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Is RSL's possession game dead?

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Peter G. Aiken-USA TODAY Sports

There was a time, not long ago, that RSL was uniquely focused on playing soccer "the way that it was meant to be played." So many euphemisms were thrown around during the Kreis/Lagerwey years that, in fact, some rivalries were formed almost entirely based on a perceived ego or snobbish nature coming from Sandy, Utah.

Think back to bashing the way that teams like LA, SKC, and others play solely based on their style of play. To be a team that wanted to hold the ball, that tried to possess the ball through the midfield, and looked to create dynamic movement and cutting, tight passes seemed a little unheard of in what is often described as a brutish league. Teams in MLS had, largely, made their money on the bunker/counter philosophy; playing a deep line looking to push from defense to offense very quickly with the hopes of catching your opponent off balance to get an opportunity on goal. Teams that played with this tactic were the focus of our hatred and regularly the target of verbal shots from Jason and Garth. Remember the famous "diametrically opposed" moment? That was a fun one.

So what was the style of play? Is calling it the diamond of the 4-4-2 enough? In retrospect it was so much more than that. After so many years with the same core group of players involved under the tutelage of Kreis and co, the familiarity lent itself to creativity that leapt outside of the boundaries of the 4-4-2 or a tactical formation in general. Many teams would probably love to be able to start in a "line up" then let the game flow the way that RSL often did. That group had a way of finding and exposing spaces in behind defenses that still seems a little bit unreal in terms of MLS play.

Todd Dunivant, former LA Galaxy defender, commented in an article for LAGalaxy.com:

"They like to unbalance you. They like to overload sides; they like to play out of position if you will. They don’t have traditional positions and their diamond turns into all sorts of shapes throughout the game," said defender Todd Dunivant. "What that does is that pulls defenders out of position and causes chaos. They run in behind, their midfielders make late runs and they punish you so from that standpoint, we need to be good. We need to be talking all the time, shifting and [we need to] be disciplined."

This possession-oriented style lead RSL to great heights in the years after its implementation. Two trips to MLS Cup finals, consistently retaining the Rocky Mountain Cup (IT MATTERS), and nearly winning a CONCACAF Champions League Final. Spoken of very highly among most soccer fans around the league, whether in fear or admiration, RSL was in a very good place for much longer than many thought that the team would be.

Through all that, some would argue that there was one glaring weakness with this style of play, and it bit us on more than one occasion. Many, many times RSL would have an opportunity after winning a ball on defense, to counter attack with an aggressive pass into space. In almost every single one of these cases the counter attack would be killed off with some passing in the midfield and maybe a drop ball back to the defense or Nick in goal leaving those in the stands who saw the opportunity with a gasp and a pang in their hearts at the "wasted" opportunity.

Now, that was probably by design, and it’s not like RSL were worse for the wear because of a few missed opportunities to play a ball over the top, right? Realistically the team from 2010-2015 was not built, in almost any tangible way, for that type of play. Through rigorous scouting and man-handling of the salary cap, RSL had built a team that was designed, almost entirely, to build up through touch passes in small spaces, not balls over the top. Saborio, for all his strengths, was not an over the top forward. Wing play in the diamond midfield was nearly non-existent, and players who were more traditional wing players did not last long in an RSL kit.

Lacking a player with speed, touch, and the confidence and ability to take a defender one on one and beat him consistently, playing that ball over the top would have been a waste of a pass most of the time.

Still, our greatest moments of success were brought about through possession oriented attacking play and solid defending. It’s what we know, and in so many ways it is what we cherish.

But the times, they are a changin'. (cliche, I know.)

Over the past season and half, more or less, the transition from 4-4-2 to 4-3-3 has been met with some, deserved, reservation from the part of a fair number of fans. Complaints have ranged, and some of them have been a bit odd to say the least. That said, a lot of them have been very valid. The RSL we knew and loved held the ball, playing tight passes through tight spaces, moving the ball beautifully and effectively. The change, specifically in 2015, away from that mindset was noticeable and may have affected results. (let’s argue that another day)

Changing tactics is hard, period. Even more so when the entire staff and the majority of your squad have been together, training and playing in the same set up, for the better part of a decade. Pulling the trigger on that kind of a move was gutsy, bold even, but was likely to cause everyone involved a bit of heartache while things got sorted out. Players would need to be brought in or let go, staff would need to adapt, fans would need to get on board.

