSL produced about a 1:3 shots to minutes in possession ratio or a shot every 2.24 minutes when in possession - compared to SKC's one shot for every 6.27 minutes in possession.

1. Noticeable absences

The youth got a deserved victory but without many of their starter's their were very evident dependencies in the stats. With both Javier Morales and Kyle Beckerman on the pitch, RSL averages 48 percent possession, 75 percent passing accuracy and 19 meter pass-lengths in 2016. Without them, RSL's averages drop to 37.4 percent of possession and 70 percent passing accuracy while the average pass length increases to 21 meters. In essence, the offensive style of the club chances to a long-ball favoring, counter-attacking club.

But still the average age of the starting XI was 25.7 and including the bench the average age for the 18 man squad was 26.05 with Demar Phillips (32) and Chris Wingert (33) being the oldest players for RSL. With more than half of the players 25 years old or younger, RSL was able to travel to one of the roughest places in MLS and not only get a result but all three points. With youth like this, who needs veterans?

The veteran spine of RSL has long dominated the style of play and RSL does not yet have the pieces to replace either the Maestro or the Captain if they hope to continue playing tiki-taka style that made the club historically so successful.

What do you think? Is there any trend that you would like to mention? Is there a specific set of tactics that you felt dominated the match? Share your thoughts and opinions in the comment section below.