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Tactical Preview: RSL vs LAFC

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What can RSL do to emerge victorious from a one-off playoff game against third seeded LAFC?

MLS: Real Salt Lake at Los Angeles FC Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Tonight, Real Salt Lake will step onto the pitch in a playoff game for the first time of the Mike Petke era. Their opponents? LAFC, who have beaten RSL twice this year already. So what can RSL do to change the past and secure a win in tonight’s playoff matchup? And what might we see from LAFC as they try to extend their winning streak over the Claret and Cobalt? Let’s dive in and talk!

Real Salt Lake

We’ve had a lot of good coverage already on this site talking about the implications of RSL’s sitting on Decision Day and coming into this game with fresh legs. That facts leaves most of our entire roster open for selection in this game, a luxury Mike Petke hasn’t really had at any point this season. We all know that squad selection can have a huge role in how a game plays out, so I’m glad that most of our guys are all rested and healthy.

With that being said, I’d like to go through the starting 11 again and talk about who I think should start in each position. These will be in no particular order, I’ll just throw them out as I see them.

First off, we will see Nick Rimando in goal. There’s no reason I know of not to have him in goal, and with the potential of this game going to kicks from the mark (penalty kicks) should it end in a tie, we definitely will want to have MLS’ all time PK save leader between the pipes.

Across the back line, I believe we will see Brooks Lennon at right back, Aaron Herrera at left back, and Justen Glad and Nedum Onouha at center back. Lennon and Herrera have essentially locked down the fullback roles for the time being, and I suspect that only injury would change that. As for centerback, I believe that the combination of Glad and Onouha will provide us with the best defense. I say this because LAFC is a run and gun team, they like to break and do so quickly. Glad has the young legs to keep up with the quickest attacking players, and Onouha has the veteran savvy to keep calm, read the game, and make the correct play. To me this is the strongest center back pairing we could put out on the field.

Up top, I believe that we will see the attacking front four of Plata, Rusnak, Savarino, and Kreilach, as we have seen in most of our recent games. As well as Corey Baird and Bofo Saucedo have been playing, I don’t think they have done enough to displace Plata and Savarino from their starting positions. I do, however, believe that they have earned the chance for a solid runout. My game plan would be to let Plata and Savarino run defenders into the ground for 50-60 minutes, then bring in the fresh legs of Bofo and Baird to burn past tired defenders.

And that leaves the central midfield pairing, which I believe has been the biggest source of concern and frustration for RSL and their fans in 2018. In my view, their are four RSL players that will be considered to start today in these two positions: Kyle Beckerman, Sunny, Nick Besler and Luke Mulholland. Given Kyle’s status with the team and almost matchless level of experience, I don’t think RSL sets foot on the field without him. The real question, in my mind, is who to pair with him.

Sunny provides an additional defensive presence, but can sometimes get stuck into challenges and earn an early yellow card, which takes the bite out of his game. Additionally, because Sunny plays more defensively, it forces Kyle a little farther up the pitch sometimes, which in turn becomes long recovery runs for him. I feel like Kyle plays at his best when he is allowed to play a pure #6 role, instead of playing the 6 and moonlighting as an 8 as well.

Nick Besler has shown well in his appearances in the midfield for RSL this season, including scoring the opening goal against New England after a 60 yard sprint out of the midfield. I think we see a lot more of him there in the future, and I believe he will be good for us.

But for today, I believe that we should start Luke Mulholland next to Kyle Beckerman, and here is why: I believe that Luke is the closest to a pure #8 as we have on the team which complements well with the pure #6 that Beckerman plays so well. Luke is able to cover a lot of ground and contribute both to the defense and the attack, which is exactly what you want from your box to box midfielder.

As far as tactics go, I don’t expect to see anything too terribly different from what we have seen throughout the year. The emphasis is going to be on keeping good control of the ball and avoiding soft turnovers as much as possible. Look for the team to try and stay solid and compact on defense, and then look to break out quickly in the attack when they gain possession.

Another thing that I think will be very important for RSL is to take more shots. Often, we see them work the ball around the box looking for the “perfect” shot, and the ball ends up turning over before any shot can be taken. There is absolutely a time and a place for that, but I feel if they can take some shots early in the attacking play sequence, it will start to pull the LAFC defense out a little bit, which will in turn open up a little bit of space inside the box that RSL can then work through and get the “perfect shot”.

Los Angeles FC

LAFC come into this game on short rest, having travelled to Kansas City and suffered a 2-1 defeat at the hands of Sporting KC. They will be looking to replicate the results of the two previous matchups between these sides, which both saw RSL come out on the losing side.

I expect to see LAFC come out in much the same way as they have previously against us. They will put pressure on the midfield, and then look to break quickly and overwhelm the defense with more runs than they can track in an attempt to get a mismatch and a good look on goal.

Defensively, LAFC have become a little more leaky at the back following the departure of centerback Laurent Ciman. There will be chances for RSL to pull apart the defense and get good scoring looks. A lot of that will rely on Damir Kreilach’s ability to get between the centerbacks and pull them apart. If he can do that, it will go a long way to opening up our offense.

Expected Lineup

GK: Rimando

DF: Lennon, Onouha, Glad, Herrera

MF: Beckerman, Mulholland

MF: Savarino, Rusnak, Plata

ST: Kreilach

RSL’s keys to the match

  1. Stay solid and balanced defensively. RSL’s first goal has to be to keep a clean sheet. Yes, we have the ability to score a lot if this becomes a goalfest, but that ability has its ebbs and flows over the season. Keeping a clean sheet will keep a lot of added pressure off of the RSL attack.
  2. Take shots early and often. If we can come out quickly, pepper LAFC’s goal and perhaps score one or two goals, we will show them that we mean business and the game will turn, likely in our favor. If we sit back and bunker, I fear LAFC will find a way to break us down and then we will be chasing the game, which hasn’t gone well for us much of this season.

Bonus Coverage: Match Prediction

I’m gonna go out on a limb here and say that the match finishes a 2-2 draw, with RSL advancing on kicks from the mark thanks to heroics from Nick Rimando. Have a different prediction? Let me know in the comments below!