Match previews

Preview: Union at Real Salt Lake

What: Union at Real Salt Lake
When: Wednesday, July 3 at 10 pm, Eastern Standard Time
Where: Rio Tinto Stadium
What: MLS Regular Season
TV: MLS Live
Referee: Ismail Elfath; Linesmen: Corey E Rockwell, Jeremy Hanson; Fourth official: Kevin Terry Jr

Going into Rio Tinto Stadium is tough.

Going into Rio Tinto Stadium on short rest after giving away two points on the final play of the match at home against a ten man Dallas side?

Tough hardly seems an adequate description.

Make no mistake: Unlike Dallas, Real Salt Lake is not in a lull, on a downswing, or struggling for form. A rare early season teeter-totter has given way to a classic Jason Kreis team, replete with hard workers, ball-movers, and a dominant midfield. Since the beginning of May, RSL has dropped five points total. They are coming off their first ever win in Toronto, which followed a pair of joyous stompings of Seattle and  LA Galaxy.

Despite all that, the Union still have a shot at walking out of Salt Lake City with a point or more if they can execute their particularly effective brand of counterattacking soccer against an undermanned home side.

RSL report

The combined effects of the Gold Cup and Tony Beltran’s fightin’ ways will strip Real Salt Lake of four effective, if not essential, players. Midfield workhorse Kyle Beckerman and MLS stud goalie Nick Rimando will be on international duty with the United States, and Alvaro Saborio will don the Costa Rican colors. In Beckerman, Saborio, and Beltran, RSL will be losing six goals and six assists. On most teams, this would sound like a lot. But Jason Kreis is a system coach, and while Beckerman’s defensive positioning may be close to irreplaceable, this team will find a way to generate opportunities without their defensive middie’s passing range.

Rest assured that no matter how many changes wash through the Real Salt Lake team, they will continue to play the same game. Jason Kreis wants the ball worked out of the back, he wants numbers forward, and he wants pressure on the Philly defense. It should not be a surprise that his club leads the league in shots and shots on goal. Nor should it be a surprise that five players have three goals or more. This team is very good and getting better.

With Saborio gone, joint leading goalscorer Olmes Garcia will finally get the extended run up top that his play deserves. The young Colombian has notched four goals off the bench this season. He will remind Union fans of Antoine Hoppenot not only in his ability to impact a match but also in his aggression.

Behind the strikers, Salt Lake are hoping to have teenage sensation Luis Gil back in the fold. Gil was strong for the US U-20s in Turkey, though the team as a whole secured just one point from three group stage games. Gil’s return should allow Ned Grabavoy to slide deeper into Beckerman’s role and protect the back four. Gil is a dynamic playmaker, but he is still finding his role alongside established hub Javier Morales.

In the back, Aaron Maund’s strong performance against Toronto is likely to earn him 90 more minutes partnering with Nat Borchers. Maund is a strong aerial presence with a growing understanding of the speed of the MLS game. Like any young defensive back, pressure him and reap rewards. Run at him and find out just how athletic he is.

Union update

Jack McInerney is gone. He deserved the Gold Cup call, but that doesn’t make it an easy pill to swallow for a team in the playoff hunt. The simplest move is Le Toux up top and Michael Farfan on the right, with Kleberson or (joke approaching) Roger Torres (joke completed) starting in the middle.

Last week’s subpar performance aside, this pulls Le Toux out of the wing position that he has molded into his own. Additionally, both Antoine Hoppenot and Aaron Wheeler have made strong bids for increased minutes and could operate as a 1-2 punch subbing in for each other. Let’s assume, however, that John Hackworth remains reluctant to hand out starting minutes to his regular benchies. Le Toux will be an adequate replacement up top, though the wing play will suffer.

