Match previews

Preview: Union at Real Salt Lake

Photo: Earl Gardner

Who: Philadelphia Union at Real Salt Lake
What: 2015 regular season game
Where: Rio Tinto Stadium
When: 9:30 pm, Saturday, March 14
Watch:  TCN, MLS Live
Whistle: Allen Chapman; Linesmen: Corey Rockwell, Mike Rottersman; Fourth official: Tyler Ploeger

One week into the season and both Real Salt Lake and Philadelphia Union are already very familiar with the controlled chaos that can take over MLS matches.

The Union grew into their home match with Colorado but rarely exerted sustained pressure, even after going up a man. Meanwhile, RSL was grinding out a classic road point, earning two first half cautions and 22 total fouls conceded as they frustrated an anxious Portland side. Now both teams must prepare to trade roles, with Philadelphia absorbing pressure and RSL gunning for full points.

Salt Lake so far

Last week, Real Salt Lake went into Portland with a narrow 4-3-3 formation and rode out wave after wave of pressure with a very simple formula: Make the Timbers beat them in the air. There were a few close calls, but the plan — as it often will when you station a pair of giants in front of Nick Rimando — worked.

Portland crosses vs RSL last week.

Portland crosses vs RSL last week.

Portland was able to get deep into the RSL final third only when they drove down the wings. The visitors were all too happy to let the Timbers go wide. Defensive lynchpin Kyle Beckerman pressed near the midline but dropped into the box as soon as Portland penetrated deep. Not many crosses are likely to sneak through Chris Shuler, Jamison Olave, and Beckerman, and not many did.

Even more importantly for Salt Lake, Beckerman dominated the space in front of the box, meaning that even deep penetration did not turn into possessions that pinned the visitors deep for extended periods of time. As Matt Doyle was pointing out the Union’s inability to dominate the zone at the top of the box, Caleb Porter’s men were having similar difficulties with a depleted midfield attacking Beckerman. For Philadelphia, the message is

Portland passing around the danger zone at the top of the box.

Portland passing around the danger zone at the top of the box.

clear, and it hasn’t changed from previous seasons: Make Beckerman leave his home base in the center of the pitch or spend 90 minutes pounding your head against a stone wall.

Perhaps the most intriguing tactical question in this match spotlights the Salt Lake front line. Olmes Garcia, Alvaro Saborio, and Sebastian Jaime were largely onlookers last week. Good soldiers, they chased Dairon Asprilla and Jack Jewsbury so the Timbers’ makeshift midfield was never too comfortable. However, the three strikers — all dangerous on their own — were an uncoordinated mess on the counterattack, rarely connecting with each other and failing to threaten Adam Kwarasey even once.

RSL strikers shooting vs Portland

RSL strikers shooting vs Portland

Cassar may choose to stick with a trio up top, but it is more likely he reverts to a diamond 4-4-2 with Luke Mulholland replacing a striker and pushing Javy Morales into the hole behind a front two. Under both Cassar and former coach Jason Kreis, RSL has shown a strong predilection for possessing the ball at home.

Furthermore, the injury to CJ Sapong can make Cassar fairly certain he will see a 4-5-1/4-3-3 from the Union on Saturday. Thus, the RSL manager can attempt to pin back Philly’s wingers by building attacks that bring his fullbacks forward. Tony Beltran may not be the attacking threat he once looked, but he remains brilliant in a possession game. Teenager Jared Allen made a substitute appearance last week and could push Kenny Mansally for the left back spot on Saturday. Allen can play higher up the pitch and will give RSL another option pushing forward if the home side can dominate the ball and keep the Union deep.

The Edu-Morales showdown

From the Union’s perspective, a four-man midfield from RSL signals a showdown between Maurice Edu and Javier Morales. The Salt Lake playmaker is a master at manipulating defensive midfielders, either passing around them when they play off him or dragging them wide if they stick tight. Morales has been a pioneer in his position in MLS, showing year after year that the league has yet to master defensive zone switching in midfield when an attacker is willing to leave his own comfort zone to create space for others.

