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RSL’s problems must be solved from the front, not the back

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Without changes in approach, RSL will continue to struggle in 2018l.

MLS: Los Angeles FC at Real Salt Lake Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

Before I go too far in this, let’s clear something up.

Demar Phillips was bad on Saturday, but he wasn’t the reason Real Salt Lake lost against LAFC. And no, I don’t think the problem was a tactical one or a coaching one.

Instead, I think the problem is up front and in the middle.

Here’s a shot from the first goal. Notice stationary Joao Plata? He’s let a player run right past him, and it led directly to a goal. Should Demar Phillips have marked him closer? Probably, but he also has to be wary of the run. It’s hardly an ideal situation

That’s not the only issue. Justen Glad and Kyle Beckerman are marking roughly the same player in the same way, Shawn Barry is more central than David Horst, and we have five players in or very near our box.

Let’s look at the third goal. This is the last goal where we can really examine the breakdowns and gain any value. The fourth and fifth came almost directly as a result of a gamble taken by Mike Petke, so while we can talk about those in meaningful ways, it doesn’t mean as much in this context.

OK. Here. We have six LAFC players visible in our defensive third. We have six players defending. It’s not a good look, because you can see Joao Plata, Albert Rusnak and Jefferson Savarino standing at just about the base of the middle third.

I don’t know how to say it, but it’s not good enough. Our strengths in 2017 came very much from every player on the field committing, starting at the front with Luis Silva. Here, we have approximately four players not in defensive positions.

What LAFC has essentially done here is forced players like Demar Phillips into one-on-one defensive entanglements. We know he’s not the best one-on-one player — look for a Tony Beltran or a Chris Wingert (not in 2018, I know, I know)-type player to execute defensively like that. But Phillips? This is not a surprise.

The real issue here, to me, is that our wide players haven’t set themselves up to provide aid. Joao Plata is an island, and it’s not a look that suits the team well. When the opposition attacks at speed, we need players like him to have the presence of mind to at least make the opposition work for their goals.

Instead, we’ve left our worst one-on-one defender — and I can’t underscore it enough, but that’s not a mystery, and it should not be a real surprise to anybody — without the proper support. That doesn’t have to be a player like Joao Plata — perhaps Petke can swing the midfielders over a bit toward the side play is going down, like we did back in the days of the midfield diamond, for instance. But if that was the goal, nothing came of it. The most natural style of play would feature Plata dropping back a bit more in support of his full back, just like we’d expect the full back to push up a little further forward to support the winger.

To me, that support is where RSL’s most prominent problems came from against LAFC. We’ll see how they’re rectified against New York Red Bulls, because that’s a must-win game if there ever was one.