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Tactical Preview: RSL vs Vancouver Whitecaps

Can RSL replicate the tactics to win the first matchup in this season series and walk away with another three points?

MLS: Vancouver Whitecaps at Real Salt Lake Rob Gray-USA TODAY Sports

Three weeks ago, RSL faced Vancouver Whitecaps within the friendly confines of Rio Tinto Stadium and came away with a 2-1 victory. After just a few short weeks, the two sides are set to meet again, only this time they will be playing in Vancouver. What kinds of game do we expect to see and what kind of tactics will Mike Petke’s side employ in going for the win? Let’s talk tactics!

Real Salt Lake

RSL got a much-needed 3-0 win over rivals Colorado Rapids last weekend. We all enjoyed watching the players earn a win and see the happiness and relief that came with it, and the hope would be that emotion stays with the team and brings with it continued positive results.

Tactically, however, that game was played much differently from how we have seen RSL play so far this year, and that is due to the red card Timmy Howard got in the 20th minute of the match. That changed our entire tactical approach to the match, as has been discussed some already in an excellent article from Matt Montgomery. It also changed our tactical approach because we had a lot more of the ball than we are typically used to. Over the entire season, RSL is averaging 50.3% possession, as opposed to the over 70% possession we saw against Colorado.

How does all of this play into what we might expect to see from RSL against Vancouver? It gives us some insights into how the team is progressing as a group, and how they are able to play well together when they are confident and moving the ball well.

One of the things I noticed the first time RSL played Vancouver that was a little different than usual was how much interchangeability there was from the attacking players. Most noticeable to me was how Luis Silva repeatedly ended up playing out on one of the wings as either Savarino or Baird worked inside. By shifting the point of the attack, Silva was able to pull Vancouver’s defensive shape out of position and create openings for his fellow attackers to exploit. Since Luis isn’t your typical big #9 striker, play like this becomes more necessary to pull apart the opposing team’s defense. I would fully expect to see RSL play in this same manner against Vancouver again this week.

The other thing that made a huge difference in that Vancouver game was how well the defense did in controlling Whitecaps forward Kei Kamara. Take a look at this heat map from below:

RSL CBs vs Kei Kamara heat map 04/07/2018

On the left is the heat map of the playing locations of RSL centerbacks Justen Glad, Marcelo Silva (who was subbed out with an injury in the 41st minute) and David Horst (who came in for the injured M. Silva). On the right is the heat map of Vancouver Whitecaps forward Kei Kamara. As you can see, the RSL centerbacks did an excellent job of keeping Kamara out of the 18 yard box and forcing him to play elsewhere on the field. Replicating that effort is going to be absolutely essential for RSL if they want to come away with another 3 points against a dangerous Whitecaps team that is going to be hungry for a victory due to their recent results.

One point of interest to keep your eye on for this matchup: Luis Silva is currently listed as questionable after sustaining an ankle injury in last week’s game. So who gets the start at the striker position? Arguments could be made for and against both Corey Baird and Alfredo Ortuno, so it will be interesting to see who Mike Petke decides to go with and what kind of shape that player can bring to the team.

Vancouver Whitecaps

The Whitecaps come into this game having lost each of their last 3 games, starting with their last game against RSL. After that game, they fell 2-0 to expansion side LAFC before imploding against Sporting Kansas City, having two players sent off and losing by a score of 6-0. They are coming into this game wounded, hungry, and looking to perform well in front of their home fans, which is definitely a dangerous combination for RSL.

For Vancouver, they have most certainly spent this week going over the tapes of their recent games and trying to figure out how to break out of the slump they are in currently. For them, this game against RSL is going to be an opportunity to try and get back on the right track.

One thing I think Vancouver is going to see when they watch back the tape of the last game against RSL is that they will have opportunities to attack from the flanks, particularly on RSL’s right defensive side by attacking Brooks Lennon and forcing him to make tough decisions defensively. Brooks is doing well and holding his own in the right back position, but he is still learning and that can be exploited. I would fully expect to see Alphonso Davies once again lined up against Lennon, with Vancouver hoping to overload that side and force Brooks into difficult defensive decisions. That’s how they got some of their best opportunities last game, and it’s also where their consolation goal came from late in the game. I really think that matchup is going to be key defensively for RSL. It will be extra important for whoever is playing the winger position on that side (likely Jefferson Savarino) to be diligent defensively in helping Lennon out.

The other thing that Vancouver is going to want to do is do anything and everything they can to get Kei Kamara in dangerous positions. He has been key to their offense through most of the season, and they are going to be hoping that they can get him going again to bring a spark back to their attack.

Expected Lineup

GK: Rimando

DEF: Lennon, Glad, Besler, Acosta

MID: Beckerman, Kreilach

MID: Savarino, Rusnak, Plata

ST: Baird

RSL’s keys to the match

  1. Play free flowing soccer in the attack. If RSL can get their attack rolling and gelling well together, they are going to be able to pull Vancouver’s defense apart at least a few times and get good looks on goal. Finishing those chances they create is going to be the deciding factor.
  2. Keep the Vancouver attack in front of them. RSL’s centerbacks will have their hands full with Kei Kamara, and I fully expect Vancouver to attack heavily down their left side at Brooks Lennon. He is going to have to be extra diligent in keeping track of Alphonso Davies or whoever else they have play the wing position and Jefferson Savarino is going to have to help out a lot. If they can do this, they should do a good job of keeping the Vancouver attack under control.