What Are They All About? Real Salt Lake
The Chicago Fire drew New York Red Bulls this past Sunday in a match that was a microcosm of their season. An inauspicious start courtesy of a Matt Polster own goal before a David Accam equalizer and a redemptive Polster strike into the correct net sent the Fire into half time on a high note. The second half was characterized by wasted opportunities for the Fire which led to a nervy finish and an almost expected Red Bull equalizer in the dying embers of the match. The result was cruel and might have been unfair but it was another reminder of Chicago’s recurring flaws. However, as Veljko Paunovic has wisely said, “there is only one night to cry about losses, then you move on”. Chicago has another match ahead as they travel to Utah for a clash against RSL.
Salt Lake have become an almost constant fixture at the top end of the MLS table and have often been synonymous with success. Their 2009 MLS Cup win, the famous and heartbreaking runner up finish in the 2011 CONCACAF Champions League Final, and their 2013 MLS Cup Final appearance have given hope to small market teams across the league. The guidance of Jason Kreis forever changed the tactics and formations of teams that don’t have access to big name players.
The problem for RSL though is that they have struggled since Kreis’ departure. Current head coach Jeff Cassar was promoted from his assistant coach role after Kreis moved on and hasn’t been able to duplicate previous success. Bowing out in the 2014 Western Conference semifinal was followed up with missing the post season entirely in 2015, something that hadn’t happened since 2007… Worse than just the results, Cassar hasn’t been able to inspire the passion or work rate common for Kreis’ teams much less implement tactical innovations. A departure of many of the core players from the glory days and the aging of those that stayed leaves a plethora of question marks floating around this club. Will this be #36 for Chicago or will RSL’s own struggles continue as they capitulate points to the league’s bottom dwellers?
RSL Form Guide (Last 5 Competitive Matches): L-W-D-D-L
Previous match: A 1-0 away loss to TFC.
Formation in the last match: 4-3-3: Rimando; Phillips, Maund, Glad, Beltran; Morales, Beckerman, Stertzer; Plata, Garcia, Martinez
Strengths: The last time Chicago beat RSL was in 2011. An early red card to Kyle Beckerman and a hat trick for Marco Pappa (both of which were anomalies) ensured all three points for the Fire. There’s good reason for RSL’s continued success against Chicago so let’s take a look at where they should do well.
San Rimando: While Chicago is having their own issues between the posts, RSL has had that sorted for years. Nick Rimando has consistently been the best goalie in the league for most of its existence. National team and All Star appearances aside, his stats speak for themselves over the course of his career. Although his goals against average is mid-tier this season (1.42), a terrible back line is largely at fault for the quality of shots allowed (we’ll get to that below). For a Chicago side that hasn’t found its shooting boots a quality goalkeeper is not helpful in breaking unwanted streaks.
Kyle Beckerman: 17 seasons and 395 league appearances later the quintessential number eight is still ticking at the heart of his squad. It is a cliché but one we’ll use. This guy is the engine of the RSL team. He sits in the center of the midfield three but is given the freedom and more importantly has the understanding to roam. He’s completed 145/170 passes in the last three matches and perhaps more impressive than the 85% passing ratio is Beckerman’s vision. He is constantly looking for an open player and is often two steps ahead of the opposition. He knows his teammates and their tendencies well.
Beckerman’s passing map shows the ability to make penetrating diagonal passes when they’re on and short passes that keep possession when other options aren’t available. He is calm, cool and collected when on the ball while also being a motivating presence in the locker room. He isn’t afraid to take a yellow for the team and he is one of the last remaining RSL players who knows what it means to lift a trophy. He’ll be using his experience in this playoff push for sure. You can also bet he’ll be one of the first names in RSL’s protected eleven in next year’s expansion draft despite being 35 when Atlanta enters the league.
Fluid Movement: We’ve already highlighted two veteran players on this squad that have anchoring roles but it is the attacking members of RSL that truly highlight the strengths of the team. Cassar utilizes a 4-3-3 and the remaining five of the front six outside of Beckerman are the key to Salt Lake’s success.
The midfield trio has typically been rounded out with Javier Morales and Luke Mulholland. The pair is quick, versatile and aren’t afraid to shoot from distance. More importantly, since we’re discussing fluid movement, they have an understanding of when one should stay while the other goes, who should make the late run and are both particularly adept at creating two v. ones all over the park. Their cohesion with Beckerman also makes their triangles exceptionally hard to break down and keeps the opposition midfield second guessing themselves. More worrisome for the Fire, RSL does not often concede possession statistics and rarely loses matches when they edge out the other team for time on the ball.
Rounding out the fluid movement are RSL’s front three. Joao Plata and Juan Martinez have been preferred on the wings while Olmes Garcia or Yura Movsisyan play the role of the target forward.
