Despite a loss against Atlanta United, Real Salt Lake is on a clearly upward trajectory in recent weeks under new coach Mike Petke, and if anything, Saturday’s match against Sporting Kansas City is anything but a forgone conclusion.
Real Salt Lake has an opportunity on the road to continue establishing themselves in the league as a side to be reckoned with — rather than a side to walk over, like they were in 2015, parts of 2016, and the first few weeks of 2017. That’s a Petke influence at play, certainly, but there’s more than just at hand.
Brooks Lennon’s continued rise
First up? Brooks Lennon has been fantastic in the attack. But it’s more than just that — he could be fantastic and we could go nowhere. One player does not a team make. But what we’ve got on our hands is a player starting to look like a true professional, and we’re letting his abilities influence our play.
One of the biggest arguments I’d wheel out against any of the potential tactical shifts that involve abandoning using wingers outright is that players like Lennon thrive in wide positions. He’s played in wide positions through his career. Sure, he could play up top, but watch him when he sprints down the flank, both on the left and the right. He’s able to retain possession in wide positions when two or three players are moving toward him. He can make a quick pass to a more central player. He can swing in a cross. But perhaps bigger is the fact that he can take the ball on his weak foot — or stronger foot, if he’s switched to the left side — and start to make things happen.
Brooks Lennon isn’t our only good player right now, but he’s in form, he’s confident, and he has the set of skills we need to up our game.
That high line
You know, Sporting Kansas City have typically played a high-pressure game, and we’ve often countered that well. When we didn’t counter it so well, it’s because we were in deeper positions when we either lost the ball through opponent intervention or through self-inflicted action.
Nowadays, we’re playing a higher line — we’re both starting our line of confrontation higher, and we’re pushing higher up the field when we have the ball. By correcting an issue in our play — namely, we didn’t give ourselves an opportunity to control the ball in the back, so our back line was either too far back or too far forward for the circumstances.
By pushing higher, we have a greater chance to build play further up the field, lessening the danger if something goes wrong. That gives everyone a greater opportunity to either recover or properly prepare. Now, that’s not without its downsides — for one, SKC have that Dom Dwyer guy who, when he turns his engines on, can really blow past defenders. But someone like Danilo Acosta might be able to keep up, and we have a very smart center back available in Chris Schuler, who can read play well.
One thing we saw in Kansas City’s loss to FC Dallas was that the team is particularly vulnerable to individual skill and dribbling. We’re not the individualistic side we might have been a year ago at this time — Juan Manuel Martinez, for all his brilliance, really emphasized that part of our play — but we still have the pieces for some fantastic individual play.
Albert Rusnak, for example, has shown great positional awareness when attacking with the ball — he’ll see a defender coming in before they really get started. Brooks Lennon, as above, can beat a player down the wing with speed or with smart movement. Joao Plata, should he start, can ghost past a defender with ease. Sebastian Saucedo is starting to bring out some excellent dribbling.
All that will give a player like Yura Movsisyan a better chance to keep his job simple: Hold up the ball when necessary, but certainly, he shouldn’t be called on to dribble past the defense. His job is more focused on proper finishing. We’ll see if we get that from him, but certainly, he has the potential to turn a game on its head with that.