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RSL’s striker-less system pays dividends in 6-2 win over LA Galaxy

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Albert Rusnak and Damir Kreilach have formed an excellent attacking partnership.

MLS: Los Angeles Galaxy at Real Salt Lake Jeff Swinger-USA TODAY Sports

Real Salt Lake’s win over LA Galaxy featured some of the best soccer we’ve seen at Rio Tinto Stadium since probably 2013, and we’d be remiss if we didn’t talk about it in some depth.

Having shaped itself as a creative, attack-minded team, it would be easy for us to look at RSL and see as a tactic-less arrangement of very good players. But as we’ve so often seen, that’s not enough to win matches with any regularity.

So with that in mind, I was reading through Mike Petke’s post-match quotes from Saturday. He didn’t have too much to say in the official quote sheet, but this was still a striking passage, and I’d like to break it down.

Let’s start with the whole thing, then go back and parse through parts of it.

“I don’t honestly consider Damir as a forward tonight. Him and Albert (Rusnak) rotated. There were two positions tonight that we didn’t identify to our players that they were playing, that was Damir and Albert. Someone had to occupy the center backs, and someone always had to drop in and I think most of the time Damir was the higher one. Credit to these players. We’re in fourth place right now starting four to five home grown players almost every game and without having a true number nine this entire season.”

I’m a little surprised by that first line.

I don’t honestly consider Damir as a forward tonight.

It makes me wonder if that’s how Petke’s seen Kreilach’s role every time he’s put him up there, or if this was a shift he made for this match. All the same, let’s look at his touches in this match.

Damir Kreilach’s touches, via WhoScored

This is not the touch map of a forward. It’s the touch map of an attacking midfielder, I think. Obviously, touches aren’t everything, but I think Petke’s being fair about this. He wasn’t playing as a forward. He scored a hat trick, but you know who else did that once? Javier Morales. He was never a forward, either.

Let’s take a look at Rusnak’s touches, too.

Albert Rusnak’s touches, via WhoScored

This actually looks a bit like Rusnak is the further-forward player here, on average. That’s not quite how it works out, of course, but Rusnak is certainly less involved defensively.

I actually don’t know quite how to describe the way we played, and that’s something I’ll be putting some effort into, especially if we continue that way. It is, I think, a natural evolution in soccer at this level, and I think I’d rather see something like this, with attacking players contributing to a larger whole, than I would a center forward whose role is narrowly defined.

There were two positions tonight that we didn’t identify to our players that they were playing, that was Damir and Albert. Someone had to occupy the center backs, and someone always had to drop in and I think most of the time Damir was the higher one.

See, this sharing of responsibilities is what really makes it a tough system to execute, but that we are says volumes about the players involved. It’s hard to play in a style that forces players to share that mental work, but in Damir Kreilach, Albert Rusnak, Sunny and Kyle Beckerman, we have four extremely bright midfielders who read the game well. Each of them plays an important role in this.

Credit to these players. We’re in fourth place right now starting four to five home grown players almost every game and without having a true number nine this entire season.

See, this is why I’m so interested in this. We certainly could have signed a lackluster player to sit up top, and he might have scored a handful of goals. Alfredo Ortuño might have even cracked double digits. But the collective burden behind him would need to be filled, and it sure didn’t seem like he was going to contribute to that creative task.

Could a fantastic forward have helped out? Of course. Let’s not be naive about this. The right player would have contributed to the creative load, scored goals, and made life easier for everyone involved.

Now, we’ve put the time in for our system, we’ve allowed players to learn their roles, and we’re seeing the dividends. Damir Kreilach and Albert Rusnak — both of whom had a slightly rocky start to the season — have 10 goals apiece. They’re showing no sign of stopping just yet.

Whatever we have here, it’s working. It’s certainly not perfect, and it won’t always play in our favor. But for now, it’s what we have, and it’s paying off.