Real Salt Lake's last trip to Red Bull Arena produced one of the most exciting, dramatic games in the team's regular season history. After seizing an early lead, RSL stormed into the lead thanks two goals in the 80th and 82nd minute, deflating the Metro faithful. However, two stoppage time goals, including a memorable diving header from Dax McCarty, grabbed all three points at the death. Come Wednesday night, Red Bulls fans will be perfectly content if the game they see lacks those same fireworks. After four straight league losses, Captain Dax puts it best:
If you want to outplay a team, that's great. But if three points doesn't come out of it, then it doesn't really mean anything. So our mindset has to change from play well and try to win and hope we win to, you know, screw it. If we have to play like bastards, if we have to play cynical, if we have to kick people, if we have to be physical, if we have to get up in guys' faces, then we need to change that. And that's what we have to do.
In sum: three points or bust. This column will not focus on how to outplay Real Salt Lake. This column will focus on how to beat Real Salt Lake.
About the Opponent
For so long, more so than any other team in the league, RSL embodied a particular identity. Jason Kreis' team made the most of its limited resources by playing a possession-oriented style, making the field smaller thanks to its narrow diamond midfield, and relying on a spine of Nick Rimando, Nat Borchers, Kyle Beckerman, and Javier Morales.
Since Kreis' departure to the Dark Side, Salt Lake have undergone a significant evolution. Although the diamond (or something resembling it) has reared its head at points this year, manager Jeff Cassar seems committed to the 4-3-3 he trotted out in the team's victory against Sporting Kansas City on Sunday. More significant than this change in shape is the team's drastic change in style; Cassar's men have transitioned to a more direct, crossing-heavy tactical blueprint, a plan especially evident given RSL's 33 crosses and 59% final third pass completion rate.
Real will be without many of the those who composed the core of the team that won the MLS Cup in 2009 and were a Sebastian Velasquez penalty away from the title in 2013. Chris Wingert, Ned Grabavoy and Nat Borchers departed during the offseason. Alvaro Saborio, Chris Schuler, and Metro one-step-below-legend (he was great, but that Houston red card knocks him down a peg in my book) Jamison Olave are all sidelined with injuries, although there is a small chance Olave could feature. Most important of all, Kyle Beckerman picked up a yellow card on Sunday, triggering a suspension that will keep him out against the Red Bulls.
What remains is somewhat of a patchwork lineup, albeit one (plus Beckerman) that put together the team's best performance of the year on Sunday. Nick Rimando will man the nets, although he has been less effective (read: still pretty damn good) this season. In the back, reserve centerbacks Aaron Maund and Justen "Jesus Christ there are MLS players born in 1997 I'm so old" Glad will pair up for the second straight match due to the aforementioned injuries to Schuler and Olave and the immigration problems dogging Guatemalan international Elias Vasquez.
Kyle Beckerman will be replaced by John Stertzer, who is a fine depth player but nowhere near the level of the World Cup veteran. Filling out the team sheet will be one of Luke Mulholland and Luis Gil along with Argentine playmaker Javier Morales, and a forward line of Ecuadorian Joao Plata, the underwhelming Sebastian Jaime, and target forward Devon Sandoval.
How to Beat
The key is to get the ball to Lloyd Sam. Sacha Kljestan will need to orchestrate the attack. Felipe will have to hit a shot on goal.
I've had to scratch my top three ideas thanks to Lloyd Sam's injury, Sacha Kljestan's suspension, and Felipe ... well, being Felipe. There has been much talk, from Dax McCarty among others, about the team's mentality needing to change. Confidence, chemistry, and other intangibles are difficult to measure, but surely important to the team's prospective turn around.
As much talk as there has been about a change in formation -- mostly from the fans, although Jesse Marsch has indicated an increased willingness to consider such an adjustment -- his most recent comments to the press following Tuesday's practice suggest a like-for-like swap in which Sean Davis will fill in the center attacking midfield role in the 4-2-3-1. Flanked by Mike Grella and Sal Zizzo, Davis will be given the opportunity to make a claim for a starting spot, a claim that would likely come not at the expense of Kljestan but of Felipe, given Marsch's view of his natural position as a deeper lying midfielder.
Although it features two players who normally do not start, the Davis-Stertzer matchup will be the most compelling and important of those going on around the pitch. The version of the 4-3-3 played by RSL this year has placed a large burden on the team's number 6 at the back of midfield, on account of Gil and Morales' defensive deficiencies and the onus placed on the fullbacks to pushup the field and whip in crosses. Kyle Beckerman has been able to do an admirable job, despite his less-than-spectacular athleticism, due to his experience and positional savvy.
John Stertzer will be at least a bit more overwhelmed by all of the responsibility loaded onto his shoulders, requiring him to cover acres of space. That should leave Davis plenty of room to maneuver, especially if Zizzo and Grella can spring out on the counter ahead of RSL's fullbacks, requiring Stertzer to get over and cover. The Maund-Glad pairing is anything but formidable, and Davis will have as good an opportunity as any in MLS play to pick apart a defense and play Bradley Wright-Phillips in behind.
On the BWP front, expect the British talisman to start on Wednesday following his woeful performance on Saturday. Jesse Marsch expressed support for the DP in his post-practice comments on Tuesday and reaffirmed that he is still the club's penalty kick taker, a respectable position given Wright Phillips' consistent success in the past from twelve yards. Anatole Abang has scored twice in just 89 first team minutes this year, and will most likely have to settle for another cameo appearance at the end of the match, as will some combination of the speedsters Dane Richards, Marius Obekop, and Connor Lade, should the Red Bulls require a late goal.