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Talking Tactics: Positives from a disappointing stretch for RSL

With the post-season a hop, skip, and a jump away, what can RSL learn from a disappointing September?

MLS: FC Dallas at Real Salt Lake Jeff Swinger-USA TODAY Sports

A month ago it appeared as if Real Salt Lake started their sprint towards the finish line. Sitting within striking distance of the Supporter’s Shield and coming off wins against the top two teams in the West, the Claret-and-Cobalt looked poised to be one of the Best in the West.

Fast-forward a month, however, and the results have not been going RSL’s way (D-L-L-D). A record like that has made many fans ask, “Where did it go wrong?”

While we might be able to answer that subjective query, let’s talk about where they have done right:

September 8 vs LA Galaxy: To make something out of nothing

MLS: LA Galaxy at Real Salt Lake Jeff Swinger-USA TODAY Sports

It was the 94rd minute and RSL had one final chance to equalize. Giving up three goals at home would almost be an insurmountable obstacle but RSL’s spirit was not dampened. After a cheeky move by Juan Manuel Martinez and an erroneous blunder by Brian Rowe in goal, RSL scored the much sought after equalizer. While a draw at home can often be just as much as a letdown as a loss, this one felt like victory as RSL battled back from an early deficit and it was created by a smart counter-attack.

Getting the ball quickly up the pitch is a sure recipe for chaos. As the opposition’s defense has not had time to set up and the goalkeeper is often back pedaling to his goal, the attackers are able to get a leg up on the opposition.

The Galaxy excelled at route one during the match taking on average 11 seconds from winning possession to taking the ball in the back of RSL’s net. RSL, on the other hand, struggled to link together a good passage of play that often came to nothing. However, when the home-side adopted the tactics of the opposition they found success.

It can be hard moving away from your past but the Claret-and-Cobalt found success in doing just that. Often teams will stick to the game plan no matter what – RSL has found itself doing this in 2015 and missing the post-season. RSL 3.0 has shown, at times, capable of making in-game decisions that were able to turn the tide. Despite not being able to channel this constantly, when the chips are down it is good to know that RSL has the potential to make something out of nothing.

September 11 at Portland Timbers: Strength in numbers

MLS: Real Salt Lake at Portland Timbers Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports

The match against Portland was undoubtedly a disappointment. It wasn’t that RSL did not show up, on the contrary, RSL put more shots on target than the home-side, but they were weak at finishing. On the coattails of Fenando Adi, Portland was able to take all three points from the Claret-and-Cobalt.

So what did the Claret-and-Cobalt accomplish?

On the night RSL had a higher pass success percentage (76-73), more possession (56%), and more passes (462-358) than the Timbers, but most impressively, they won a lot of set-pieces in dangerous areas. Whether or not this was more of a Portland weakness than a Real strength, winning those challenges can provide a necessary spark for an otherwise flat team.

Although RSL was unable to convert any of these chances, the ability and confidence to take them illustrate a strength of this squad. In the past, Real would have to rely on Javier Morales, occasionally Kyle Beckerman, to deliver the dangerous set-pieces. Now, the Claret-and-Cobalt can have at least three dangerous players standing over the ball. More often than not, these players would include Morales, Martinez, and Joao Plata – all three of which are capable of delivering a dangerous ball into the box or straight into the opposition goal. With such a plethora of options, RSL could and should be able to deliver a wide array of set-pieces to best suit the situation.

September 18 vs Houston Dynamo: Don’t get mad, get Glad

MLS: Houston Dynamo at Real Salt Lake Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

RSL touted the second longest home unbeaten streak in club history before the Dynamo came to town. With their Texan ways, Houston scored in the 36th minute and did not look back. The visitors held the home-side to a single shot on target with two defensive blocks of 4-1-4-1. They were the definition of “parking the bus” and benefited from a large number of individual errors made by RSL. Houston was a defensive juggernaut against RSL.

Like the Dynamo, RSL can similarly find solace in the defense.

At a mere 19 years young, Justen Glad has really established himself as a steward along the Claret-and-Cobalt backline. Glad was easily RSL’s best play on the night earning a 7.3 ranking from Who Scored. Glad overshadowed the 6-foot-3 frame of Jamison Olave as he proved he is the future of the RSL defense.

Glad was a huge contributor for Real accumulating 77 touches – tied for fourth on the team overall. He completed 92 percent of his 62 passes (highest pass accuracy of all the RSL defenders) and made one huge block just north of the penalty spot, but he excelled in one area more than anyone else. Glad looked a defender twice his age has he managed to intercept the ball not once, not twice, but nine times. To put it another way, Glad intercepted the ball as much as the other three defenders combined.

Glad looked much his senior against the Dynamo and showed that giving the youth an opportunity to earn his keep is really paying off. As Matt Doyle, the MLS Armchair Analyst, has harped countless times, it pays to play your youth.

September 25 vs FC Dallas: Exploiting the single point of failure

MLS: FC Dallas at Real Salt Lake Jeff Swinger-USA TODAY Sports

FC Dallas has been without doubt one of the best teams in the Western Conference the past two years, coming up just short of the Supporter’s Shield in 2015. Having already won the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup this year, Los Toros are on track to win it all, or that is what the league would lead us to believe. Yet, RSL was able to exploit a huge gap in the tactics of FC Dallas last Saturday.

Like Morales for the Claret-and-Cobalt, Mauro Diaz is the linchpin for the Dallas attack – even more so with the departure of Fabian Castillo. In the 2-0 victory over Real this past June, Diaz took 83 touches and cut through the opposition like butter. The young playmaker has been vital to FC Dallas’ success, but put pressure on him and he fades into the background, unlike the more experienced Javier Morales and Diego Valeris of the league.

In RSL’s 1-0 triumph over the Western Conference leaders just last month, the Claret-and-Cobalt was able to hold Diaz to a season low of 42 touches. Unable to have adequate time and space on the ball, Diaz looked like a confused college student leaving the bar at two in the morning more than a professional soccer player. He struggled to piece together anything of resolve.

Skip forward a month and RSL was able to do it again. Exposing the greatest flaw of FC Dallas, the Claret-and-Cobalt demonstrated how to silence the Hoops in the post-season for all to see. Once again, Diaz was held to well below half of his average touches per match with an all-new season low of 39. As a result, Dallas’ passing average jumped to 22 meters – up from season average of 20 – while their passing accuracy plummeted to just barely 70 percent – seven percent below their season average. Dallas also only let lose half the number of shots when compared to their 2016 form. Without Diaz marshaling the attack, Dallas are nowhere close to the treble contenders that they appear.

Learning a squad’s style of play and being able to exploit it demonstrates that RSL can compete with the best of them.

As any team goes through a rough spell it is easy to focus more on the negatives than the positives. With points dropped and records broken, it is easy for fans to become disenfranchised. You will win some and you will lose some, but their is a very important distinction between a broken team and an out-of-form team - an example of a broken team being the Columbus Crew at the beginning of the year.

RSL has some improvements to make in their final three matches if they hope to host their first post-season match, and even qualify for the playoffs in that regard. The club is not safe yet but with only a few more points they can rekindle their consecutive post-season appearance record. The Claret-and-Cobalt will have to find that sweet middle ground where they are capable of scoring but avoid conceding, where the defense is impregnable but the offense permeable.

The Claret-and-Cobalt have the skill, the only question is if they have the drive to bound into the playoffs rather than limp.