Remember last week? After Saturday's performance, it's easy to forget the hemming and hawing we were (read: I was) doing after RSL's loss to — dare I say it — Colorado Rapids. It was dreadfully unpleasant.
If you think back, you'll remember a pretty substantial castigation of the defense — and that's something Jeff Cassar echoed in his post-match comments and in his comments throughout the week. That wasn't necessarily capital-D Defense, but team defense that starts from the front. If anything, Saturday's 3-1 win over Sporting Kansas City should absolve some of those concerns and absolve some concerns about the ability of the team to execute on such a tactic.
Let's go step-by-step to see how pressure from the very front enabled Real Salt Lake to capitalize on a mistake, earn an opportunity, and break past a team that should be more defensively stout than they were.
First, this is a pretty simple one. Burrito Martinez and Joao Plata are putting some pressure on a defender, and in doing so, they're nearly urging him to play the easy ball through the middle. Whether or not that was intentional, the pressure they applied allowed them to start something — and that's because Javier Morales is in excellent position to win such a ball, if it were to come to that.
Of course, it didn't; Sporting Kansas City managed to retain possession of the ball, with Brad Davis picking it up here. But look at these four players: Chris Wingert is pressing hard against Davis, forcing him to re-think his play instead of turning past the veteran full back. Again, look at the gap afforded by Javier Morales and Kyle Beckerman — but this time, Beckerman is going to start closing down the passing lane to his opposite. Brad Davis is a good winger, though, and he wasn't giving up so easily.
Here, we can see that Davis has broken free and switched the lane of attack from right to left. That seems like a good idea, but Real Salt Lake managed this expertly — this is the sort of play we used to see from the diamond, but it's a bit less capital-D defense-minded. You'll see more of how that approach played out momentarily.
But really, you should be looking at how well Sunny, Beckerman, and Morales have shifted. Sunny is cutting out the primary passing lane, Morales is there to pick up anything strewn through the middle of the field, and Beckerman is steadily making his way back up the field to pressure. Notice, too, that there are only four visible attacking players — there's partly a camera angle to blame, but it should also illustrate the relative paucity of numbers for Kansas City. One bad pass, and they don't have numbers to deal with a breakaway. In essence, they've stretched themselves too thin.
Here we go: This is my second-favorite part of the play, and it's because Kyle Beckerman gets one over on his arch-rival, Benny Feilhaber. The Kansas City man is simply unable to deal with an onrushing Beckerman, and he's here doing what he does best: winning the ball. But it's also important to note exactly how good this pass was: It's perfectly weighted; it's fast enough that it's drawn a center back out of position, and it's not so fast that an RSL player couldn't get to it.
Before we move on, there's another angle of this worth looking at.
We don't have to say much about this, but it's worth pointing out. You can see in this screenshot seven Kansas City players who are out of reach of this play. That leaves three outfield players, and one of them has just removed himself. You'll see more about that in the next screen.
Next up: a fantastic touch — maybe? Joao Plata appears to turn with the ball, but it's difficult to tell from this angle with any precision whether he actually pushed that ball forward or not. Whether he touched it or not is less important than Yura Movsisyan's run and what follows — it's an excellent piece of the play. Another view might be helpful.
Here we go. It looks like Plata does get a touch on the ball, even if it's a slight one. The defense is still coming in late, but that touch may have been just enough to keep the play going. Plata's influence isn't over yet, though.
This is a pivotal, game-changing moment. Yura Movsisyan is making a great run diagonally, leaving Joao Plata to make a more straightforward run. That has a huge effect: the one defender remaining has to decide, in this two-on-one situation, what approach to take. He probably even takes the right one here — he's motioned to his goalkeeper to take the shot, and he's going to take the angle. That seems like the best option he has, and it's only that way they stand a chance.
Keep in mind, playing the angle is only an option for the defender because Joao Plata has made a fantastic run. If he doesn't, maybe the defender can stay with Movsisyan and not worry about another player running in.
The other huge point we need to examine? Yura Movsisyan, who was already moving at a good pace, finds a burst of speed somewhere. That's enough to change this from a good opportunity to an outstanding one. It's quick enough that Tim Melia comes diving out of his box in an effort to keep the game close — but that just gives Movsisyan enough time to place his chipped shot.
In the end, the goal is Movsisyan's — but the credit should be spread across the entire team for some excellent front-focused defending.