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Tactical Preview: RSL vs. New York Red Bulls

Can RSL make the tactical adjustments necessary to compete with a strong NYRB squad?

MLS: Real Salt Lake at New York Red Bulls Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

There has been a fair amount of talk here at RSL Soapbox the last few days centering around what specifically went wrong in last Saturday’s game against LAFC.

Some people have pointed their fingers at Mike Petke and his tactics for the game as what went wrong. Other people have said that is was a lack of effort on the players’ behalf that led to the terrible result.

In reality, the truth of what happened is probably somewhere in the middle of these two camps. Were there tactical flaws in RSL’s game plan for the day? Yes, there were, and we will discuss some of that further on here in a minute. But even perfect tactics won’t do you any good if your players aren’t willing to put in the effort to execute the game plan. It was apparent to me on Saturday as I watched the game that at least some of the players were not prepared to put in the level of effort needed to make the game plan successful. In my opinion, Mike Petke’s #1 job is to get the players prepared to give the necessary effort, and I have confidence that he will fulfill that responsibility in the run up to this week’s game.

Now that I got that off my chest, let’s talk tactics!

Real Salt Lake

In reviewing last week’s game, it quickly becomes apparent that the team’s balance was off. Petke commented on this himself when speaking with reporters: “...All the good moments we had, possession going forward, isolating one-on-one when the ball was lost, the transition defense and our balance was not there. That’s one of the things I take on my shoulders; I’m huge on balance. That’s one of my key things. That’s why they became the team they did last year, based off of balance and based off of transition. The anomaly of this thing is that it just wasn’t evident yesterday.” To illustrate this point a little bit, take a look at the position chart below.

RSL player position vs LAFC 03/10/2018

This chart shows each player’s average location on the field based upon their movements throughout the entire game. The first thing that jumped out to me on this chart was just how high up the field the outside backs were. Both outside backs spent so much time in the attacking half that their average position is at the half line! This in turn opened up huge pockets of space behind them that Justen Glad and David Horst were both forced to try and cover by themselves. Combine that with the fast speed on the wings from LAFC and a clear lack of effort from the outside backs and wingers to get back on defense when the ball was turned over, and you have the recipe for the 5-1 drubbing we received.

Strictly speaking, having your outside backs that high up the field is not necessarily a bad tactical plan. However, if that is going to be your tactical plan, you have to have the commitment and effort from the outside backs and wingers to get back on defense quickly when the ball is turned over. I believe that Mike Petke will have covered this expectation thoroughly with his players and we won’t see the same problem again.

As far as offensive play goes, I don’t expect RSL’s game plan to change much. I expect the front 4 attacking players to continue to look to combine in the attacking third to get good looks on goal. We did see an improvement on the number of shots taken from the FC Dallas game to the LAFC game. Check out this shot accuracy chart from RSL vs LAFC:

RSL Shot Accuracy vs LAFC 03102018

RSL got off 21 shots against LAFC, and they did do a good job of attacking from multiple angles, as I talked about in the tactical preview last week. They also completed 84 % of their passes and had 60.2% possession of the ball according to These numbers are all improvements over the previous week, and show that RSL is capable of attacking well when they work together. I don’t expect RSL to have 60%+ possession against the Red Bulls like they did against LAFC, but I would expect to see similar passing completion and shot numbers again this week.

New York Red Bulls

The Red Bulls have started off this season HOT. They recently won both legs of their CCL quarterfinal tie against Liga MX side Tijuana 2-0 and 3-1 to advance to the semifinals. Sandwiched in between those two games was a 4-0 beatdown of the Portland Timbers that came from mostly B team players. Regardless of who they have put on the field, they have played good soccer. Most specifically, they have really been taking advantage of their scoring opportunities. In their most recent game against Club Tijuana on Tuesday, they scored 3 goals on 5 total shots, good for a 60% conversion rate. Hard to lose when you are converting opportunites like that!

I do want to mention a couple of points that can give RSL fans some hope in this game. First, through 3 competitive games in 2018, the Red Bulls are averaging 43.4% possession in their games. I would expect this trend to continue, which means RSL should have plenty of the ball to create scoring opportunities. The second point is that through those 3 games, New York is only averaging a 64% passing completion rate. Simply speaking, between their possession numbers and passing completion rate it does show that they have a hard time holding on to the ball. This should also provide RSL with opportunities to break quickly on counterattacks. If they can take advantage of those opportunities, I would expect them to score at least a couple of goals.

Predicted Lineup

Real Salt Lake 4-2-3-1

GK: Rimando

DF: Henley, Horst, Glad, Acosta

MID: Beckerman, Kreilach

MID: Savarino, Rusnak, Plata

ST: L. Silva

RSL’s Keys to the Match

  1. Defend as a team, attack as a team. I am certain that a lot of time has been spent in RSL training this week reminding everyone of their defensive responsibilities. If RSL is going to have any chance at the redemption they seek following last week’s game, they are going to have to work together first to defend, and then to attack.
  2. Take advantage of opportunities given by the opposition. RSL are going to get counterattack opportunities as well as opportunities created through possession. We need someone to step up and take advantage of a few of those opportunities. If the team can do that after defending as a team, then I feel like they may just be able to pull out a win this Saturday.