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2017 Preseason Preview: For RSL, it’s all about winning the ball in the right places

RSL’s failings in 2016 were for myriad reasons, but it all boils down to one thing: winning the ball.

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

If you listened to anything Craig Waibel said during the offseason, you probably heard a lot of talk about changing the way Real Salt Lake approaches “winning the ball.”

That’s sort of a nebulous term, because really, don’t you want to win the ball anywhere you can get it? Let’s narrow that down a little bit, because there’s real, significant meaning here, and we should parse it out.

The concern — I think — has been that winning the ball deep in the field doesn’t actually help much. Because basically any coach these days will compress eight, nine or even ten players into a defensive position, that means that winning the ball back in the defensive third becomes more commonplace. Watch any of Real Salt Lake’s matches from last year, and you’ll see it. But you’ll also see a team that immediately thumps the ball forward, either as a clearance or as an uber-hopeful pass.

MLS: FC Dallas at Real Salt Lake Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

And that’s fine and good if you have the personnel to suit that. You’ll need some extremely fast players, a couple brilliant passers, and a little bit of luck to execute it well. Real Salt Lake saw plenty of that from opponents, and sometimes, it worked really well against us. You know who did it well? Los Angeles Galaxy.

By compressing the midfield into the defensive third, Real Salt Lake was left with few options other than to simply hoof it long. That happened far too many times. Sometimes, they’d try the ‘feed Burrito’ approach, but with one winger bursting down one side who — let’s face it — is slower on the ball because he fits best in a system with more deliberate attacking action, it simply didn’t work.

And that’s the thing that we’ve sometimes forgotten about. It was easy to praise Juan Manuel Martinez for his brilliant dribbling skill, and he deserved all of that recognition. When he was at his best, he worked wonders for our team. He was direct, in good positions, and he made a difference. But in the first half of the season, he was part of a midfield that worked well as a unit. In the second half of the season, that was a different story.

MLS: Real Salt Lake at Seattle Sounders FC Jennifer Buchanan-USA TODAY Sports

A true lack of rotation is probably the primary culprit here. An injury to Sunny didn’t help anything, but we had — what — one player behind him that we were ready to play? That was Luke Mulholland. We had John Stertzer available, but he started just three matches during a 13-match layoff for the Nigerian. We won’t speculate on the reasons for that, because it’s not the point.

During that stretch, we ran Mulholland ragged — but it was more than just that. Javier Morales, the talisman with the aging legs, started all but one match during that time. He was 36 at the time. Instead of taking an opportunity to rotate, even with injuries wreaking havoc, we ran him into the ground. Is it any surprise that Morales faded over the season?

Let’s bring it back around to the start. We didn’t need to decide on a particular method of pressing or that we needed a new lineup. We needed to rotate, and we didn’t. Certainly, we didn’t really have the roster for it, but the personnel we did have weren’t utilized to their fullest potential, either. We were reluctant to let players fail, and we didn’t have personnel that could relieve veterans otherwise.

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

What we needed to do was win the ball further up the field. But you can’t do that if you’re not compressing play — sure, you’ll win a few balls here and there, and your full backs will cut out some dangerous passes, but by and large, not being able to properly compress — because Javier Morales and Juan Manuel Martinez weren’t in the right tactical positions to do so, whether that’s because of motivation or weary legs — meant that we couldn’t execute our tactical plans from the start of the season.

Bringing the 2016 season into that perspective helps reason through some things, of course. It points to problems throughout that simply weren’t solved properly, and whether you think that’s because the roster wasn’t good enough or the coach wasn’t making the right decisions, it doesn’t really matter. The point is, and should be, that RSL was at its most successful when they were able to win back possession when the opposition least expected it.

A good team needs to be able to win possession in the middle third — or higher, if the opportunity arises. That’s when the opposition is committing to an attack the most, and that’s when they’ll be the most susceptible to a missed pass. Think about all the times Jason Kreis’s system failed: It was when a team came in, won the ball unexpectedly, and capitalized. It wasn’t when they streamed down at us from all angles, because we were generally very well set up to deal with that. It wasn’t when they broke us down on the counter, even though that happened sometimes. It happens to every attacking team, and it should be expected. No, it was when the team was trying to build in the midfield and something went wrong — and that’s when we found the most success, too.

MLS: New York Red Bulls at Real Salt Lake Jeff Swinger-USA TODAY Sports

Sure, the run-and-gun is fun sometimes — LA Galaxy’s tendency to just break down the wings and kill a team with tremendous skill was probably fun for somebody else to watch. But without having the best players available, it becomes extremely difficult to pull that off. You need the fastest players, the best finishers, and a playmaker or two who can loose those players with a single pass.

Does Real Salt Lake have that? It’s hard to argue they do. We have some good finishers, certainly. Yura Movsisyan could be a fantastic finisher in MLS, if not for crossbars and posts. (Here’s hoping 2016’s a bit more fortunate.) Joao Plata, when he’s in form, is tremendous. But neither of those players are a Robbie Keane-type figure, whose knack for scoring goals was more-or-less unrivaled. They’re definitely not a Sebastian Giovinco, who I’m convinced has some dark secret about how he got his powers. Albert Rusnak could be fantastic, but he’s young, and he doesn’t come ready-made. Jordan Allen could be one of the great American players someday — he’s that good — but he’s not there yet.

Real Salt Lake v Chivas USA Photo by Victor Decolongon/Getty Images

How does Real Salt Lake solve for that? By doing the exact same thing that Jason Kreis’s best RSL teams did. It was never about the diamond, even if that worked well, too. It was about where the club was able to win the ball and how they were able to move forward from there.

Does that mean Jeff Cassar should try to do it in the same way? Hardly. He has a different set of 28 to 30 players in front of him. The league has changed. the entire coaching staff is different. The path to success is never replication, and although Real Salt Lake haven’t found it yet, they’ve been close. The starting third of 2016 was — dare I say it — very good. You might even extend that out a bit. We had some of the right ideas at times, and we executed those ideas in the right ways to do it — again, at times.

The key to 2017 will be shifting that balance. It’ll be about having the right ideas most of the time, and it’ll be about executing those in the right ways most of the time. It’s MLS — nobody gets it right all the time, and if they do, they’re probably going on to something bigger soon. If Jeff Cassar can shift that balance, he might just find himself in a more comfortable position at Real Salt Lake with a longer-term contract, a happier team, and — yes — a happier fanbase.