Another Formation, Another 3 Points for RSL

Tactical flexibility brings success against Houston
by Wes Brown   |   Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Kingdom of Salt - column on Real Salt Lake (RSL) & the Salt Lake City Utah soccer scene

Teams like Real Salt Lake make it easy to write about the beautiful game, especially when they field such diverse tactics as we’ve seen from the Claret and Cobalt in 2013.

Saturday’s 1-0 home win against Houston Dynamo was just another exhibit of how adaptable RSL can be not only throughout a season, but within the game itself.


The changes were subtle for manager Jason Kreis’ side. MLS Live had Salt Lake’s formation as a 4-2-3-1, which was used earlier in July against FC Dallas. Color commentator Brian Dunseth, however, had it right in his pre-game analysis:  RSL was fielding a modified 3-man midfield with a 4-2-1-3, pushing forwards Joao Plata and Olmes Garcia alongside center forward Alvaro Saborio.

The difference between the 2 formations is almost indistinct. In Dallas, the 3 attacking midfielders operated as a unit in both attack and defense, drawing defenders out away from the lone striker. Against Houston, the high line by Garcia and Plata was designed to keep the back four of the Dynamo pressed back, effectively giving more room for Javier Morales to work.

And this was exactly the result. Rarely did Plata or Garcia find themselves checking to the midfield to receive passes and alleviate the usual pressure on Morales. They kept to the script and stuck to overloading Houston’s defense in the buildup.

Because of this, Morales did 2 things. Firstly, his playmaking abilities routinely dragged midfielders Adam Moffat and Ricardo Clark, as well as one of the centerbacks out of position striving to keep him in check.

Secondly, several times when Morales was not marked properly, his distribution skills were put to full effect. He habitually found the runs of all 3 forwards in very dangerous areas.

The aftermath was also 2-fold. To start, the high line of the forwards kept the entire Houston backline on their heels, never letting the outside backs get forward enough to distribute successfully on the ground. This caused a terrible amount of long balls supplied by all 4 Houston defenders, usually ending up in turnovers.

The other result was maybe even more subtle than RSL’s tactical formation. Because Morales continually pulled Moffat and Clark with him, Houston’s own playmaker, Brad Davis, was forced to drift towards the center from his preferred left wing to fill in the gaps in their midfield. Houston’s wide play, especially on the left, was deferred almost completely.

But this move was vital to Houston’s midfield still having some semblance of balance. Had Davis not recognized this, he would’ve suffered the same fate as his teammate on the right. Warren Creavalle was consistently isolated on the right flank all night long, and proof of this was his lack of possession and passing stats compared to the other 3 Houston mids. His 22 attempted passes were 7 less than Clark, and 13 less than Davis. Creavalle removed himself from the match, and it wasn’t until his substitute Jason Johnson arrived that Chris Wingert and Ned Grabavoy were finally put under pressure.

The little attacking presence left over for Houston in this tactical quagmire was easily and routinely cleaned up by RSL’s own holding midfielders Kyle Beckerman and Grabavoy. A lot was asked of Morales defensively, though, in this midfield triangle. Many times he found himself behind one of his holding midfielders as they worked to stymie Houston, looking to get more bodies behind the ball. Luckily for RSL, Javi was up to the task, tying Beckerman with the 2nd highest recoveries at 5. Grabavoy had an astounding 10 by himself.

Next round’s matchup in Los Angeles against the Galaxy will be tough. An under-performing LA backline could be picked apart by 3 forwards, but LA’s real threats will be the likes of Landon Donovan, Gyasi Zardes and Robbie Keane pulling the offensive strings.

Things we’ve learned

- Not since 2010 have we seen Morales this on-form. There’s no doubt he’s the spark behind the midfield engine for RSL.

- The current RSL backline of Wingert, Nat Borchers, Carlos Salcedo and Tony Beltran is quite obviously the strongest option right now. When both Wingert and Beltran have played together, RSL is 10-0-1. They’ve also only conceded 4 goals in 540 minutes when Salcedo and Borchers are paired with one another. Talk about a great environment for the 19-year-old Salcedo to develop in.

- Grabavoy proves his utility once again by filling in as a 2nd holding midfielder alongside Beckerman. Further evidence of this was when Luis Gil was subbed in, reinstating the diamond midfield. Grabavoy’s positional change saw him immediately involved in attack, getting 2 shots within 10 minutes of Gil coming on.

- Plata may have only seen 62 minutes against Houston, and he seemed upset when he learned his night would be cut short. Kreis vocalized his sympathy for the young forward in a midweek press conference, wishing he could work him into the starting lineup. Performances like his on Saturday will only force Kreis to experiment with formations even more to get Plata more time.

- Kreis is proving the adroitness of his entire roster with the broad array of tactical formations he’s used this year. Saturday saw the 4th distinct formation this season, lending credence to Kreis’ development as a coach. He’s certainly not shying away from experimentation with the talent on his roster, and one can only hope to see how it changes further in the future.

NEXT UP: August 17 – Real Salt Lake vs. LA Galaxy, StubHub Center, Carson, Calif. 10:30 p.m. EST, MLS LIVE.


Harrisburg Area CC
Club Domestic:
Real Salt Lake
Club Foreign:
1899 Hoffenheim
USSF Licensed youth coach. Founder and manager of Scalliwags United. On-field utility man. Tactics geek. Book worm. Member of the United Church of Kreis with a t-shirt to prove it. Keystone native, future Beehive resident. Proud husband and father of two.