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The Salt: Substitution patterns and poor game management define RSL’s season

RSL’s regular season was defined by myriad issues.

Lucas Muller | RSL Soapbox

Hello, folks.

I’ve been running some numbers, and I have some news for you.

It looks like RSL might not make the playoffs.

I know, I know. I don’t mean to surprise you on a Friday, which is the second-best weekday, next to Friday. I hope you’ve been prepared for this news.

Anyway, let’s not talk about that. I’m tired of talking about how we might not make the playoffs. I’m tired. I’m resigned to the fact that we won’t. It’s just the way of things.

So let’s talk about something else.

Substitution patterns. (You know where this is going.)

Substitution patterns over Christmas dinner

First, a definition: We’re looking at players who have subbed in for 1 to 45 minutes. We are not looking at players who subbed in during the first half. The former are important changes, but I think they’re outside the scope of what I want to look at. The latter are usually forced changes due to injury, and sure, they impact things, but again, it’s not what I want to focus on.

So I’m going to do a little more research into this, but I’ve been looking at how often we’re subbing in defenders into matches, and I have to say, it’s not very often. Like, at all. Here, do you want to look at a list with me? Alright.

  • Danilo Acosta: 41 minutes (one win, one draw, both on the road)
  • Shawn Barry: One minute
  • Kyle Beckerman: 35 minutes (one win)
  • Nick Besler: 24 minutes (over six matches)
  • Adam Henley: One minute (it was a win)
  • Aaron Herrera: Four minutes, two matches (both wins)
  • Brooks Lennon: 33 minutes (loss to LAFC)
  • Taylor Peay: One minute
  • Nedum Onuoha: Two minutes (draw)

This is an interesting one to me, but we need to go deeper. We see that defenders aren’t subbing in much — so who is?

The subs remain the same

Again, we’re operating under a “1 to 45” rule here, because those are the matches I’m chiefly concerned with.

The following players were substituted in to matches more than twice:

  • Sebastian Saucedo: 17
  • Corey Baird: 10
  • Luis Silva: 10
  • Pablo Ruiz: 7
  • Sunny: 7
  • Nick Besler: 6
  • Joao Plata: 5

So there we have seven players who have made at least two substitute appearances. But look again at the list above. Nick Besler subbed in six times, but he only played 24 minutes. That’s an average of four minutes per match he subs into. The rest? They’re not defenders.

I want to go a little deeper here. Who’s getting on the bench but not getting into the match? You might expect a few names here. Let’s look.

  • Danilo Acosta: 15
  • Andrew Putna: 15
  • Pablo Ruiz: 14
  • Connor Sparrow: 12
  • Sunny: 10
  • Aaron Herrera: 10
  • Shawn Barry: 8
  • Adam Henley: 8
  • Luis Silva: 8
  • Luke Mulholland: 7
  • Nick Besler: 7

OK, so I absolutely expect players like Putna and Sparrow to top this list. Backup goalkeepers are just the least likely to play, so of course, why wouldn’t that be the case here? But seeing Danilo Acosta and Pablo Ruiz with 15 and 14 spots here is a little startling. Acosta, for me, is the most obvious. He made 17 appearances on the bench. He came off it twice.

Should that be the case? See, I don’t know — I’m not pretending to know. But I’d like to see players on the bench that can be called on, and we’re just not doing it. That, for me, is illustrated by the players who did actually sub in.

Corey Baird came in plenty of times, and I don’t mind that much. Joao Plata subbed in five times, and then he won his spot back. The rest of the list? We have 18 bench appearances from Luis Silva, appearing in 10 of them.

Here’s the part that gets me all riled up, though.

Those players who subbed in a lot? They didn’t do so with enough time to influence the game, on average.

  • Sebastian Saucedo, 14.3 minutes per sub appearance
  • Corey Baird, 20.8 minutes per sub appearance
  • Luis Silva, 13.6 minutes per sub appearance
  • Sunny, 12.1 minutes per sub appearance
  • Pablo Ruiz, 21.4 minutes per sub appearance
  • Joao Plata: 23.8 minutes per sub appearance

To recap, my problem here isn’t who subbed in or even necessarily when they did — but it’s a part of a broader pattern that I see as an issue.

When you see Danilo Acosta on the bench 15 times without coming off it, you have a problem. It gives credence to the complaints people had about how he was utilized.

Too often, we followed the same pattern. If we were down, sub in Saucedo and Baird. If we weren’t? Well, that’s when we aren’t making substitutions.

And that may not be a problem in a single instance, but over the course of a season, going to the same seven guys puts us in a place where other plays just aren’t getting minutes. That affects things in the long-term, and we saw it affect us when Mike Petke didn’t have the confidence to go to his bench when the going got tough against Portland Timbers two weeks ago. Decisions like that can probably be justified in a one-off setting, but over the course of the season, we can see problems.

