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Tactical Preview: RSL vs Houston Dynamo

What tactics and game plan will we see from the Claret and Cobalt in their first game of the 2019 season?

MLS: Real Salt Lake at Houston Dynamo Thomas B. Shea-USA TODAY Sports

Guys, the MLS season is here! I know that many of you are as excited as I am for the first game of the season. If you are joining our readership for the first time, Welcome! If you are a long time reader of RSL Soapbox, we thank you for your support! Before every game, I write this “Tactical Preview” in which we try to dig a little into the semantics and tactics of the game. With that introduction, let’s jump in to the first game of the season!

Real Salt Lake


One of the first things noticed by many while watching the Claret and Cobalt play their preseason games is that it appears Mike Petke has made a formation change. This is interesting, because Mike has repeatedly talked about how he is not a big proponent of specific, rigid formations. Petke talks about how he believes more in starting positions than formations. And yet if you watched the preseason games, you could clearly see that the team was mostly well organized into a flat 4-4-2 formation. The defensive 4 made up the first block, and then the midfield made up the second block of 4, with wingers playing the outside two midfield spots, and mostly RSL stalwart Kyle Beckerman and Claret and Cobalt newcomer Everton Luiz patrolling the middle. This left the two forwards, mostly Kreilach and Baird, to pressure the opposing defense at the top of the formation. It seemed like the team did a good job defending when they were well organized into these blocks. The trouble I saw is that regardless of the formation, RSL still leaves themselves open to the counterattack, and are still getting burned on it much like last season. Until that flaw can be fixed, the team is going to keep bleeding goals.

Offensively, on the other hand, is a completely different story. It appears as if Petke has given his attacking players a lot of freedom to move about and interchange while attacking. This makes a lot more sense when taking into consideration Mike’s philosophy of starting positions. The attacking 4 of the outside midfielders and the two forwards, supported by one of the two central midfielders and at least one of the outside backs, made up much of the attack. The attacking four could be seen rotating and changing positions regularly, looking, probing for different ways to break down the defense. We saw them do this very well against Phoenix Rising FC, resulting in 4 goals. We also saw it work pretty well against Portland, with a number of promising attacks resulting in shots on goal. In all honesty, the only thing that kept RSL off the board against Portland was keeper Jeff Attinella standing on his head and producing a number of great saves.

New Players

RSL’s two big off-season acquisitions were defensive midfielder Everton Luis and forward Sam Johnson. We were able to see a good amount of soccer from Luiz, and from what I can tell, he appears to be a hard-tackling midfield disrupter in the mold of Kyle Beckerman and Ozzie Alonso, two of the better number 6’s to grace MLS with their play. He also showed some good speed and footwork during a few forays into the attacking third. I actually think that he will continue to improve and show better for the team as he gets more fully integrated and incorporated with the team and their style of play.

Then, of course, we have Sam Johnson, the Liberian #9 who comes to a side with a lot of high expectations for their center forward. We haven’t gotten much opportunity to see him play with the first team players, besides a few minutes as a substitute during the second game in Hawaii. This of course has led to some fears that once again RSL has acquired a forward that doesn’t meet Petke’s expectations for his players. However, RSL Soapbox’s own Lucas Muller was able to speak with Sam following the Portland Timbers match last Saturday and learned that Sam picked up a minor ankle knock during training in preseason, and the technical staff decided to hold him out of the preseason games so that he would be ready to go for the MLS opener. I think there is a good chance that we see at least some of Sam against Houston on Saturday. Will he be a starter or a substitute? Only Mike Petke knows the answer to that question.

Rising Stars

Other players that impressed fans with their play through the preseason included newly capped USMNT forward Corey Baird and winger Sebastian “Bofo” Saucedo. Both have made strong arguments to be included in the starting 11 for the season opener, so it will be very interesting to see what happens with those outside midfield/winger positions on opening day.

It seems that Brooks Lennon and Aaron Herrera have retained the starting outside back positions despite the return of RSL stalwart Tony Beltran as well as RSL’s first ever homegrown player in Donny Toia. Either that, or Petke is trying to throw us all for a loop by consistently starting Lennon and Herrera together in preseason, with full intent to switch everything up and start Toia and Beltran on opening day. Again, only Mike Petke has the answers to these questions, and I don’t think he’ll reveal them to the fans prior to opening day.

Houston Dynamo

The Dynamo come into this game well prepared, having already won their first tie in the CONCACAF Champions League over the last two weeks. With that being said, Houston did play some of their projected starters in that game, and also have a CCL midweek game against Liga MX’s Tigres UANL on this upcoming Tuesday to think about and prepare for, It will be interesting to see how they approach this opening MLS game.

Regardless of which players start the game, I would expect that Houston is going to be willing to cede some possession to RSL in hopes of catching them out of shape in transition and generating solid attacking opportunities.

Expected Lineup

GK: Rimando

DF: Lennon, Silva, Onouha, Herrera

MF: Savarino, Beckerman, Luis, Rusnak

FW: Kreilach, Johnson

RSL’s keys to the match

  1. Stay disciplined defensively. Especially in the 4-4-2 formation, it is important for the players to understand their defensive roles and to carry them out fully. RSL is going to want to start off on the right foot defensively this season, and that includes improving on the 55 goals allowed last season.
  2. Allow our creative players to create. As mentioned above, it seems as if Mike Petke has given his attacking players much more freedom to move, interchange, and create. As they begin syncing together and getting in the flow of things, they will create good opportunities on goal.