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What went wrong in RSL’s 3-0 loss to Portland Timbers

RSL face-planted when they needed to stay standing.

MLS: Real Salt Lake at Portland Timbers Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports

Real Salt Lake’s 3-0 loss to Portland Timbers may be the thing that knocks the team out of the playoff race — we’ll know more on Sunday.

As such, I think it’s worth examining the match in a few key areas. First, we were outshot in a match we needed to win, we lost the midfield battle despite winning the possession battle, and our tactical shifts took good progress and threw it away.

Outgunned: How Portland outshot RSL

So, there’s a particular thing when a team is down several goals and desperately needs to get one back. Teams in those situations — at least the ones that are any good — tend to get a lot of low-quality shots off, especially late in the match.

Instead, Portland Timbers took more shots than RSL, 16 to 12. Of those shots, fully three-quarters of them came from the 40th minute to the 70th minute — one third of the match.

Outmanned: How Diegos Valeri and Chara won the midfield battle

I’m going to show you two charts. The first is from Diego Valeri. The second is from Albert Rusnak.

Diego Valeri
Albert Rusnak

Remember, RSL is attacking from right to left in this. What we see is Valeri attempting passes almost entirely in the opposition half in clusters; Rusnak is more spread out and generally playing deeper.

I’m going to show you two more charts. The first is Diego Chara’s passing; the second is Kyle Beckerman’s. They both had a player next to them — David Guzmán and Sunny, respectively — but in both cases, these are the players that form the basis for the team’s spine.

Diego Chara
Kyle Beckerman

Again, we see a very clustered look from Chara and a more spread out look from Beckerman. I’m not saying that either of these is the “correct” way to play in the midfield, but it’s an illustration of what happened during the match.

I’d say broadly speaking, Portland Timbers — and this should be no surprise — played a more structured midfield. Interestingly, we did end with 57 percent possession to Portland’s 43 percent — again, this is not evidence of quality or anything like that, but it’s something to look at.

Outnumbered, Outplanned: How RSL’s tactical shifts made things worse

In the 72nd minute, Petke made his first substitution: Corey Baird for Aaron Herrera. Getting Baird on was probably a good idea, but with things going as well as they were, was the change we made the right one?

Brooks Lennon had more passes than any other RSL player from 45 to 72, with 24 passes. He got into the final third. He was part of the catalyst. But also, look at this chart from Loooook.

See how skewed to the right we are? That’s Brook Lennon doing work. He’s interchanging with players. He’s doing excellent work, and it’s evidence that he’s a good attacking player.

Now look at this chart. This is Portland’s passing in the same period. They’ve clustered on the right side — our left.

Our substitute? Aaron Herrera out, pushing Justen Glad to left back and leaving Marcelo Silva as the only central player. Oh, and we brought Lennon further back into the defense — not entirely back, but somewhat — and that meant his influence was chopped out.

One half of this substitution is the right thing, I think. Bringing on Corey Baird, who has been in good form and is a good attacking player? That’s good. But Jefferson Savarino had just 11 touches in that same period. Damir Kreilach had eight. Was taking out a defender the right choice, even though RSL had just conceded a second goal?


We had been making excellent progress breaking down a staunch Portland defense. We robbed ourselves of an opportunity to play back into the game, instead going straight for desperation instead of sticking to what was actually working.

That, for me, is the worst part. I think Petke did get a lot right coming out of the locker room for the second half — we looked fantastic, and I think we stood something of a real chance.

Obviously, though, we can’t know what would have happened if we’d stuck to our guns. There exists an alternate universe where we did, so maybe we’ll just have to travel there to see what happened in that case.