Subs change games?

One thing I’d like to know is what game state we’re in when we sub players in — so, are we subbing in midfielders or defenders when we’re ahead, and is that resulting in points?

We know that we, on four occasions, won a match after being down one goal. (Please read the next section for more on that.) We also know that we never drew a match from a losing position. The only real question I think we can answer about all this is if we are making substitutions in null gamestates (positions where we are deadlocked) and winning the game following that. Let’s look.

  • We subbed off defenders three times in drawing positions and won the match.
  • We subbed off a midfielder once in a drawing position and won the match.
  • We subbed off a striker once in a drawing position and won the match.

If we reduce all this down further, we made substitutions in three matches from a drawing position to lift ourselves into a winning position. (It’s also worth noting that we made substitutions in one match that took us from losing to a win, but we’ll talk about that more in the next section.)

What does this tell us? I’d actually argue that we are scoring before we make substitutions. That’s not surprising, really. We tend to make our substitutions a little later than other teams. Are we scoring earlier, though?

I’d posit that we’re not. 38 percent of our goals are coming in the first half. That’s exactly the league average. It actually looks like variations in that rate don’t have too much to do with match results, which fascinates me to no end.

Finally, looking at the numbers, I see some odd symmetry when I look at how we are managing games.

Lose by one, lose by two?

So. In digging into the numbers, I came across a startling thing.

You know Mike Petke’s talk about it not mattering if we are down one goal or four, a loss is a loss? I mean, that’s not exact, but I think that’s utter hogwash, and I have statistics to back it up.

When Real Salt Lake drew a match, we were never behind. We were always ahead or finished 0-0.

When Real Salt Lake is down by two or more goals, we have lost every single game.

What’s more? EVERY SINGLE GAME in which we lost, we were, at one time, down two goals. Without exception.

We earned three points from four distinct games in which we were down by a goal. But down by two? Yeah, we had no chance.

And that, to me, underscores the problem. If we are going to be told by the coach that it doesn’t matter whether we’re down one goal or four — well, hey, let’s let him tell it.

“To me, there’s no difference in losing 1-0 or 5-0, to be honest with you. If you are not pushing the play, then … what are you doing here? You should always be looking to win (...)”
— Mike Petke following RSL’s 2-0 loss to Atlanta United this season

Alright. There you go. I don’t buy that for a second, because it never worked that way. One-goal negative states proved recoverable. We did it four times! That’s not bad at all.

But two-goal negative states were never recoverable for us, and I’d posit we threw away games by not having a degree of caution when we were down 1-0.

Anyway, let’s save more thoughts for next week, when we’ll know if we’re in or out of the playoffs.


I don’t know if Mike Petke is good at substitutions or not, but I don’t think that’s the question we should really be asking ourselves. What I do think we should be asking about is game management. Let’s ask a series of questions to get at it:

  • Are we ending matches with three points that we held a winning state in? Generally, yes. Only on two occasions did we end with zero points when we were winning. On six occasions, we ended with a draw from a winning state. Atlanta United saw two and four — so we’re not so different there. Fancy that.
  • Are we winning from matches in which we had a negative state? Not frequently, but we did it four times. So did Houston, LA Galaxy and LAFC. Orlando City did it a shocking five times, which cracks me up, given they won just eight times.
  • Are we drawing matches in which we had a negative state? No. We never did that. Every other team did that at least once. The best teams were in those states less frequently, which should be no surprise.

That, to me, is the main point. We were in negative game states frequently, and we played with such tactical abandon that we rarely gave ourselves a chance to recover.

The truth is that we are a fantastic team at home, but we’re an absolutely miserable team on the road, and by playing in a “1-0 or 5-0, it doesn’t matter” mindset, we never gave ourselves a proper opportunity to hit the 50-point mark.

It pains me that we were so close to it. I don’t expect us to be one of the best teams in the league — it’s just not likely in this day and age. I do, however, expect us to be competitive, and in 13 matches in 2018, we weren’t even close. That number puts us comfortably in the bottom half of the league alongside Orlando City, Minnesota United, and Colorado Rapids.

Right where we deserved to be.


Playing: I played Biblios over lunch on Thursday, which is always a good time. It’s a fairly light auction and drafting game that plays in about 30 minutes. Everyone around the table plays as a monk amassing a great library of sacred books. The theme is pretty pasted-on, but it’s a fun game all the same.

Listening: I honestly don’t remember the last new album I sat down and listened to. Give me some recommendations, please.

Reading: You guessed it! I’m still on the DS9 Relaunch novels. They’re still good, and I’m inching toward getting into the post-Nemesis world. That’s what I’m really excited for now. I also have a number of books on my shelf that aren’t Star Trek-related that I’m just waiting to read. Maybe the Thanksgiving season will prove fruitful?