As Kyle Beckerman continues to deepen his relationship with Father Time, it is probably not premature to begin looking for a permanent solution once he retires. While many argue that it will be necessary to hire any full-time replacement from outside the current Real Salt Lake roster, a prudent management team would also want to take a close look at what they have internally. Both Nick Besler and Justin Portillo were originally signed to contracts with Real Monarchs SLC, but following a single season as a defensive midfielder and team captain with the Monarchs they were signed to contracts with RSL. While different players in terms of style and background, both Nick and Justin have seen time as a replacement for an injured Beckerman during the 2019 season. This article is an attempt to examine these performances and how each stand as a backup defensive midfielder behind Kyle.
Experience and Physical Build
Nick Besler signed with the Monarchs on 2 Jan 2017, while still 23 years of age. He was signed by RSL on August 24th of the same year, at 24, and has seen a fair number of appearances for them since. Currently 26, Nick is 185 cm tall and weighs in at around 75 kg. Prior to signing with the Monarchs he played collegiately at Notre Dame (2011-2014) and spent two years in the Portland Timbers organization with a total of 50 appearances for the USL side.
Justin Portillo signed with the Monarchs prior to the 2018 season to take fill the hole left by Besler and was signed by RSL this season at age 26. Justin is listed at 168 cm and 61 kg. Prior to signing with the Monarchs, he played collegiately at Coastal Carolina University (2010-2013) and then spent 4 years with Charleston Battery in the USL making a total of 104 appearances.
Nick is almost identical in size to Kyle, who is listed at 180 cm and 77 kg, while Justin is noticeably slighter and less of a physical presence on the pitch. This physical difference has allowed Besler to play as a stop gap central defender for RSL and forces Portillo to be much more hands on and visible in his fouls against opponents larger than him. Justin cannot merely body check larger players like Nick and Kyle, hence a red card for hands to the neck in his first appearance for RSL.
During his full 90 minutes against Atlanta, Nick Besler had 3 Clearances, 1 Blocked Shot, 2 Interceptions and was successful on 50% of his tackles. He was also dribbled past on one occasion and was whistled for single foul. These are all quite closely in line with his previous appearances for RSL.
During his full 90 minutes against Montreal, Justin Portillo had no Clearances, Blocked Shots, Interceptions or Tackles. He was never dribbled past and was whistled for 3 fouls. This was his first real time on the field for RSL, but the lack of even a single interception is noticeable. Portillo’s style is much more focused toward positioning and spacing and results if a fair number of interceptions.
While it must be acknowledged that the game were quite different in make up and style and a very limited sample size, Besler is, once again, the more rough and tumble, ready to commit, while Portillo is more positional and only commits in moments of need and then frequently with a foul.
Against Atlanta, Nick has 48 Accurate Passes (85%), no Key Passes, 1 inaccurate Cross and connected on only 1 of his 7 Long Balls.
Against Montreal, Justin had 78 Accurate Passes (90%), no Key Passes or Crosses, and connected on 7 of his 12 Long Balls.
Once again, different games and situations, but this demonstrates why Portillo is getting a shot with RSL. He is an exceedingly accurate passer, even for a defensive midfielder, and very smooth on the ball. His proven ability to connect the defense and offense is sorely missed by the 2019 Monarchs.
As a final indicator of the the differences between the two let me add heat maps for each of them and their defensive partner for both matches, Damir Kreilach.
Having more possession in the match where Montreal just pulled in the defense is indicated by the deeper colors and the more central and forward positions. They also serve to reinforce the idea that Besler is more of a man marker, in this game at least, following a specific player(s), while Portillo is more positional. In both cases, Damir likes life on the left side of the field and is see more as an outlet in a pre-determined position as a box-to-box player frequently is. My final thought, is what would a Everton Luiz-Nick Besler or Everton Luiz-Justin Portillo team-up look like. Luiz could play the physical destroyer and let Portillo put that passing skill to use.
Is Real Salt Lake better with an exception passer connecting defense and offence or with a more physical defensive midfielder?
Finally, just to get it off my chest, I would only start Harry Kane in tomorrow’s Champions League final if I was fairly sure that not including him would cause him to cast his eyes abroad for new horizons. Either way, Liverpool has it!