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Why Danilo Acosta’s halftime sub vs. Colorado made sense

Maybe Petke’s tactical switch made sense after all.

MLS: Colorado Rapids at Real Salt Lake Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

Danilo Acosta has been a man not often seen for Real Salt Lake in 2018, and that’s been the subject of much discussion and confusion.

Acosta, after all, was a force during his rise to prominence last year. But rumors of ill-discipline and issues with coach Mike Petke have plagued the youngster’s season, and Saturday did little in the way of disproving any of that.

After 45 minutes of play, Acosta, with RSL up a man and level on goals, was substituted in favor of nominal midfielder Pablo Ruiz, which did make some sense from a tactical perspective. What I’d like to investigate is three-fold: First, did Acosta perform well? Second, how did Ruiz perform? And third, did the Ruiz entrance change the shape of the game and increase RSL’s chances of victory?

Acosta’s performance

Looking at’s chalkboard for the match, I’d like to first look at Acosta’s passing. Either above or on the left (depending on the size of your view), you’ll see Acosta’s passing alongside the passing of Brooks Lennon, our right back on the night. This encapsulates only the first 45 minutes.

Some major takeaways include:

  • Acosta’s passing is very significantly backward, even compared to Lennon’s, whose passing is still largely facing backward. This corresponds with what I saw in the match, which was that Acosta played a more conservative game than we’ve seen from him. At the time, I wondered if that was by instruction or by player choice.
  • Acosta is seeing a higher volume of passes than Lennon, though we can’t say why that’s the case from this chart alone.
  • Neither was too involved defensively, which makes complete sense, given the 20th minute red card to Tim Howard. That situation saw Colorado with basically no meaningful attack, resorting to a very long game that saw little success.

How was he, then? I’d argue he was fine, but I don’t think we have raw data about anything beyond that.

Ruiz’s performance

If we’re to look at this chalkboard for Saturday’s game, we’ll see a couple interesting things, but the bulk of our analysis will have to hinge on comparison between the two.

  • Ruiz is playing as a full back, but only just. Instead, he looks very much like a left midfielder. You see those passes in the defensive third? Those are actually after RSL’s first goal, at which point he moved backward a bit.
  • RSL being up a man and level on goals for much of the second half meant Ruiz could play in a midfield role that he’s perhaps best suited for.
  • Lennon actually plays much further forward than Ruiz, which makes me wonder what the tactical approach was here. Is he deployed as a wide midfielder to interact with Plata? Were we trying to operate primary on Colorado’s right?

Ruiz’s impact

I’m actually not sure what I should be making of this, but if I’m to guess what Petke is trying to do here, it’s playing a three-man “back line” and leaving the rest up to the players on the field. I’ve left “back line” in quotes here because I really don’t see how it was defensive from minutes 45 to 82, barring a few minor incidents, but Kyle Beckerman, Justen Glad and Nick Besler comprised the trio.

What was Ruiz’s impact, then? I would argue that he’s been given only basic instructions. The sort of match we saw doesn’t really make for tactical instruction, I think, aside from broad strokes. It becomes largely a dig-it-out affair, and for once, RSL did well to work in that framework. Not once did we resort to the get-to-the-endline-then-cross-it-in affairs that dogged prior years.

So, why the sub?

I think I’ve put my premise together above, so let’s lay it out with a bit more specificity:

  • Danilo Acosta played as a left back, and he was substituted following the first half, and
  • Pablo Ruiz played the second half, at which point he played as a left midfielder, and
  • After RSL scored, Ruiz played as a makeshift left back.

Does this make sense as a tactical substitution? I think so:

  • Acosta’s best positions are defensive — we haven’t seen him playing anything much further forward than defensive midfield, and
  • Ruiz is a more attack-minded, talented player, and
  • RSL had three players in defensive roles who provided more tactical flexibility in Beckerman, Besler and Glad, especially if the team scored, and Brooks Lennon (right back) is a better attacker than defender.

Does that mean it was wholly tactical? Maybe not. But I think we can see here that Danilo Acosta’s substitution can easily be seen as a tactical one, and there’s not too much of a stretch. Does that make it easier for a young player that’s on the outs to swallow? Maybe not. But with Friday’s match on the horizon, maybe he’ll have another chance.