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The rise of RSL’s best midfield pairing, Pablo Ruiz and Jasper Löffelsend

It’s not what anyone expected in 2022, but here we are.

MLS: Real Salt Lake at Vancouver Whitecaps FC Anne-Marie Sorvin-USA TODAY Sports

There was a time not too long ago when Pablo Ruiz was an out-of-contention figure at Real Salt Lake. He’d been played at left back, at winger, and rarely in the midfield. He wasn’t anything near what the scouts at Manchester United would have been expecting (they would have expected the coach to play him, I suspect), and he had a bit of a slide from there.

We’d landed who we expected to be an exciting player, a creative player, a valuable player — and instead of playing him, we sent him on loan to FC Pinzgau Saalfelden, who were playing in the Austrian third division at the time. It was an inauspicious start to his career, and that loan only lasting six months before he was reportedly unable to renew his Austrian work visa. That was 2019.

Meanwhile, less than a four-hour drive away, Jasper Löffelsend was playing for fourth-division German side Bonner SC in Ulm, Germany. He played just 90 minutes across eight matches before transferring to FC Hennef 05, a fifth-tier team. During his fußball (thanks, Duolingo) stint, Löffelsend was busy earning a degree at the University of Köln.

If Pablo Ruiz’s “path to pro” was unusual in that an amateur division loan relaunched his career, Löffelsend’s is doubly so. He apparently had a job offer in hand but opted to continue his studies — and his soccer. Real Salt Lake drafted the 24-year-old after two years impressing at Pitt.

That’s the making of a reasonable Real Monarchs player, I thought. Not much chance we see him for the first team. I thought he was pretty solid in preseason, but how many times have we seen players look alright in preseason then go on to RSL’s second team? It’s more than zero. I think. And we did — we signed him to Real Monarchs. But it wasn’t long after he was announced as a Monarch that he was signed to the first team — five days, to be precise, on a one-year deal with three option years.

None of this is the making of a midfield combination. Both players had unusual paths to this 2022 rendition of Real Salt Lake. But now, at this point in our roster, they’re my preferred pairing, and I think we’ve seen RSL’s best soccer with the two together. Nobody would have reasonably expected that progression.

The Pairing

I would have leaned toward Scott Caldwell and Pablo Ruiz at the start of the season, as Pablo Mastroeni did — and I think overall it worked alright. Caldwell was largely playing a more conservative role, and Ruiz was playing a more creative one. That’s indicated statistically, too. Caldwell had at most 154 yards of total distance while carrying the ball; Löffelsend’s lowest in a two-man midfield while starting is 166 yards; his highest is 261 yards in the 3-0 win over Houston Dynamo. That’s not to compare the ability of the two players, but to compare their roles. Löffelsend is used as a more mobile midfielder, roving around and being generally involved in play.

That mobility affords Ruiz more time on the ball; a static Caldwell, while playing an important role in a cover role, didn’t provide as much distraction for Ruiz. Löffelsend, meanwhile, is popping up more regularly in positions that challenge opponents.

I actually think you can see some of this visually, but it’s hard to get at it statistically — at least without being a statistical expert. (I’d love to see something if you can suss it out.)

I’m going to share some passing network graphs to illustrate what seems to be happening here. I’ve taken screenshots from the MLS site of RSL’s passing network, and I’ve only taken them for wins that weren’t snow games. (Those wins count, but they’re not going to tell us much statistically.)

RSL vs. Nashville, March 19 — Ruiz and Caldwell. This is the weird three-man back line at its tactically most confused. There are no connections where you expect connections. Andrew Brody and Scott Caldwell are the only players with at least two passes to Bobby Wood. What’s going on here?

RSL vs. LA Galaxy, April 30 — Ruiz and Luiz. Oh, uh, hey. Nobody’s passing. Everton Luiz is in the middle of nowhere. It’s a miracle we won this game.

RSL vs. Austin FC, May 14 — Caldwell and Löffelsend. Look at that star in the midfield. That’s what you want to see. I think this is the first time it’s clear we were trying to play a front-four, which is a fun and weird thing.

Montreal vs. RSL, May 22 — Ruiz and Löffelsend. Meram’s playing as a midfielder here. He’s also playing as a winger. I’m confused by this one, but I think it shakes out well enough.

RSL vs. Houston, May 28 — Ruiz and Löffelsend. This is the midfield starting to click. Our forwards are still on a bit of an island, but we’re looking structured.

Alright, have you taken a look at all those? Digested them?

The one immediate pattern that jumps out: RSL’s passing game looks at least remotely competent in games where Löffelsend plays. When he does not, there are huge gaps. I don’t know why Löffelsend imbues structure into this team, and I also don’t know if it’s a complete coincidence. But what I do know is that RSL has started to look good and not just capable of out-competing an opponent — and that’s come directly with the performances of our collegiate German.

Well, that’s all I’ve got for you today. I’ve been reading a lot of short science fiction stories lately, and I jotted down ten of my favorite reads in May. I’ll do the same thing in June, so check my Twitter around the start of July, and I’ll also send it out to anyone who subscribes to the above link. I also wrote recently about a board game I’ve come to love, For Science!.

I hope you’re all well — thanks for showing up to have a little extra Salt with me today. (Should I have called it Das Salz today? Probably. Ah, well.)