As this is an off week for Real Monarchs SLC, I will fall in line with the #StrongerTogether campaign which stretches across the entire RSL family of teams and examine a problem that seems to stretch across all three teams. Dealing with high pressure teams which are very active in their own offensive half seems to continually plague not only the Monarchs, but RSL and the Royals as well. Poor turnovers in their defensive half and a general inability to defensively clear the ball is a common story in many of the adverse results this season.
Since the early days of Real Salt Lake the concept of elevation and how it served to benefit RSL at home has been widely discussed. Among MLS teams, the Colorado Rapids are still the only one to play their home matches at a similar high elevation even after all the recent expansion. The Royals are alone in the NWSL in playing home matches at elevation. Only in the USL does the number of teams playing at a high elevation continue to expand with growth in the league.
This concept is based around the idea that visiting players will tire more quickly than the home squad, which is accustomed to playing at altitude, and become exhausted at the end of matches. Among other factors, this concept has led to many visiting squads effectively parking the bus and aiming for a tie when playing in Utah to preserve their players. During many seasons a common discussion here in Utah was how does RSL break down teams that park the bus and force RSL to effectively penetrate several lines of defense.
With the evolution of style and a corresponding increase in talent in all levels of play, more and more sides come to Utah intent to force play from the first whistle. They start playing high pressure, and higher risk, in their offensive half confident that they can get a quick goal or two against a misfiring home side and then pull back and defend a lead. Or even worse for our teams, see the home side crumble and fall apart entirely under the onslaught.
For example, Rio Grande Valley FC, a run of the mill USL side which is also out of the playoffs and adjacent to the Monarchs in the Western Conference standings came into Zion Bank Stadium last weekend. For the first half of the match the Toros went with a deep defensive posture and looked for a quick counter which would allow their team speed to come into play. This approach failed as the Monarchs effectively utilized their nearly 80% possession and combined for 3 goals.
The Monarchs heat map for the first half shows the team spent a substantial portion of that possession in their offensive half.
While it may be tempting to believe that offensive pressure by the Monarchs was the only or major factor forcing the Toros back into their own half, the continual image of defenders immediately retreating backward remains and/or failing to push out from goal remains. The touches by the Monarch’s four main attacking players (Douglas Martinez, Masta Kacher, Josh Heard and Douglas Martinez) in the first half shows how easy it became to get the ball across the midfield line.
Only 15 of their touches were in the defensive half and only five at a distance from the center midfield line. At half it seemed like vintage playoff Monarchs with a comfortable 3-0 lead and seeming control of the game.
However, as the second half opened Rio Grande Valley, who seemingly had nothing left to lose, came out with high pressure in their offensive half and a front foot approach that totally changed the match. Even Head Coach Gerson Echeverry has commented since the match that he got his entire approach to this match wrong.
In the second half, the heat map shows a decidedly defensive stance from the Monarchs, whether from a desire to protect their lead or the increased offensive pressure from Rio Grande Valley. The Monarchs were limited to offensive positions down the sidelines and in front of the RGV box without the midfield possession from the first half.
Touches by the offensive front four (including Lionel Etoundi and Kyle Coffee who came in as 84th minute subs for Kacher and Martinez) are much more evenly distributed between the offensive and defensive halves and many of the ones in the defensive half are further from the center midfield line.
In the actual event the Monarchs lost the second half 3-2 and needed a wonder set piece kick by Noah Powder to put the match firmly out of reach with a 5-3 victory
In short, with an increase in skilled depth players who can come on and make a difference along with a change in approach to a high pressure style of play, many of the notions about home field advantage and the value of elevation are being put to the test. Could the Toros have kept up the increased pressure for a full ninety minutes? Perhaps not, but coming out that way from the start may still have been their best strategy to get points out of this match. And you can just about guarantee that they will start with high pressure when the Monarchs travel down (both in elevation and direction) to H-E-B Park in late September with the playoffs on the line.
Can the RSL family learn to handle the pressure both in terms of their opponents approach to the match and their own injuries and missing players due to international duty in time to finish in the playoffs this season? Only time will tell, but failure to adapt and overcome will surely end in more drubbings like the recent US Open Cup beatdown by LAFC which also happened this week.