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The Salt: Petke’s lineup, Baird a ROY contender, Onuoha excels

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MLS: New England Revolution at Real Salt Lake Jeff Swinger-USA TODAY Sports

My lucky friends, this week, you’re getting a second heaping pile of The Salt.

After all, it’s not often that we have midweek games, and it’s certainly not often that there are only two days between matches like this, and frankly, there’s a lot worth talking about.

Let’s not delay.

The Lineup

I know Mike Petke thought that we’d probably be unhappy about the lineup or something — here’s his quote from his post-match press conference.

Well first with the line up, I’m sure that raised a couple of eyebrows with some of the selection. I’m sure whatever it’s called, the Soapbox or the Oracle or whatever the heck they call it were probably saying this and that, that and this.

So, yeah, hey! We do have an Oracle feature run by Kreg Asay, but it does seem like a nice name for a site, RSL Oracle. Hmm. Anyway, I just want to talk about this a little bit.

I know Petke has said he raised a couple of eyebrows, but frankly, that’s not what happened outside of Justen Glad being dropped (rested, I hope) and Danilo Acosta still not seeing minutes (this is not a surprise any more, people.)

Here’s our actual lineup:

Rimando; Lennon, M. Silva, Onuoha, Herrera; Besler, Mulholland; Saucedo, Kreilach, Baird; L. Silva

Here’s what Jerrad Pullum thought we might play with:

Rimando; Herrera, Onouha, Glad, Acosta; Besler, Kreilach; Lennon, Saucedo, Baird; Silva

Here’s what Lucas Muller thought we might play with:

Rimando; Lennon, Glad, Onuoha, Herrera; Besler, Ruiz; Kreilach, Luis Silva, Bofo; Baird

Here’s what Ryan Sanders thought we might play with:

Rimando; Herrera, Onuoha, Glad, Acosta; Besler, Kreilach; Lennon, L Silva, Saucedo; Baird

None of these are too wildly out there. I think, on a high level, we expected this sort of lineup, less Justen Glad’s drop. I’m not sure why Mike Petke is all that concerned about us, but here we are, and there he is.

Anyway, let’s move on to bigger and better things.

Glad out, Onuoha in

Justen Glad being dropped was a real surprise, but it’s not totally inexplicable. I know the national pundits (who are much more broadly critical of Petke, but moving on now) expressed some surprise and unhappiness about his being dropped, and I get that. He’d apparently started 50 consecutive games for the club, which is absolutely fantastic, and our hats should go off to him.

Now, given we have a match in just a few short days, I think dropping him is perfectly reasonable. Let’s get Onuoha minutes and get Glad a rest. I get that. I do wonder who plays alongside him on Sunday, though — Marcelo Silva hasn’t been playing often, Nedum Onuoha just started his first match in quite a bit of time, and Nick Besler went a full 90 minutes in a taxing DM role. (He was quite good!)

I saw something interesting on Reddit this morning. Irondeepbicycle — they comments here, you know them — posted a screenshot of MLS’s chalkboard feature showing Nedum Onuoha’s passing chart and thought it was interesting that he had no successful passes forward. I also think that’s interesting, so let’s talk about it. Let’s start with the passing chart.

Alright, so that confirms the premise. Onuoha’s long passing wasn’t great, but I think a lot of that will come down to understanding. He had one pass, by way of example, that Corey Baird didn’t make a run for but was perfectly in his wheelhouse. I really don’t think Baird expected a perfectly lofted pass behind the defense from a center back, which I think is fair. That will change with time.

At any rate, Onuoha attempted the fewest passes on the team with 17; Silva was not far behind with 25. In fact, only two players broke past the 20s mark: Aaron Herra (54!) and Brooks Lennon (36).

On one level, I’d argue that we simply didn’t play through the center backs much, and that explains part of it. We also conceded the possession game to New England, and while it didn’t feel at all like that, it’s often going to be the case that your center backs aren’t on the ball in short possession stints that will ramp up their passing numbers.

So this is just about right to me, but I do think this doesn’t tell us anything about just how good Onuoha actually was. In fact, few of the numbers do, aside from his three interceptions. He did have nine clearances, and most of those came in the box in the second half as we struggled to actually keep New England from mounting a recovery. (We struggled, but we did it, so I’m not complaining.)

Onuoha, to my eye, was an extremely capable addition to our team. Marcelo Silva, for his part, had one of his better games for the club, too. Now, we could argue that we shouldn’t have been pushed quite so much by New England in the second half, but that’s another discussion altogether.

Corey Baird, rookie of the year?

Oh, it’s just got to be. Corey Baird took that game and controlled it. For his goal, he played the offside line perfectly, and actually, for his cross to Nick Besler for the opener, he did the exact same thing. Look at these two screenshots. Don’t look at the score, because that’ll give away which is which.

You see how similar those runs are? That’s interesting. I really like seeing that. He’s not playing in a strictly forward role, but he’s rotating into those positions with Damir Kreilach and Luis Silva, and that’s giving those defenders a hell of a time. I love it.

It was even Baird that sent in the cross that led to the second goal, too. After a little dip in the summer, he’s back in spectacular form, and he’s hardly playing like a rookie at all. Eight goals and five assists on the year is huge, and it’s not too far from Joao Plata’s numbers (eight and eight) or Albert Rusnak’s (10 and seven.)

It’s certainly too late for him to win the golden boot (unless he scores five against Portland, which I wouldn’t mind at all!) but I’ve got to think he’s the first in line for Rookie of the Year. Let’s just hope he doesn’t get Donovan Mitchelled. (Is that a term now?)

Oh, and here’s Matt Doyle on the kid. It’s a great quote.

In a must-win game, in the playoff race, rookie Homegrown Corey Baird put in the best attacking performance any American’s had this year in MLS. He utterly dominated the first half, and while I’m not screaming “cap him now!!!!111” I am, at the very least, saying “bring him to camp in January!”

Substitutions

OK, so here’s the part that I’m a bit salty about. I really think Mike Petke, when we were ahead 4-1 and looking a bit tired, should have gone to his bench more. I know the options were limited, and I’m not advocating for playing Rusnak, Savarino or Plata after they hadn’t even had time to be involved in training.

But I do think it wouldn’t have hurt to give Justen Glad or Danilo Acosta a run out. Glad in the midfield would be interesting, and Acosta could have played in a left wing role — or even in the midfield, too. I know Acosta’s not in favor, and we didn’t really need a third center back, but I still wish we’d done something.

Off topic

I don’t have much to say here. Let’s talk next week.