Morales will attempt to pull Edu into the channels to open space for Luis Gil and (probably) Mulholland to make angled runs toward the top of the box. When successful, such a strategy creates defensive havoc and creates the holes that Saborio needs to lash in his powerful shot.

First pass key for Union counter

But Philadelphia is far from helpless against such a strategy. In Wenger, Le Toux, Vincent Nogueira, and Cristian Maidana, the Union have a proven core of counterattacking specialists who get upfield with speed and play the quick long passes into empty space. Add Fernando Aristeguieta’s intelligent movement to the mix and Philly can feel they have a strong answer to RSL’s possession-based game. Even when forced deep, the Union can break out successfully if they remain organized enough to force turnovers.

Beckerman tackles (green), interceptions (blue), clearances (purple) and defensive blocks (yellow) vs Portland

Beckerman tackles (green), interceptions (blue), clearances (purple) and defensive blocks (yellow) vs Portland

Key for Philadelphia, then, is the first pass off of a turnover. This pass is always important, but it will be particularly vital that the Union find the right option off a turnover with Beckerman lurking in midfield. The RSL captain’s most overlooked skill is his ability to press the ball off turnovers. Rarely will an opposing team have time to look up and break out because Beckerman steps up and forces the midfield to recycle play. Against Portland, Beckerman’s defensive chart shows how he cuts out passing lanes and makes tackles high up the pitch before dropping off and forming the front of his team’s defensive shell in the final third. Beckerman’s style looks a lot like wild gambling when good defensive midfielders do it. But at this very specific part of his game, Beckerman is not simply good: He is MLS’s master.

Thus, the Union midfield needs to stay more compact than usual when breaking on the counter. Last season, Maidana would drift to the wings near the center line and turn long outlets from Nogueira into key passes. Against RSL, Maidana may have to slide deeper and give Nogueira a quicker, easier option. This is an adjustment, but hardly an impossible one. It is, however, one that must be practiced. Players have their favorite spots on the pitch, and Maidana will struggle to get involved if Nogueira can’t find him before Beckerman applies pressure.

Expected lineup

Expected lineup

Return to the 4-3-3

The assumption throughout this preview is that Maidana will start and that the Union will come out in the 4-3-3 that suits the roster so well. Zach Pfeffer’s preseason certainly means he has a strong case for minutes this season, but a road game that requires long stretches of defensive discipline is a better spot for Maidana. Pfeffer will get his chances, particularly with a more open match against Dallas and a trip to Chicago around the corner.

An early season match against a strong Western Conference opponent is not about showing off the offense so much as it is about proving that the Union can put together the type of ninety minute defensive effort that eluded them so often in 2014. Last season, the inability to close out games that was so prominently displayed against Columbus in October was first highlighted during trips to Portland and RSL in the early months of the season.

The Union believe they are a different team in 2015. This is their first opportunity to prove it.


  1. We’re going to get smoked.

    • Why’s that? No snark intended, just curious why you think so.

      • The Black Hand says:

        Because RSL is lightyears ahead of us. They are a professional club that will capitalize on our ‘experimenting’.

      • OneManWolfpack says:

        I think RSL is not the RSL of old. Solid yes, but the Union have played them well over the years. If I remember last year, we had them beat out there and gave it up at the end for a draw (I could be wrong). We are a capable team who plays well on the counter. With good shape and good outlet passes to start the counter, we can win this game, or at the very least earn a point.

      • You have last year’s game reversed. I believe Edu headed a ball in during stoppage time to save the tie. However, I think overall the Union looked better in that game but were unable to come out with a proper result (which is actually what happens every game).