There is simply no denying that Sheanon Williams is a better player with a non-Danny Cruz in front of him. This is not to say that Cruz is using some sort of hustle magic to make the Sheanomenon less effective. It’s just that no understanding has blossomed between the two during their time together on the right. John Hackworth should resist the temptation to return Cruz to the right and, instead, return Michael Farfan to the role he made his own as a rookie.

Key to the game: Speed of play

Real Salt Lake stays near the top of the league every year for many reasons. But the one that stands out most is their defensive organization. Many MLS teams employ modern fullbacks pushed high up the pitch in attack. The clear issue with the system is defending the counterattack: How do you prevent breakouts going the other way?

Some teams use a deep-lying midfielder to push counterattacks wide, but all too many MLS squads simply rely on central defenders to slide outside and meet the ball. Blessed with Carlos Valdes in past seasons and Amobi Okugo now, Philadelphia Union have skirted around this particular issue better than most, though alarming breakdowns do rise to memory. Real Salt Lake uses their athletic goalkeeper and a high defensive line to limit counterattacking creativity. The clearest option against a high line is a ball over the top. But with Beckerman pressuring the outlet passer and Rimando quick off his line, RSL is betting that you can’t play a pass perfect enough to beat their system. And if you want to go wide, they have a plan for that too.

Rather than press the ball when it is wide, RSL will allow a wide ball and retreat centrally. In Nat Borchers and (previously) Jamison Olave, there are few worries about losing the battle in the box.

And if you don’t play on the break, RSL’s defense will organize as well as any in the league, once again raising the bar on the amount of magic needed to get through on goal.

The best way to deal with an organized team is to play at a fast pace. Counterattacks cannot simply push the ball up the pitch and wait for reinforcements. The entire team has to transition from defense to offense with aplomb. Note that speed of play does not simply mean run faster up the pitch. It means gaining possession, a quick ball into the middle, followed by distribution up the middle or two the wings. Less dilly-dally in the back and more urgency in transition.

Key matchup: Zac MacMath vs MLS

So this is going to surprise some people (sit down if you don’t know what “cynical” means), but Major League Soccer refereeing is fairly awful. Zac MacMath was fouled at the end of the Dallas match, no question about it. On a ball in the middle of the pitch, backing up into another player is an infraction every time, and doing the same to the goalie is no different.

But to expect that call … in this league … is flat-out madness. The reason they call MLS a physical league is because sides that are consistently aggressive can raise the bar on infractions so high that the referee backs himself into a corner once he starts letting anything go. The fouls become frequent to the point that the ref must either clamp down or disappear, and MLS refs usually respond with “disappear until a random minor incident incites a total out-of-left-field clampdown.”

So if you are a goalie and you are attacking a ball in the box, you should have one thing on your mind: Get that ball out of the box. You are going to get hit, bumped and bruised. So come out harder, faster and stronger. It’s not ideal, but it is clear to anyone watching or participating in MLS that this is the nature of the American game.

When people say, “Welcome to the big leagues,” they mean get tough or go home.

Prediction: 2-1 Real Salt Lake

Rocking Rio Tinto is a mountain too high for the Union, but getting on the board and putting up a good fight without Jack McInerney in the lineup is the minimum to ask from this trip. Besides, staying within one goal of the home team means anything can happen.

Just ask Dallas.


  1. Nice preview Adam. You hit the nail on the head with the speed of the counterattack. We may actually find some leaving LeToux on the wing to deliver some balls in the box to Casey. I expect them to come at Gaddis on the right. He and Parke really need to be tight so that Parke doesn’t get pulled out wide to help Gaddis. I really hope we go out on the offensive rather than sit back and with for the counter. If we strike first, we could rattle a few of their younger guys. If we sit back too much, there is no way we will hold out. What do we have to lose?

  2. OneManWolfpack says:

    Something tells me Hack doesn’t switch the lineup very much & it costs us points. I don’t want to be negative but I don’t want to hear after the next few games (if they go poorly) that we are missing Mac. This is where Hack needs to figure this out and manage this team.

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