Making that all the more difficult, the ever so consistent RSL that we had all come to know and love started to become very inconsistent. Dropping games at the last minute on silly mistakes, whether it was a loss or a draw, happened more times than any of us care to number last year. (Think about all those draws that were 30 seconds away from being a win….no don’t.) There were fitness issues, health issues, position fit issues, performance issues, and seemingly some attitude issues. All of that is to be expected. When confronted with change people usually have a little bit of a freak out, just generally. Given some time to adapt and adjust things normally come together, right?

Last season the complaints were straightforward enough and really boiled down to two things. Not creating enough chances and scoring opportunities, leaky in the back at the death of matches. A lot of the blame for that was laid at the feet of Jeff Cassar and the formation that he was imposing upon us; "HOW DARE HE TAKE AWAY THE DIAMOND!" Well, let us not forget the myriad of injuries, international call ups, and the overall lack of depth on the squad. All of which none of us had really experienced since 07-08. So, fresh year, healthy squad, new additions, and look at where we are at.

This season, with a seemingly healthy team up until a week ago, RSL have been firing on all cylinders. Adding Yura in up top, Joao playing like a man possessed, and Burrito/Javi/Kyle/Sunny and the rest of the squad really finding themselves again inside of this new tactical framework has lead to a great start in 2016. Undefeated in league play (read that again and let it sink in) and putting up a fight against arguably the best team in the region in Champions League, there’s a lot to be excited about.

And yet there is still some lingering angst and confusion around who this RSL team is or is trying to be. The change in formation is still causing some heartburn, and most of it is centered around this idea that, as a team, RSL no longer look possess a team to death. It’s been echoed a bit amongst groups of fans and recently some of the talking heads around the league have chimed in.

Matt Doyle made a statement after the win at KC on the weekend that prompted this very long piece you’re still reading. (bless you!) He said:

"Boot. It. Long.

That ethos plays directly into RSL’s identity. They really, truly no longer give a single damn about possession, and are determined to play the game in transition. The idea is to let the defense collapse and stay compact, inviting the opponent forward. Once the ball is turned over, then it’s off to the races."

I think that statement encapsulates a lot of what we have all feared surrounding the change in tactics from the 4-4-2 "possession oriented play" to the 4-3-3. That statement is another broad stroke that oversimplifies the tactical implications of and the overall style of play inherent in the 4-3-3.

The Kansas City win is, truly, an outlier when it comes to style of play. We should all take note of the fact that RSL just changed tactics to go on the road and beat a team that was 3-0-0 this season with one of the hottest strikers in the league. Cassar and Co came up with a plan and executed it marvelously.

That one game is not RSL, and should not be seen as such. This is a team that wants to possess the ball, beat you with passes and balls played to feet, and hopes to defend from the front with high pressure. Having numbers in the attack and the ability to create a quick counter attacks is something that we have been not so great at in years past. Playing a little bit wider on the wings is something that was almost unheard of under Jason Kreis. Keeping opposing defenders in check with the threat of a ball over the top to a streaking forward is something totally different for a lot of RSL fans.

Yes, that is a dramatic change from previous years. Yes, it flies in the face, to an extent, of what we have all loved in the past. Yes, it’s been painful. Here’s the brilliant thing: it’s working.

All along Jeff has said that the point of the change to the 4-3-3 was to get more numbers into the attack and to leverage those numbers into more chances and scoring opportunities. We have to be more dangerous, more clinical in finishing than we have been in recent years.

Through 4 games this season RSL has created and above average number of shots per game, shots on goals per game, and goals per game when compared with 2015. (Thanks to Charles Barnard for the data dump.)

Attacking Metric 2015 year 2016 year 2015 per game 2016 per game
Shots 373 42 10.97 14
SOG 144 20 4.24 6.67
Goals 38 8 1.12 2.67

The numbers say it’s working. Is it really that straightforward? Probably not. Am I going to leave it like that? Absolutely.

Argue about the possession statistics and have all the style arguments you want. Carry that chip we had on our shoulders about playing the beautiful game the right way in the face of all that was MLS for all those years. Be passionate about the team in the way that you want to be. Just don’t look past the fact that after all the heartbreak last year, this year is shaping up quite nicely so far; even with refs doing all that they can to try and mess it up for us. (zing)

Yes, the diamond is dead and there’s a likelihood that the possession numbers will dip a little bit. But if that comes with a higher scoring rate, more points, and more wins against teams like Kansas City doesn’t that mean that it’s worth something? If it means that there are tactical discussions happening based on the opponent we are facing and the team that we are going to field and those conversations lead to us leaving with 3 points, is that worth it?

Ed. note: This article was written by Jake Simons, despite an erroneous author name listed. It has since been fixed.