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Why Kreilach, Sunny and Beckerman should be RSL’s starting midfield

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The Croatian midfielder might have just found his perfect spot in the lineup.

MLS: Seattle Sounders at Real Salt Lake Jeff Swinger-USA TODAY Sports

Real Salt Lake’s run of three consecutive wins has filled me with a certain curiosity about the way we should be playing that I haven’t felt for some time.

That’s because for the first time in what seems like a long time, I think playing our best player in his best position isn’t actually helping the team.

Yeah, that’s right. I think Albert Rusnak, whatever happens with his contract, isn’t the right man for this particular job.

That’s not because he’s a poor player, obviously, and it has nothing to do with his performances this season. He hasn’t quite his 2017 heights, but neither had the team, so blaming him for that would be short-sighted.

No, I think it’s a little different than that. I think Damir Kreilach has presented an extremely compelling option for Mike Petke’s lineup. Let’s talk about why.

MLS: D.C. United at Real Salt Lake Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

Striking a balance

One of the issues we’ve faced, to my mind, is that we’ve kept four players in near-exclusively attacking roles. Typically, that’s Albert Rusnak, Jefferson Savarino, Joao Plata and Luis Silva (or, if you will, Corey Baird).

As a result, when we lose possession high up the field, we will often have four players who are wholly committed to the attack. It’s been part of our strength, but it also puts us in difficult positions with some frequency.

In a way, playing our best player can, at times, make us worse.

But we do need to take a step back here. When Real Salt Lake was at their best last year, Albert Rusnak was front and center, and the shape of our lineup was similar. In that way, I might be assessing this incorrectly, but I’d argue that a few things played into it — a confluence of players at the top of their game, an ability to score significantly more goals than the opposition, and a saner balance in the midfield behind him.

But now? Kyle Beckerman’s a little slower and can’t cover quite the same ground (though he’s sure close), Kreilach isn’t as much a run-and-gun player as Luke Mulholland (I do think he’s an upgrade, though), and Albert Rusnak seems to have one foot out the door. (I know, I did say I’d table that discussion, but ... yeah.)

Simply put, we can’t expect Beckerman to cover more ground than in previous years, and we can’t expect Kreilach to completely change his playing style because something’s not working. It’s on Petke to get the most out of his players, and I think this is a way to do it.

MLS: Seattle Sounders at Real Salt Lake Jeff Swinger-USA TODAY Sports

Winning headers

I know this seems like a small thing in the grand scheme of it, but having a tall option central in our midfield gives us a surprising flexibility in our tactical approach simply because he can win a ball in the air. Rusnak, for all his 5-foot-9 excellence, isn’t that player.

One thing we saw against Seattle and Houston — and in other matches — is 6-foot-1 Kreilach moving into a channel to win a header, where he’s given a more favorable match-up.

See, Kreilach can win headers against defenders, and that’s something we just wouldn’t expect at all from Rusnak — and we shouldn’t, to be clear. But when we do that, we’re given different opportunities to attack, and they’re ones that suit us well. Rather than trying to keep the ball out wide, play can more naturally flow through the center before being splayed diagonally with a headed pass.

This plays out statistically, too. Against Houston, over 25 percent of his passes came with his head — 12 of 46. All but two of those went forward. This doesn’t mean we were necessarily attacking better that way, but we were at least attacking that way.

The numbers are less significant against Seattle, as he only had five headed passes of his 38 total. But that’s also exactly how many Justen Glad had, so that’s some context.

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

What about Rusnak?

See, here’s the thing. I didn’t want to make this about Rusnak potentially moving overseas, so let’s table that discussion for now. I actually think this is a move that would suit Rusnak well, as he can easily transition to the left wing, where he could continue to be effective.

Is Rusnak worse out there? See, here’s the thing: We haven’t tried it. I mean, maybe he is, and maybe that makes it a terrible idea. But I’d like to know myself.

But I do know Rusnak has played there at a high level, and it could be something worth trying. If it doesn’t work out, well, I suspect it’s only a short time the Slovak starlet is here, so maybe it’s a moot point.