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Goal Breakdown: How RSL gave up a first-minute goal against FC Dallas

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Let’s take a deep dive.

MLS: FC Dallas at Real Salt Lake Chris Nicoll-USA TODAY Sports

Well, it’s been a bit since I’ve done a goal breakdown, but after Real Salt Lake gave up a first minute goal against FC Dallas on their way to a third loss in five matches, I think it’s time we come back and take a deeper look.

Let’s start here. Here’s Brooks Lennon with a simple backpass to Nick Rimando. This is a pretty normal play on its face. Especially as he’s being pressured here, and we’ve just recovered an FC Dallas throw-in, we ought not be surprised by this pass.

So here’s a pretty normal sight: Brooks Lennon is calling for the ball. At the bottom of the frame, you also see Mike Petke seeming to signal that direction, too. It’s not a terrible idea, playing out of the back, but we’re outnumbered in the frame here. I imagine Aaron Herrera is also in the defensive third, and we’ll soon see that Everton Luiz is not far off. Still, the simple fact is that we’re outnumbered here, which tells me one very important thing: FC Dallas knows what they’re doing here. That should disturb us greatly, because it’s an indication that they’re very well aware of a weakness.

Pressuring Nick Rimando used to be a non-starter — opposition forwards may pressure once or twice, but Rimando would exercise a little crafty turn or something else out of his bag of tricks to change the play. In the last two years, that’s changed, and probably rightly so. It’s a consequence of age, I suspect. But I also think there’s another factor here: He’s being encouraged to play out of the back. RSL coach Mike Petke has made no secret of the fact that he wants this team to play out of the back with more frequency, and that’s inevitably going to involve the full backs.

In essence, I think this next frame here is an indication of those changing factors. Rimando’s going to get that ball to Lennon.

Here we have Lennon receiving the ball — he has it in control, he’s in a good position, and there’s an opportunity to go forward or backward. You also see that Dallas is very intentional about their tactical arrangement here — they’ve essentially cut out three options, leaving Lennon with an opportunity to move forward. That’s an interesting arrangement, but I think it’s purposeful.

Lennon actually starts to go backward here, and it plays right into Dallas’s approach. A well-timed tackle actually doesn’t do much, with Lennon moving in a central direction.

Lennon is actually more pinned-in after his bit of craftiness, but he still has one good option: Nedum Onuoha, who is basically free and could boot the ball clear. That’s not what happens, and you can read fairly easily where he’s thinking this pass should go: just past the Dallas player to Everton Luiz. It’s a very bold play, and I think it presents an unnecessary risk. The angle and power with which Lennon must execute requires a great deal of precision. Could he execute it? Sure, I think there’s a slight chance. Clearly, he doesn’t.

Here’s the pass. Luiz makes the right run, but the pass is a bit too slow — again, the perfection it would have required to work isn’t here. Dallas picks it off with great ease. Interestingly, they’re not executing a particularly hard press here — they’re high up, but they’re patient about it.

Here we go. One picked-off pass and RSL is entirely on the back foot. Five attackers are in our third, and our imprecision has damaged our chances significantly. Kyle Beckerman is making a run backward, but we know his recovery speed isn’t outstanding. Everton Luiz has been cut out of the play and will work to recover, but despite his excellent workrate and skill on the ball, there’s no way he gets there without earning a yellow inside the first minute. Maybe that’s what he should have done, but this play isn’t even a little about one person. This is a systemic failure.

Here we go. Dallas’s forward has drawn Erik Holt out, Nedum Onuoha is out on the wing to defend, and Aaron Herrera is now being forced to catch up with his winger. He’s sprinting hard to catch up, and he’s not going to get in front of a fast player.

Again, it doesn’t get better. Beckerman’s stabbing at the ball, Herrera still hasn’t caught up to his man, Onuoha is too far out to do anything on the play as he’s covering for Lennon, and Erik Holt has resisted being dragged too far out of the play. Maybe he should have followed him further, but you can see here that he‘s clearly of two minds. Should he follow the runner, or should he go toward the ball? I can’t pretend to know the right answer here, but he’s in an impossible situation — just like everyone else.

One pass then cut out RSL’s defense again: Lennon’s still trying to make it back, but he won’t make it in time. Onuoha’s come central as he spots that danger, but there’s not enough time. Herrera has continued, and he’s in a reasonable defensive position. Holt has spotted the open pass, but he’s too late.

So here we go. Holt’s not going to get to the player, Herrera didn’t stop the pass, Lennon’s still trying to get back into the play after losing the ball initially. It’s not a great look for anyone, and I don’t think this falls on any one person. As a team, Real Salt Lake has failed to spot the very apparent danger with a risky pass in their defensive third.

To make a long story short, Real Salt Lake has decided tactically to play on the edge. No one play immediately ties back to this, necessarily — instead, I think we’re better off evaluating the play and seeing it as evidence of a larger whole. While RSL has been beat on this play, it’s also been the source of some good counterattacking play. There is a certain risk-reward involved.

The primary concern I have here is that before the stands have even filled in (it sure looks empty before the fifth minute or so, although we’ve continued to struggle to sell out the stadium over the last two years), before the first minute has finished, we’ve taken a risk. While it can be attributed in part to one discrete play — Lennon trying to thread the needle in the defensive third — I don’t think it’s all on him. Instead, this feels more like we’re trying to play out of the back with a high frequency, and this play is a part of that.

If Real Salt Lake is to succeed, they need to be better at recognizing the danger at hand. This is, in part, a consequence of playing a young defensive line — barring Nedum Onuoha, this is a very young group. It’s also in part a consequence of playing a defensive line that’s never played together. I don’t want to argue against that, especially this early in the season. We will need to give players opportunities, and maybe this was a good time to do so. (It is extremely unfortunate, given that, the Erik Holt fell prey to injury early on — that’s a blow you simply can’t predict.)

Perhaps with time we will figure these things out and find the right balance. But until we do, we’ll continue to struggle and give up wholly unnecessary goals. The fact that we’ve done this so early in the match is just one part of the worry — but it’s significant.