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Malfunctioning RSL struggling with long passes, blocked shots

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Conceding early is putting RSL in difficult positions for most of matches.

MLS: New York City FC at Real Salt Lake Jeff Swinger-USA TODAY Sports

An interesting tweet came across my feed today talking about goalscoring in MLS, and how Real Salt Lake (among others) is really struggling in that regard.

That got me thinking — why is that? It’s not that Real Salt Lake isn’t shooting, certainly. Look at the numbers from the tweet. We’ll go into more depth, too.

That’s good stuff, but let’s take a spreadsheet to these numbers so we can see them in more depth. If you’re on mobile, this will look a little long. This is mostly context, so if you’d like to move past it, you’re welcome to.

MLS Shooting Statistics

Team Total shots Outside box 6-Yard Penalty area
Team Total shots Outside box 6-Yard Penalty area
Seattle Sounders FC 14.8 6.2 1.5 7.1
New York City FC 13.7 4.6 1.1 8
Sporting Kansas City 13.6 6.6 0.8 6.2
FC Dallas 13.5 5.2 0.8 7.5
Houston Dynamo 13.3 5 0.8 7.6
Real Salt Lake 13.1 5.9 0.8 6.4
Montreal Impact 12.9 5.5 0.3 7.2
San Jose Earthquakes 12.8 5.4 1.2 6.2
LA Galaxy 12.7 5.8 0.9 6
Portland Timbers 12.4 5.3 0.8 6.3
Toronto FC 12.2 5 0.8 6.3
New England Rev. 12.2 3.8 1.3 7.2
New York Red Bulls 11.9 3.5 1.1 7.4
Minnesota United 11.8 4.6 1.3 5.9
Philadelphia Union 11.6 4.5 0.8 6.3
Columbus Crew 11.6 4.8 0.9 5.9
Vancouver Whitecaps 11.5 4.7 0.5 6.3
Orlando City 11.3 5.8 1 4.4
Atlanta United 11.2 4.7 0.7 5.7
Chicago Fire 11.2 4.2 0.6 6.4
DC United 10.9 4 0.4 6.5
Colorado Rapids 7.8 3.5 0.6 3.6
WhoScored

Alright! Welcome back. So what have we seen here?

First, the big one here is that Real Salt Lake has taken the sixth-most shots in the league. We’re also distinctly in the middle of the table for shots taken inside the six-yard box. We’re in third for shots taken outside the box, with 5.9 per game. Finally, we’re ninth in shots taken inside the penalty area.

We’re taking a lot of shots, then. To what end?

Again, let’s go to the numbers.

MLS Goals

Team Open Play Counter Attack Set Piece Penalty Own Goal
Team Open Play Counter Attack Set Piece Penalty Own Goal
Atlanta United 20 1 1 1 1
New York City FC 19 0 2 1 0
Chicago Fire 18 0 1 2 0
Columbus Crew 14 1 2 3 0
Sporting Kansas City 13 1 1 0 1
Portland Timbers 13 2 4 3 0
Montreal Impact 13 1 2 2 0
Toronto FC 13 0 4 3 1
New England Rev. 12 1 4 3 0
FC Dallas 12 0 1 1 0
Philadelphia Union 12 0 4 3 0
Minnesota United 11 0 5 2 0
Orlando City 10 0 4 0 0
San Jose Earthquakes 10 0 4 0 0
Seattle Sounders FC 10 0 3 2 1
Vancouver Whitecaps 9 1 5 0 0
LA Galaxy 8 0 4 2 1
Real Salt Lake 8 0 2 1 0
Houston Dynamo 7 3 7 5 0
Colorado Rapids 7 0 1 1 0
New York Red Bulls 7 0 3 1 2
DC United 5 1 1 1 1
WhoScored

There we are, near the bottom of the goals scored table. That’s not exactly where we’d want to be right now. Clearly, our accuracy isn’t great — but before we go too far down the road of blaming players, there’s one last statistic we need to bring to the fore.