      • The Black Hand says:

        Jason Kreis’ shoes are tough to fill, but Cassar has been around and has been an assistant to Kreis for some time. Yes, he may be trying to find ‘his’ formation but the team is very well structured and will (probably) find it’s way. It would be foolish to underestimate the side, especially at home. We are ABSOLUTELY going to be ‘punching above our weight’.
        The disorganization of the Union’s midfield has me wary of our ability to hang with Real’s middle. I think that they will dominate possession and keep us on our heels…chipping away until they hit ‘pay dirt’. Once up, they will let us run ourselves rampant; while their back line absorbs our Rt 1 attack. I hope to be wrong…

      • and they can spit them out of their academy on demand……..they had the first residency I believe……the complex is sick!

      • The Black Hand says:

        A very well-executed football club.

    • part of me fears that….part of me says that RSL is having problems scoring too……getting use to their 4-3-3…….which could create another snoozer to watch……but hey its 9:30 pm and sometimes I can use the help putting myself to sleep!

  2. No one in goal? 😉

  3. Attacking fullbacks in the MSL are rather inefficient and have a tendency to cross the ball in, which is an inefficient way to attack. Once the fullback is deep and the play bogs down, the midfielder on that side must cheat in to attack position , assuming his defense will get the ball out quickly into a really dangerous counterattack for Phila.

  4. Andy Muenz says:

    I understand why the game next Friday is at 7pm for TV but is there any reason why someone would want to start a game in March in Salt Lake City at 7:30pm local time that is not on national television?
    Prediction: RSL 1-1 Union. Next week’s news is that Allen Chapman is suspended a week for blowing a few calls that would have been in the Union’s favor.

  5. This is a pretty easy call for me. Real Salt Lake 1-0. Union defense is stingy. Would I be surprised if they win. Nope.
    Just like USMNT beating Spain a few years ago didn’t surprises me nor did it actually mean anything to the greater picture either.
    Puncher’s chance– as the coach says. Right?

  6. Old Soccer Coach says:

    Your bench choices intrigue me, Adam. You posit a confrontation between Edu and Morales but have only Edu as depth for center back. My concern stems from the fact that twice v Colorado Ethan White had some type of leg issue in the 2nd half that did not seem directly caused by being struck there. He finished, but I came away with a little doubt. In a disaster I suppose Williams switches into the center and Lahoud or Fabinho goes to flank defender with Gaddis. I would put Marquez in place of Carroll as BC can do one thing, redundantly with Lahoud who is more versatile. I understand the away team focus on defense off the bench; I would rather have a real center back rather than two DCMs. If he’s good enough to make the big club you have to grit your teeth and risk using him even if he’s inexperienced.

    • The Black Hand says:

      +1. Carroll and Lahoud are redundant..err, I mean Lahoud is a backup DM and Carroll is the guy with no business on the bench. It would be wise to drop BC and back up your CB’s…unless, you are backing them up with Williams (Gaaddis to RB and Fabs coming on), but that would disrupt the entire back line. Why would we do that??

  7. If they come out of there with a point…..its a good result.

  8. And gentlemen, the picture for this article is what happens when you play Nogs higher up the pitch!!! They say a picture says a thousand words….right? Lol…….

    • Huh. I thought the picture was what happens when you play Nogs with Danny Cruz and Antoine Hoppenot…

      • any midfielder would have that look on their face with Cruz and Hoppenot on the pitch. The way you put it, makes it completely understandable….it does, but…..I’m going to stay consistent with my deep lying Nogs theme……

      • funny, when you mentioned Cruz and Hoppenot….I immediately thought of two guys running north-south, like they are in a bowling ally……and Nogs yelling ” what the f@#k are you doing?????”

      • How many times, I can recall at least 3 or 5 when his hands have been in this position. “I left France for this.”

      • I still think we should have a “what is Nogs saying” contest with this picture……….it could get funny! This picture is priceless on so many levels…….

  9. This is going to be the prototype sit back, absorb, fling it up the field game. Curtin lives for this type of game. We have to hope the defense stays compact, and Edu doesn’t wander. I say 2-1 Rsl with a late goal.

  10. The Black Hand says:

    Eff the negativity!!! We are gonna #doop all over these Mormons…


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