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RSL vs. LA Galaxy: How’d RSL manage a two-goal comeback?

It’s all about the counterattacking soccer these days, isn’t it?

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

Real Salt Lake took a bad match, turned it on its head, and managed to come out the other side with a point.

It was, in a word, flabbergasting.

Not because RSL came out with a draw — that’s spectacular and says lots of good things about the team — but because they simply looked unable to cope with a counterattacking team.

The Claret-and-Cobalt appeared to have digressed into a former version of themselves which favored possession over smart, clinical attacking soccer. For 66 minutes, the home side struggled to create any real scoring opportunities, and it wasn’t until they adopted a style similar to the visitors that the tide began to turn.

On average, LA scored within 10.3 seconds of receiving possession of the ball, emphasizing their counterattacking ability and style. It’s a hallmark of a great Bruce Arena side, really — this is their bread and butter.

So what is it that made that work for Real Salt Lake? As always, looking at some charts is fun and maybe slightly enlightening. Here’s a chart of the build-up to Joao Plata’s non-penalty goal. It’s a great one. It also started very much at the back — with a Nick Rimando recovery. What a guy, huh?

Build-up of Plata’s goal from minute 65:45 to 66:12.
Courtesy of MLSsoccer.com and Opta.

And let’s look at Burrito Martinez’s goal — you know, the one that sent us into rapture in the stands. That one.

Build-up of Martinez’s goal from minute 93:03 to 93:18.
Courtesy of MLSsoccer.com and Opta.

You see how it starts from a recovery again? That’s not a coincidence. While we sometimes struggle to really put it to teams while attacking in wave after wave, stroking the ball along the top of the box with relative ease, we do very well when we’re capitalizing on a quick opportunity.

This is one of our defining characteristics now, too. We’re not totally dissimilar to LA Galaxy in that regard, but the big difference comes in our wanting to also play “the right way,” which is to say, in a smooth, attacking style. We don’t to be a route-one or counterattacking team by definition. But by the same token, we’ve really started to hit our stride when we introduce counterattacking play into our game and force teams to confront us quickly.

What’s also telling — and this should come as no surprise — is that both goals went through the wings. They didn’t start there, but the crucial moments came through wide positions. That is, of course, a testament to our strength there.

Was it taking that counterattacking approach — resorting to that as a primary mode of operation — that made it work for Real Salt Lake and brought back a two-goal lead? Or was it more important that the team continued pressing throughout, and when the holes opened up, they were attacking in the right places? The answers, as always, aren’t exactly clear cut — but it is clear that it took a change in operation for RSL to come out with a point.