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RSL vs. Toronto FC: Tactical Preview

Can RSL get points from an extremely talented Toronto team that is yet to earn an MLS point in 2018?

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

Hey guys, RSL is back in action! After a nearly two week layoff due to the FIFA international break, we have a game to talk about again! This week, RSL travels to Toronto to take on the Reds, one of the strongest teams in MLS over the past few seasons. Let’s dive in and take a look at a few tactical points of interest for each team, as well as few things RSL can try and do to return home with the full 3 points.

Real Salt Lake

The international break could not have come at a better time for the Claret and Cobalt, as a rash of early season injuries had deprived the team of the services of several players. With nearly two weeks between games, it afforded RSL the opportunity to have their players rest and recoup in preparation for the upcoming game against Toronto FC.

Notable players likely to return from injury include center back Marcelo Silva, winger Joao Plata and right back Adam Henley. Henley traveled and played with Real Monarchs last weekend, and had a good showing for himself. Does that mean that we will see him in an RSL jersey this week? I’m hoping so. In the Monarchs game last week, he was very active and played aggressively, while still taking care of his defensive responsibilities. Tactically speaking, that is exactly how Mike Petke wants his outside backs to play. If Henley is healthy and fit to start the match, then I would expect to see him on the field Friday night.

Another player we may see on the field against the Reds? Corey Baird, who showed well for himself coming on as a substitute against the New York Red Bulls two weeks ago and scored a well placed headed goal for the Monarchs last week. He plays smart soccer, and has the skills necessary to succeed as well. I wouldn’t expect him to start the game if both Plata and Savarino are healthy and ready to go, but I would not be at all surprised if he came on as a substitute.

Tactically as a team, I would expect to see a game plan from RSL similar to the game plan against the New York Red Bulls. What exactly did that look like? Take a look at the player position graphic below:

RSL player position vs NYRB, 03/17/2018

The player position graphic shows each players average position on the field based upon their movement for the entire game. As you can see, RSL spent a lot of time defending, and had good balance in their defense. This gave them the ability to defend and help each other out a lot more, which combined with an excellent performance from Nick Rimando led to the shut out. With this being a road game, I fully expect to see this type of defensive shape from RSL. They will then be looking to break quickly and score on the counter. They executed this game plan well against the New York Red Bulls, and came away with 3 points. If the Claret and Cobalt can execute this game plan as well as they did in that game, they may well be able to come home with 3 points in their pocket.

Toronto FC

Over the last two years, Toronto have been a dominant force in MLS. With a core of USMNT stars Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore, along with Italian playmaker and free kick savant Sebastian Giovinco, they won the Canadian Championship, the MLS Supporter’s Shield and the MLS Cup Championship to complete the domestic triple. Coming into the 2018 season, Toronto was once again projected to be the top team in MLS.

But 2018 has been a mixed bag for the Reds, primarily due to their participation in the CONCACAF Champions league. They recently made it to the CCL semi-finals by overcoming Liga MX giants Tigres UANL, which is a great achievement for any MLS team.On the flip side, thus far they have gone 0-0-2 in MLS play, and have been shut out in both of those games. Which Toronto team will we see against RSL on Friday? That may largely depend on which players they decide to field, with the first leg of their CCL semi-final tie scheduled for Tuesday night.

Regardless of which players take the field for Toronto, expect to see them have a lot of the ball. Across their two MLS games this season they have averaged 60.7% possession and averaged an 85.5% passing completion rate. What does that mean? In the simplest terms it means that they are pretty decent at keeping possession of the ball. RSL will have to work hard to gain possession and then do their best to keep it. How can they do that? by playing through the channels. Take a look at the heat map below:

Toronto FC heat map vs Montreal Impact 03/17/2018

The heat map tracks all players position on the field and color codes the amount of play that happens in each area of the field. The darker the color, the more amount of play occurred in that area. If you look at the heat map, you can clearly see paths in yellow and green throughout the areas of orange and red. These are the areas that RSL can focus on playing through, as they area the areas where Toronto does not play as much. Being aware of these tendencies will give us opportunities to take advantage of them.

Expected Lineup

Real Salt Lake 4-2-3-1

GK: Rimando

DF: Henley, Horst, Glad, Phillips

MID: Beckerman, Kreilach

MID: Savarino, Rusnak, Plata

ST: Ortuno

RSL’s Keys to the Match

  1. Defend First. The defend first, attack second game plan resulted in a win against NYRB, and seems to be the same game plan that should work against Toronto FC.
  2. Attack the channels on the break. If RSL can get out on the counterattack quickly and pass through the channels, they should have at least a few good opportunities to snag a goal or two and then hold out defensively to get the win.