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Tactical Preview: RSL vs. Sporting Kansas City

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Two bitter rivals face off in the playoffs once again.

MLS: Real Salt Lake at Sporting KC Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Guys, tonight is the night. Tonight, for the first time in 5 years, RSL takes the field against Sporting Kansas City in a playoff game. I know we all remember the the last time these two teams met in a playoff game, even though we all wish we could forget. Tonight is the night that RSL can begin to exact their revenge for that frigid winter night 5 years ago. I know the boys will be ready; Petke is an excellent motivator and will have them ready to go. Kyle Beckerman and Nick Rimando will both remember and have an extra spring in their step as well. What will we see happen when these to rivals take the field in a playoff matchup? Let’s talk about a few things!

Real Salt Lake

The Claret and Cobalt come into this game with some tired legs, but all of the momentum following their thrilling 3-2 win over LAFC. Mike Petke got the game plan, the personnel, and the substitutions all exactly right, and all of the players showed focus, determination, and grit to play through to a victory. Their reward? A home and home series with rival Sporting Kansas City, starting off in the friendly confines of the RioT.

In the game against LAFC, the statistics clearly show that RSL played as a bunker and counter team. RSL held only 37% overall possession and was outshot 20-4, with only 2 shots on goal. Granted, both of those shots on goal resulted in goals, which is a perfect conversion percentage of 100%. I talked on Thursday about how I thought the team needed to defend first, then look to attack, and that is exactly what we saw. And it worked!

Tonight against Sporting Kansas City, I think we see RSL come out more like themselves, with more possession, more passes in the final third, and more shots. I also think that we are going to see RSL try to come out and replicate the game plan that they have had against SKC this year, which so far has resulted in a 4-2 win at home and a 1-1 draw away.

So what has RSL done to earn two good results against “the best team in the west”? I took the time to review both of the previous games we have played against them this year, and I noticed a couple of things. First and foremost, RSL has done a great job this year of playing in the spaces that SKC concedes, particularly the left flank. SKC right back Graham Zusi plays a very high role for this team, which often leaves the left flank open for play. If Joao Plata/Bofo Saucedo can get the ball in this space, they have a lot of room to work with.

A second thing I noticed coincides with the first. Throughout this year, RSL has done a great job of splitting SKC’s center backs. If we can play quickly upfield on the wings, it forces the center backs to come out wide to cover for their fullbacks that were caught in the attack. And when the center backs start to play out wide to cover, they become very susceptible to being split by a hard run straight up the gut. Look for RSL to continue to play this way, forcing SKC to either continue to allow those types of opportunities on goal, or fundamentally change the way they play their fullbacks, which would have a strong negative impact on their attacking play.

As far as players on the field for RSL tonight, I expect that we will see some rotation of players for rest. Specifically, I think that we see Plata, Glad, and Sunny all start the game tonight, as they all some minutes, but did not play the full 90 against LAFC. I see Plata coming in for Baird, Glad replacing M. Silva on the back line, and Sunny stepping into the midfield for Mulholland. Other than that, I suspect that the starting lineup will be the same.

Sporting Kansas City

Sporting Kansas City come into this game as the top seed in the Western Conference, and with a little bit more rest, as they did not have to play a midweek game. That being said, they are coming to altitude, and coming to play against an RSL team that has shown well against them in recent history, and an RSL team that is riding a wave of momentum and confidence at the moment. If they come into this game believing that they are going to just to walk over RSL, they might just take a couple punches right to the mouth of their MLS Cup appearance aspirations.

As we talked about above, SKC rely heavily on their fullbacks, particularly Graham Zusi to get forward and bring width to their attack. Having Zusi so far forward gives them all of his midfield playing experience in the attack, and he is able to see the field well and make good decisions regarding where to go with the ball. At times, he almost acts as another midfielder for them, as his average position on the field is typically in the attacking half. SKC are going to look to overload the attacking third, and pass the ball around until they get a clean look at goal. The onus is going to be on the RSL defense to stay organized and make sure that they are tracking their assigned marks constantly.

Expected Lineup

GK: Rimando

DF: Lennon, Glad, Onouha, Herrera

MF: Beckerman, Sunny

MF: Savarino, Rusnak, Plata

ST: Kreilach

RSL’s keys to the match

  1. Play your game. If RSL can continue to play as they have against SKC this year, it will force Sporting to change how they play in order to avoid conceding goals.
  2. Keep a clean sheet. In the playoffs, away goals are weighted higher than home goals. If RSL can keep a clean sheet against, SKC, then they have the away goals advantage in their back pocket when they travel to Kansas City for the second leg next week.