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RSL vs. Houston Dynamo: Five winners, three losers

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RSL’s 1-1 draw with Houston wasn’t perfect, but it was a good start on the road.

MLS: Real Salt Lake at Houston Dynamo Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Real Salt Lake’s 1-1 draw with Houston Dynamo wasn’t perfect, but it seemed an excellent start.

Context: A heatmap

Here’s some important context I’ll refer back to multiple times. Take note, scroll back if you have to.

Winner: Kyle Beckerman and Everton Luiz, together

From my perspective, I think our midfield had a pretty reasonable game together. They traded positions well, they chased down loose balls well, and they even got a little into the attack well. For them to do so with this being just their first competitive match together is notable, and it deserves some recognition.

You see that gap at the top of the middle third for Houston? That’s a great illustration for me of what we were able to accomplish in the midfield.

Loser: Sebastian Saucedo and Nick Besler, sort of together

I think we’re all in agreement here that Sebastian Saucedo deserves opportunities, and he once again became simply part of a substitution-mind-games ploy alongside Nick Besler. Both put on their kits and readied to come into the match, but neither came in. This became a pattern last year, too — we’ll save one sub for stoppage time to slow the game down, then not use it. Saucedo and Besler may be listed as losers here, but let’s get to the real culprit here.

Loser: Mike Petke (in part)

I don’t have a whole lot of time for the strategy above, because it denies the team an opportunity for reprieve when legs are tired. In his post-match interview, Petke talked about how the team’s legs were a bit tired, and there is one obvious solution: Use the substitutions you have. Especially early in the season, when legs aren’t quite ready for 90 minutes of action, should substitutions be used more fully.

Now, I don’t want this to turn into a broader gripe with Petke’s tactics. I don’t think too much went wrong in the game from a broad-strokes perspective, and I think game management was handled pretty well. Substitution patterns remain something I have significant concerns about, but I remain hopeful that there will be improvement in that regard.

Winner: Sam Johnson

I don’t love how Johnson got into the match — that’s a complaint simply about the cramping to Corey Baird, mind — but it was great to see him running at defenders. He showed a definite spark when he came on, and it was enough to give me some hope that this really will work out. While he wasn’t quite goal-dangerous, he forced Houston’s defense to adapt to him, and that’s a great step in the right direction.

Winner: Albert Rusnak

Rusnak was an effective figure on the night, and I’d say that continued until the tactical shift that saw him playing out wide. Now, I won’t hold that against him for a number of reasons, particularly that the game state was altered by Rusnak scoring a goal earlier in the night.

It was quite a nice goal scored against a goalkeeper who was having a good game.

Winner: Corey Baird

Up until his substitution, Baird was helping push RSL’s attack down the left side. We haven’t seen him much in that position, and I thought he coped well with the expectations, and he also provided some important defensive contributions on the left, too. His assist for Rusnak was also an excellent pass that beat four defenders, and it was perfectly weighted to cushion on Rusnak’s far foot. I have a lot of time for that pass. I have even more time for his near-goal only minutes later, which took a very good stop from Joe Willis to prevent.

Loser: Brooks Lennon

Take a look at the heatmap, particularly the left attacking side for Houston, which was defended primarily by Brooks Lennon. The touch map shows some penetration into the RSL box for Houston on that left side, where Brooks Lennon was defending, but you don’t see the same pattern on the right, where Aaron Herrera was defending.

See, I don’t think that’s great — and we saw the effect of that when Houston scored their equalizer. Here, let’s illustrate it with a screen grab.

See, there’s Brooks Lennon when the center backs have the ball pushing up to follow a midfielder, and he follows him all the way to the edge of the middle third. Another screen grab is forthcoming.

I’m truly not sure what Brooks is doing here, but between him and Jefferson Savarino, nobody is actually watching the winger. You’d typically expect a full back to do that, and that’s absolutely where Lennon needs to be focused. Instead, the play completely breaks down: Marcelo Silva shifts out to cover the winger, Nedum Onuoha is given pause for thought, and Mauro Manotas is afforded an opportunity to score a wonderful goal.

Let’s be clear about this: I don’t put the blame much on Onuoha at all here. Sure, a little bit falls his way, but Lennon being sucked out of position creates a 4-on-3 opportunity for Houston. The crazy part about this is that this wasn’t a breakaway situation. There’s no good reason for this to be the case. It’s simply extremely poor transition play, and Brooks Lennon is one of several players at fault, and for me, the most glaring example of them all.

I actually think Lennon had some good moments in the attack, and that’s all well and good, but this is a fundamental concern that’s now carried over into 2019.