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RSL vs. Portland Timbers: Moments from the match

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Non-lethal counters, receiving on the turn, and RSL’s excellent pressing

MLS: Real Salt Lake at Portland Timbers Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports

In a lot of ways, the match played on Saturday feels like the least relevant piece of Real Salt Lake related news. And yet, it was played, and mostly pretty well by RSL. In what I’m hoping becomes a regular thing (based on my history the next installment will arrive in 2048) I wanted to look at a few moments from the match. These aren’t the most important moments, but I think are microcosms of issues, trends, or concerns I have around RSL and what Freddy Juarez is looking to build. Let’s dive in.

“Is this a dagger which I see before me, this handle toward my hand?”

During RSL’s best years they were known for an outstanding ability to possess the ball. Freddy Juarez has made that a point of emphasis for the Claret and Cobalt since he took over last season. RSL has out possessed their opponent in four of their last five matches, with the loss to San Jose being the only game in which they were out possessed.

However, along with that comes a tendency for Real to sometimes be too possession focused, to the point where they miss out on clear transition opportunities. Too often the defense is allowed to settle and the result is a game where 14 of 29 shots are blocked.

In the shot above, we can see Maikel Chang with the ball at his feet. We can also see three RSL players on the far side of the field with acres of space and a 3v1 opportunity. Chang plays this ball back to the center back, and possession is recycled.

This happened again and again throughout the match with players being more focused on recycling possession than attempting to take risks. Part of this is personnel, creative passing is not a strong point of the current group, but part I believe is tactics. If Juarez wants to continue to score four goals a game (I can dream) RSL will need to be more ruthless on the counter.

“Who can be wise, amazed, temp’rate, and furious, loyal and neutral, in a moment? No man.”

I have many criticisms for Albert Rusnak. Based on the RSL Soapbox comment sections, many of you also have criticisms for the Slovakian DP. However, one thing he does better than everyone else on the roster is receive the ball on the turn in tight spaces.

In this first image we see a ball being played forward to Rusnak in a pocket of space. Rusnak’s body position is excellent and he receives the ball across his body, allowing him to do this:

He drives forward and plays a 1-2 with Baird that results in a blocked shot from a good location in the box.

Only Rusnak and Meram consistently play well in tight spaces, and for RSL to hit their full potential Rusnak needs to get on the ball in these areas multiple times a game. The issue? He has played only 3 passes from this area in the last 2 games based on Opta data. At this point he seems to content to drift wide or drop deep, vacating the middle of the pitch and with it the opportunity to create easy chances for the front 3. With Kreilach seemingly established in the base of the midfield, Rusnak needs to leave the buildup to him and occupy more dangerous positions.

“Life’s but a walking shadow”

The RSL of Freddy Juarez is best defined by their pressing. It was repeated so often in the offseason that I feared it was only a buzzword, something teams throw to reporters when they don’t want to admit the plan is to bunker and counter. But so far the team has lived up to the hype and been fairly difficult to play through (I understand the team just gave up 4 goals, they’re still 3rd in the West in goals against).

Rather than the frenetic high pressing we’ve seen from teams like New York Red Bull, the RSL pressing strategy has been built around intelligent positioning to deny passing lanes. The pressure comes just before the middle of the field and the majority of the team’s recoveries/interceptions take place in the middle third.

As you can see from my incredibly drawn cover shadows, the team has successfully cut off any attempt to switch the ball across to the other side of the field. They invite the forward pass. As soon as it is played, Pablo Ruiz jumps the lane and wins the ball with ease.

The team has built a strong base with their ability to press well and win the ball. If RSL can 1. turn Rusnak into the playmaker he can be and 2. take more chances in transition, we should see one of the better teams RSL has had in years. If not, then the press becomes “a tale Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, Signifying nothing.”