After initially struggling in the league with Toronto, Plata has been a gem. 30 goals in six seasons may not seem like a large haul but when considering his 30 assists in that time, his lack of playing frequency for TFC in his sophomore season and that he missed most of last season due to injury his numbers look brighter. The diminutive Ecuadorian is dangerous when he dribbles the ball down the wing or if he cuts inside where he has a more than decent cross. His goals are often as pretty as his celebrations and if his one goal per every eight shots taken ratio continues then whoever starts in goal for the Fire should be worried.
“Burrito” Martinez continues the gloat fest. Basically his positioning on the right hand side means as much as Plata’s positioning on the left. He’s as much of a number ten as most of the other midfielders and the ability to fluctuate positions adds to the confusing nature of the entire front six. He Cumbias his way down the field at will and has made a fair share of MLS defenders look stupid this season. He can hit free kicks well but doesn’t need a dead ball to put it on the feet of the other attacking players.
Yura Movsisyan: Garcia has gotten a handful of starts but only when Movsisyan is injured or tired. This is his second stint with RSL after a foray in Europe that only sharpened his already sharp finishing skills. His 6’0” 180 lbs. frame can bulldoze through defenders but his touch is smooth enough to play with his back to goal as well. He was questionable for the last match against Philly but could be ready to go on Saturday. For as fluid and flashy as RSL have been they have struggled somewhat with finishing and Movsisyan’s 7 goals from 23 shots on target will be a welcome relief if he’s ready to go.
Playoff Push: This is RSL’s last chance to gain “bonus points” off of an Eastern Conference team. There has been a question about the validity of “six point” matches around the league this week but we can safely say winning or losing against conference opposition goes a lot further in the playoff race. RSL’s remaining ten matches after Saturday will all be against Western Conference rivals including a tough two weeks that sees them play all three of the West’s leading teams. They need these three points and their quality should come through.
Kings of the Cup: Let’s face it, Chicago’s MLS season is all but over. Even the most diehard of fans have circled October 23rd as the last match for Chicago. However, they have a chance to make the U.S Open Cup Final when they take on New England on Tuesday. We expect this line-up to feature very few of the Fire’s “A Squad”. That’ll make the three points all the easier.
Weaknesses: We know it’s a tendency of ours to focus on terrible defending but that’s just the reality of MLS. Don’t believe us? This RSL side has just one clean sheet in their last 19 matches across all competitions. Yes, you read that correctly. One. Let’s take a look.
Consistent Instability: The back four of this RSL side has recently consisted of Demar Phillips, Aaron Maund, Justen Glad and Tony Beltran. Jamison Olave returned for his second RSL stint earlier this season but has featured in just eight starts. How this back four get consistent minutes is beyond us. Maund and Glad are both tall centerbacks but for some reason they do not win aerial duels. In their last match against Toronto they allowed a Jozy Altidore flick on to Tosaint Ricketts for the match’s lone goal. The PK conceded in their win over Philly was also avoidable. Maund attempted to make up for some bad positioning by hauling CJ Sapong down in the box. Individual errors seem to haunt the RSL centerbacks in every match. Luis Solignac could have his dream start for Chicago if he is a persistent thorn in the side of Maund and Glad.
The outside back aren’t particularly helpful either as heat maps show that Phillips and Beltran make few interceptions on the wings. Perhaps their combined five assists on the season reveal a preference for pretending to be midfielders. Should the Fire work in some crisp combinations to exploit the flanks they might catch the aging defenders off guard.
We also shouldn’t need to tell you that the front three aren’t exactly the most adamant about helping close down early. We’re sure it’s written in their contracts but Plata, Burrito and Movsisyan don’t track back. Mullholland and Morales will help out when they can but after 90 minutes of RSL’s tactics it becomes tougher to commit to a full squad press. There will be pockets to exploit late in this game if Chicago can push through the altitude.
Finishing: RSL may be pretty to watch but in their last four matches they’ve managed just 18 shots on target out of 51 attempts. We know the Fire’s own ratio isn’t great but they have been defensively solid throughout the season and RSL will need more than a 1/18 goal to shot ratio if they want all three points in this one. When you couple this weakness with the previous one you have a picture of a squad that can score consistently but also doesn’t like defending. It’s a recipe for disaster.
Prediction: MLS is a funny league. It surprises you when you least expect it. Paunovic sends out the following XI: Johnson; Doody, Gehrig, Harrington; LaBrocca, Fernandez, Connor, Alvarez, Callistri; Morrell, Solignac. The streak ends here and the kids are the ones that make it happen. Chicago 2-0 RSL. Solignac and Morrell as the goal scorers.