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Tactical Preview: RSL vs NYCFC

What tactics can RSL use to slow down one of the league’s top teams?

MLS: New York City FC at Real Salt Lake Jeff Swinger-USA TODAY Sports

Winning does a lot of good, doesn’t it? I think we all heaved a big sigh of relief after emerging victorious over the Vancouver Whitecaps by a score of 2-1. Now, Real Salt Lake have a quick turnaround to face one of the league’s hottest teams in New York City FC. The Claret and Cobalt definitely have their work cut out for them, but let’s talk about a few tactical points of interest that might lead them to some success.

Real Salt Lake

At halftime of the game against Vancouver, I was speaking with a couple of the RSL Soapbox writers. I mentioned that one of the biggest tactical differences I noticed in the game was the fact that Damir Kreilach was playing much higher up the field than he had in any of the previous matches. The other writers also commented that they had noticed the same thing, and we all agreed that it was having a very positive effect on the way RSL was playing. The player position chart from shown below shows this was absolutely the case.

RSL player position vs Vancouver Whitecaps, 04/07/2018

The player position chart shows each player’s average position on the field throughout the entire game. In previous games, we have seen that Kyle Beckerman (#5 on the chart) and Damir Kreilach (#6 on the chart) have been almost on top of each other on the player position charts following the games. As you can see, against Vancouver a tactical shift occurred, with Kreilach’s #6 showing up much further up the pitch. This tactical change led to greater connection between the back line and the attacking players, which in turn created additional opportunities going forward for Real Salt Lake. I would fully expect this tactical shift to become a permanent part of the game plan, and I believe that as RSL adjusts to this tactical game plan it will continue to create opportunities in the attack for them.

Another tactical shift that made a huge difference? Look at the #27 on the player position chart. That is Corey Baird, who spent large amounts of time and energy tracking back to help cover defensively. Though he is an attacking player, his average position is inside his own defensive half! This level of commitment to defense made a huge difference in limiting the amount of pressure our defense was under. The best part about this? We also know that even though he was tracking back defensively, he was still able to get forward, be dangerous in the attack, and ultimately provide the assist on the game winning goal. Defensive commitment of this level is a requirement of Mike Petke’s system, and those players who buy in and play in this manner are going to be favored to start and get more minutes. The best news to come from this is that we know how well Petke’s system works when the players buy in, and that bodes well for the team as a whole.

Each of these tactical shifts that we saw against Vancouver are going to be even more important against NYCFC. It is very likely that away from home, RSL are going to be put under pressure and will need the wingers to help out defensively. Also, they will need Kreilach in a higher position to help break into counter-attacks when the opportunities arise. RSL’s best opportunities against NYCFC are going to come on the counter attack. If they can weather the pressure, they will get opportunities to break and create scoring opportunities.

New York City FC

NYCFC have been among the best teams in Major League Soccer through the first 5 games of the season, posting a 4-0-1 record in that time period, with 10 goals scored and only 4 goals allowed. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about this run to start their season is their consistency; they have scored two goals per game in each of their first five games. What kind of play will we see from them? Let’s take a look at a few statistics

Through their first five games, NYCFC are averaging 59.8% possession of the ball. They are a possession based team, who like to move the ball from side to side while probing for a way to get in on goal. A look at the heat map below from their most recent game against the San Jose Earthquakes illustrates this point.

NYCFC Heat Map vs San Jose Earthquakes, 03/31/2018

NYCFC spend a lot of their time with the ball playing in the midfield, and very little time in the attacking third. It will be very important for RSL to look to control the ball in the midfield, as it appears this is where NYCFC wants to dominate the game.

Despite having a large portion of the overall possession, NYCFC is averaging just 11.4 total shots per game. This is another indicator of the same game plan we observed above. In all reality, they just possess teams to death and wait for the right scoring opportunities to be presented. For RSL to have success against NYCFC, they are going to have to limit their mistakes, because mistakes are certainly going to be punished by this group.

Expected Lineup

GK: Rimando

DF: Henley, Glad, Horst, Acosta

MF: Beckerman, Kreilach

MF: Savarino, Rusnak, Baird

ST: L. Silva

RSL’s Keys to the Match

  1. RSL must do all they can to control play in the midfield. NYCFC’s strength is playing in the midfield until a scoring opportunity presents itself. RSL must control what they can and keep the opponent in front of them, then work to break quickly when counter attack opportunities arise.
  2. Take advantage of counter attack opportunities. It is likely that RSL will only have around 40% of the overall possession during the game, which means their opportunities to score will be limited. When the opportunities arise, they will have to be taken advantage of. If RSL is able to do this, they may be able to get a positive result on the road.