MLS shooting accuracy

Team Total Off target On post On target Blocked
Team Total Off target On post On target Blocked
Real Salt Lake 13.1 5.2 0.2 3.8 4
Portland Timbers 12.4 4.5 0.2 4.2 3.8
Seattle Sounders FC 14.8 6.8 0.8 4.3 3.7
Houston Dynamo 13.3 4.4 0.1 5.3 3.6
Sporting Kansas City 13.6 5.3 0.1 4.9 3.4
FC Dallas 13.5 5.8 0.2 4.6 3.1
San Jose Earthquakes 12.8 5.5 0.2 4.2 3.1
LA Galaxy 12.7 5.7 0.3 4 3
New York Red Bulls 11.9 4.8 0 4.2 3
Montreal Impact 12.9 5.8 0.2 4.4 2.7
Minnesota United 11.8 4.7 0.2 4.5 2.7
Columbus Crew 11.6 4.2 0.1 4.8 2.6
Toronto FC 12.2 5.2 0.2 4.4 2.6
Philadelphia Union 11.6 4.4 0.3 4.7 2.5
New York City FC 13.7 5.5 0.2 5.7 2.5
Atlanta United 11.2 4 0 4.7 2.5
Vancouver Whitecaps 11.5 5.7 0.1 3.5 2.3
Orlando City 11.3 5 0.3 4 2.3
Chicago Fire 11.2 4.5 0 4.5 2.2
DC United 10.9 5.3 0.4 4 1.6
New England Rev. 12.2 5.9 0.2 4.7 1.6
Colorado Rapids 7.8 4.2 0.3 2.3 1.4
WhoScored

Now we’re cooking with fire. Real Salt Lake is leading the charts in shots blocked per game. This is something we can look at and start to understand reasons for. Just about 30 percent of our shots are being blocked — there’s no accuracy to account for, because those shots simply just don’t get that far.

And sure, that means we’re testing opponents in some way, but the implication — and I think we can back this up with an eye test — is that too often, Real Salt Lake is taking shots when they are already in positions that are easily defensible.

And how do you find yourself in easily defensible situations? Well, one sure way is to concede an early goal. Or two. Or... yeah, you get the picture. We don’t need to hem and haw about this one.

By conceding early goals, Real Salt Lake is more readily allowing opponents to be in positions to block shots. There may also be an element of desperation on the team’s side, simply because they find themselves down more often. When those two things coincide, we’re left in a difficult position.

My hypothesis, given all the numbers? We concede early, and teams are more than happy to pack it in a bit and play defensively, catching us with counterattacks.

There are a couple more statistics to throw in here. Let’s go through some of my findings.

Real Salt Lake leads the league in having more action in the opponent’s third — 32 percent of their play is there. That confirms my hypothesis that teams are given carte blanche to play defensively against us.

Houston Dynamo have had five penalties called in their favor. Amazing.

Unlike 2016, RSL isn’t even near the top of the league in clearances. We’re in 17th of 22 teams. That’s a big change, and that’s probably purposeful from Petke.

Here’s a weird one: 67 percent of RSL’s shots have come with a player’s right foot. 20 percent have come from a left foot. 13 percent have come from the head. I don’t really know what this means, but there’s something to think about there. (About 62 percent of RSL’s goals come from a right foot, too, in case you were wondering.)

Long balls

Let’s talk about one more statistic, and we’ll call it for the day. Real Salt Lake, on average, wins 12.3 aerial duels per game and loses 15.3 per game. That’s a 44 percent success rate. That’s not quite the worst in the league, but it is dangerously close.

Pair this with our long-ball accuracy rate, and you’ll really start to see what’s going on. We attempt the 8th most long balls per game in the league — 71.5 where the average is just about 70. Nothing too outlandish, really. But our long ball accuracy is dreadful, and it’s the worst in the league: 38.46 percent. The average accuracy is right around 48.5 percent.

Combine that with our short passing success rate, 79.89 percent, which is good enough for third-worst in the league, and you’ll start to see the picture of a team that’s malfunctioned in significant ways.

We can’t cross, we can’t pass from distance, and we can’t pass when we’re close. Again, this all confirms my hypothesis that we allow teams to play defensive soccer against us, and we allow them chances to break up our play too often.

The blame game

I know I like to harp on why we shouldn’t blame individual players for systemic problems, and that’s going to come up here once again.

We all really love blaming individuals — Yura Movsisyan, for one, or Joao Plata, for another. But when your long passing accuracy is under 40 percent, and you are in the top half of the league in long passes attempted, you’ve clearly come up with a recipe for malfunction.

Now, these numbers could be explained by a couple things, so let’s see if we can disprove the hypothesis.

First, the statistics include games under Jeff Cassar, whose penchant for the long ball became a hallmark for this team. They also include numbers under the Mike Petke transition. At this point, we have eight games under Petke, two under Daryl Shore, and two under Cassar. If Cassar is the source of these numbers, it’s because of tendencies baked into the team now, not because of actual games played.

Second, are numbers like these really going to be more likely for a team that concedes early? Is it RSL switching to desperation mode for the remainder of the match, or is it a broader problem the team hasn’t learned to deal with?