RSL Pushes its Limits

Salt Lake suffers first loss of Rocky Mountain Cup since 2006
by Wes Brown   |   Tuesday, August 06, 2013

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

It’s been 7 long years since the Rocky Mountain Cup has resided in Commerce City, Colo., but Saturday’s 2-2 draw between Real Salt Lake and Colorado Rapids has brought about a changing of guards.

Needing nothing less than a win to claim the 3-game series, RSL failed to capitalize on 2 leads during the rain-delayed match. This could easily be taken as a poor result in light of losing the regional cup, but in the grand scheme, a point on the road keeps Salt Lake lofted at first overall in the standings, tied with New York at 38 pts. It also sets the tone for what may be a great US Open Cup semi-final bout against Portland on Wednesday.


Colorado started the night off with a twist. Manager Oscar Pareja cast aside his default 4-3-3 and instead came out in a 4-2-3-1. The 2 defensive holding midfielders (Nathan Sturgis and Shane O’Neill) were deployed deep to thwart the charges of Javier Morales.

Morales was noticeably uncomfortable with this. He repeatedly neglected easy passes wide to either side in lieu of forcing the play center. Morales may have been trying to attack the weaker deep midfielder (O’Neill) as he was mostly playing on the left, but having 2 defensive midfielders to contend with made his job exponentially harder.

The hour-long rain delay arguably affected the play of not only Morales, but all players seeing time. With muscles cold after the restart, we saw both Morales (25’) and Atiba Harris (35’) leave the match due to injury.

Colorado opted to expend its remaining 2 substitutes early in the 2nd half. Jaime Castrillon came on for Marvell Wynne to start the 2nd, and Danny Mwanga replaced another injured player (Edson Buddle) in the 56th.

A key reason for this was the presence of midfielder Castrillon replacing a defender. This effectively changed Pareja’s formation back to a default 4-3-3, having O’Neill slide back to fill the right back position. It’s hard to deny that the lack of Morales facilitated this tactical adjustment as two deep-lying mids were no longer needed.

The change did 2 things:

- Castrillon’s contributions to offense boosted Dillon Powers’s efforts to play make in the midfield.

- It allowed Tony Cascio and Deshorn Brown to get higher up the field and put RSL on their heels.

This latter point was apparent immediately as the entire RSL backline started dropping deep to account for the new pressure on the flanks. Without the aid of the outside backs on the attack, Salt Lake’s offensive threats were largely neutralized before getting into action. Lovel Palmer, who was pushing the right flank early and often, suddenly found himself coughing up turnovers and repeatedly seeing his passes cut out. The same was true on the left with Abdoulie Mansally.

Moreover, it tended to pull Khari Stephenson deep to lend a foot to both Palmer and Mansally, which drew him out of the attack for much of the game. This turned RSL’s diamond midfield into something more akin to a 4-2-3-1, with substitutes Joao Plata and Olmes Garcia playing more on the wing than up top like Robbie Findley.

Another tactical nightmare for RSL manager Jason Kreis may exist Wednesday night against Portland. Caleb Porter will surely put up stiff competition in Open Cup play, and a quick turnaround from MLS competition will test the endurance of both squads. Will RSL get back to their way and dominate at home? The reward of hosting the USOC final stands as good incentive.

Things we learned

- The return of Kyle Beckerman and Nick Rimando can be attributable for some of good things that came out of Saturday night. Rimando was class, as usual, making 8 saves, most goal-line delights. Man of the Match was clearly his.

- Mansally put in a performance on par with last week’s at NYRB. At times it seemed as if even his teammates refused to engage him in plays, shirking easy passes to a wide open Mansally. If the lack of confidence in the Gambian is true, one has to wonder if his play deteriorates further.

- Stephenson would add a lot of offensive power to any team. What I don’t understand is how he fits into RSL’s midfield. He is not a play maker like Morales, no a workhorse like Ned Grabavoy. And he aids the attack too much to ask him to fill in at d-mid. Figuring out how to incorporate his talents into the team will be crucial down the stretch.

- Brandon McDonald’s 1st start was solid. He seemed uncomfortable at the beginning of the match, but as the game progressed he clearly settled in. His partnership with Nat Borchers might be a smart one, with McDonald adding a bit of brute force a la Jamison Olave, but perhaps with better ball control and first touch.

- Plata adds needed dynamism going forward; something which might be argued was lost with the trade of Fabian Espindola. The advantage of Plata is that he likes playing wide left and likes checking to the midfield for the ball. This helps RSL immensely when making tactical adjustments.

NEXT UP: August 7 – US Open Cup: Real Salt Lake vs. Portland Timbers, Rio Tinto Stadium, Sandy, Utah. 9:30 EST, TBD.


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.