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The Salt: How Pablo Ruiz is a reflection of Mastroeni soccer

The numbers show RSL’s long-ball approach.

Lucas Muller | RSL Soapbox

Well, it’s been a while since I called something “The Salt,” and I know there are certain responsibilities that come with that. You know, I need to tell you about something I’ve been reading or watching.

You better believe I’m going to do that, but before we get to the real reason we’re all here, let’s talk about Real Salt Lake, and, as the headline indicates, how Pablo Ruiz is a reflection of Pablo Mastroeni’s tactical approach.

It will come as no surprise that Mastroeni’s brand of soccer is one that’s largely composed of route-one attacking, condensed defense, and an expectation that players will create exciting attacking forays that depend largely on individual skill and involve from two to four attacking players.

We’ve seen that, and we’ve seen it repeatedly enough that I don’t think there’s any controversy in that declaration. You may like that, you may hate it, and you may be indifferent to the approach if results are in the right column. I get that, and this isn’t to change your mind.

What I’d like to do is illustrate that style through the approaches of Pablo Ruiz from a data-driven perspective. For me, the way a team plays can best be seen in the midfield, and Ruiz has been a near-constant in the team. (At least until he gets that first yellow card accumulation suspension. We all know it’s coming.)


A midfielder’s greatest strength is often in their passing game, and while it’s not the only attribute to consider, it’s the one I go for first. We have a legacy of great passing midfielders at Real Salt Lake, with Kyle Beckerman and Javier Morales underpinning our history. They were both elite passing players in Major League Soccer. I don’t mean to compare Ruiz to those two, but it does give some reason why this is the direction I first look.

Passes completed: 38.1 per 90 minutes, 51.6 attempts per 90

Of players with at least half the season under their belt, Ruiz leads Real Salt Lake. (Bode Davis technically has more passes per 90 minutes, but he’s played 30 minutes all season. Per 90 stats don’t really get at anything there.) When we don’t consider per-90, that sees Ruiz as 53rd in the league for total passes completed, and he’s 31st in the league for passes attempted.

I’ve put together a spreadsheet to try to get a sense of Ruiz’s passing play as it compares across the league — please feel free to peruse it, copy it, whatever you’d like. The data’s from FBref.com, and I’ve just taken the top 100 players for passes completed. What that’s shown me is that Ruiz is one of just five players with over 300 passes completed but less than 75 percent accuracy. Those other players?

  • Emanuel Reynoso (Minnesota), 68.5 percent
  • Carles Gil (New England), 73.7 percent
  • Pablo Ruiz (RSL), 73.9 percent
  • Brandon Bye (New England), 74.3 percent
  • Kristijan Kahlina (Charlotte), 74.8 percent

You know what’s weird about those players above? Kahlina’s a goalkeeper. With 74.8 percent passing. He’s the only goalkeeper in the data set. Anyway, that’s really neither here nor there, but I do think it’s really fascinating.

With 19 key passes, Pablo Ruiz ranks eight in the league for key passes. First place is fairly obviously Carles Gil with 36, who is so clearly an elite passing player. Second place is Brooks Lennon with 25 — that’s a number I just didn’t expect.

So now that we understand very roughly how Ruiz compares — favorably, I think, but not as an elite passing player in MLS, and one with low accuracy — we can start to figure out how that reflects on RSL’s general playing style.

  • Ruiz is 67th in the dataset for short passes completed, and 28 percent of his attempted passes are short.
  • Ruiz is 31st in the dataset for medium passes completed, with 35 percent of that length.
  • Ruiz is 13th for long passes completed, and 32.7 percent are long. He’s fourth in terms of long passes-to-total passes ratio.
  • Ruiz is 81st in the dataset for long pass completion percentage at 53.7 percent.

What does that tell us about how Real Salt Lake plays? It all goes right back to the article I referenced earlier. Pablo Mastroeni has this team playing a long-ball-first game, with our attacking forays coming through long passes. We can even take this one step further and look at shot-creating actions, which you’ll find in the spreadsheet above. I’ve gone with the top 100 by count of shot-creating actions so we can avoid the small-numbers issues.

  • With 30 shot-creating actions, Ruiz is 16th in the league. But when you look at those actions per 90 minutes, Ruiz drops to 55th in the league, with 3.08 shot-creating actions per 90 minutes.
  • Further investigation shows that Ruiz is creating 42 percent from passes in dead ball situations — free kicks. (Weirdly, that’s very similar to Brooks Lennon. Did we ... misuse him?)
  • Two of Ruiz’s assists have come from dead-ball situations, while one came from a live-ball situation.

None of that should be used to disparage Ruiz, but I think we can gain a more full picture of how he’s playing, and as a result, how the team is being asked to play.

What is Real Salt Lake? They’re a team that plays fast and long from the back, has our midfield focused on direct passing, and wants to win by forcing the matter close to goal. Is that the best way? I don’t know, and it seems to be the way we intend to play, so. I guess I’ll have to get used to it.

Off-topic

I just finished reading Ted Chiang’s excellent anthology Exhalation, which I would absolutely recommend. Three of my favorite stories from the collection are “The Lifecycle of Software Objects,” “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate,” and “The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling.

“The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate” is expertly read by LeVar Burton in the highly recommended podcast LeVar Burton Reads, which is just the greatest thing ever. (part one) (part two)

Obviously, these stories aren’t going to resonate with everybody, but I love science fiction stories that take a single technological or philosophical idea and stretch it out. Ted Chiang is a master of that.

Well, that’s all I’ve got today. I hope you all have a very nice week.