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The Salt: There’s something on RSL’s wing

For 63 minutes, RSL was stuck in ... The Twilight Zone.

Twilight Zone
RSL’s wing play on Saturday left something to be desired.

With a match under our collective belts (because while we didn’t play in it, we were involved in our own collective way), the Real Salt Lake season has truly begun.

And not a moment too soon, really. I grew tired of not having matches. It may have been a moment too soon for the injured players, but time waits for no man and all that.

If you saw the image at the top, that’s a great representation of the match. I spent much of it in a cold sweat, panicked about what I saw on the wing, but in the end, we were fine.

I think.

There’s Herrera on the wing

Twilight Zone

So, uh. Yeah.

Aaron Herrera on the wing is weird.

We’d seen him there in preseason, and I discussed last week the reasons it made sense. That said, it’s clearly not the best approach for RSL, and I think we saw that play out.

During his time at right wing, Herrera looked not just out of position, but out of his depth. It’s a weird thing to see a player who’s excelled for two years, almost without exception, struggling. His passing wasn’t crisp, and he wasn’t involved heavily in play.

In the 63rd minute, Justen Glad came off for Corey Baird, and Herrera stepped back into his normal position. Let’s look at some before-and-after numbers, because I think RSL’s game changed significantly, and I think we all (especially me) need to doubt our senses.

From 0–63, RSL was significantly outpassed in passes to the final third, 123 to 68. It was much closer from 64–90: 57 to 51. That’s a much for palatable look. That we managed just 68 passes to the final third in the first half was troubling, and I think the presence of Corey Baird and the return of Herrera to his natural position was an influence.

From 0–63, RSL made 24 clearances to Orlando’s 9. It was not the sort of thing that helped RSL maintain coherence or possession. From 64–90, we made 8 to Orlando’s 11. That, to me, represents a clear change in approach that made a difference in the way Orlando responded to us. That Orlando made more clearances in 30 minutes than they did in the first 60 is striking, and it’s indicative of the greater danger we provided. But it’s also indicative of a calmer, more capable defensive outlay. I like Justen Glad a lot, but at right back without an experienced winger in front of him is probably not the best opportunity to see him excel.

Was Donny Toia really RSL’s best player on Saturday?

So I don’t know about you, but one of my favorite things to do post-match is to check out the various stats-producing sites — they all source from the same place right now, so I typically go for WhoScored — to see what the match really looked like. My eyes are not the best judges of performance, and getting a look at statistics helps even things out.

So it was that I became surprised to see that Donny Toia listed as RSL’s top player on Saturday with a rating of 7.4. The back line was all relatively close in rating, though, with Justen Glad (7.2), Marcelo Silva (7.3) and Nedum Onuoha (7.1) all receiving ratings about 7.0.

It is perhaps important to discuss what these numbers actually mean. WhoScored talks about their ranking system, but they don’t provide enough detail to be able to reproduce it. Essentially, though, players go up for good actions and down for bad actions.

So let’s go through some of the statistics around Toia to try to ferret out how he ended up as RSL’s best-ranked player.

  • Toia attempted more passes than any other player — 56. The closest is Albert Rusnak at 46. This surprised me, as I didn’t think he had the ball more than any other player. An interesting tidbit with this is that the player ahead of Toia, Tate Schmitt, attempted the fewest passes of any player, with 15. Even by the time he was substituted, Schmitt had attempted about half as many passes as any other player on team.
  • You may be thinking that perhaps Toia was passing the ball backward more than other players. This is actually not the case. Only two starting players had fewer backward passes than Toia: Silva (8) and Schmitt (8), giving Toia the best ratio on the team for percentage of passes that were backward.
  • What about loss of possession, you ask? Well, let’s go there, too. Toia had the most losses of possession for a defender, with 4. He also had a meager 76 percent passing success, which is certainly not good enough for what Freddy Juarez is trying to do. However, he was significantly better in that regard than Justen Glad, who managed just 63 percent passing success, which is significantly worse than he usually gets.
  • Toia’s passes were targeted at the final third more often (13 times) than any other player save Albert Rusnak (23) and Nick Besler (also 13.) It’s an interesting thing, really.
  • Toia had more interceptions than any other player with 4; Justin Portillo was the closest with 3.

So, was he good in the match? I don’t know. He was certainly involved in the match heavily, and he wasn’t outright bad. It is difficult to discuss Toia’s performance without discussing Schmitt’s, though, and if Schmitt was bad, is Toia in part to blame? Or did Schmitt bring down Toia at all? Soccer in isolation is difficult.

Twilight Zone

Corey Baird is a game-changing player (maybe?)

When we sold Jefferson Savarino to Atletico Mineiro, I felt somewhat panicked about losing a game-changing player. Savarino could pull magic out of his hat.

I don’t think Corey Baird is there quite yet, but I also don’t think he’s far off. He provided a real attacking spark that, along with Herrera’s shift back, turned the game on its head and gave RSL a fighting chance in the second half.

If Baird continues to develop, I don’t doubt that he could become a player that single-handedly changes the dynamic of a match. If he returns to the starting lineup on Saturday — and I believe he will, barring any setbacks with his hamstring — RSL will very much be the benefactor.

Now, I know we can’t anoint Baird quite yet, as he has much to prove. But if he focuses his efforts properly, I think he can reach that level. If he’s getting consistent minutes in a single position, that will further help. Right wing, with an 18-year-old player behind him in the rotation, might just be that position. We’ll see, though, right? His flexibility is helpful in building a team, but it’s often less helpful for him personally. He needs consistency to excel.