It’s officially here, the first game of the MLS season. I’m not going to dilly dally: lets get right to the preview. Our first match features Real Salt Lake.
Scouting Report on Real Salt Lake
RSL will most likely come out in the 4-2-3-1 formation that they incorporated last season under coach Mike Petke. This description from RSL Soapbox - regarding their last preseason game - sums it up nicely:
“Petkeball 2.0 looks to be about keeping the ball, inviting teams to press and then releasing our pacey wingers with diagonal balls out wide. Off the ball, we stayed compact and didn’t allow much space for the ball to move while keeping a very high line with Nick working as a sweeper more than a keeper.”
Playing through Rusnack at the 10 spot, Real will be using his vision to spring both Plata and Savarino down the flanks, most likely to Plata down Reggie’s side to test the young gun. Kreilach is the midfield engine that could make a big difference for Real this year as his box-to-box ability and long range sniping is impressive from the highlight clips (I know, “highlights”) I watched. Even though he’s a new signing and Real have been easing him in slowly to adjust to the altitude and team, it appears he will be starting this weekend.
As for the defense, Justen Glad is a younger version (21 years old!) of Hedges, and created quite a buzz last season as a possible USMNT defender of the future. His game is based on smart positioning and great poise. Rounding out the back line is Demar Philips and Adam Henley at LB and RB respectively, and Marcelo Silva as Glad’s central partner. Nick Rimando continues to mock father time from the keeper spot and helps keep things organized.
The first part of RSL’s tactics should also be in Dallas’ playbook. With Mosquera and Barrios on the wings, we have the pace on the wings and technical ability from Diaz to spray diagonal long balls and through balls anytime. The counter attack should also feature heavily for both teams. The second part of the equation - about staying compact and keeping a high line - doesn’t line up with how Dallas has played lately, but it reinforces the idea for the offense to try a few over the top passes, down Barrios’ line in particular, to get him behind the RSL backline. I fear that playing through the middle with Mauro will be difficult to pull off. But if Mosquera continues to cut inside in the middle third, and Anton Nedyalkov bombs down the left flank, we should be able to overrun Beckerman and the defense.
If the attack is run as described above, it will be imperative that Gruezo or Ulloa can cover down Anton’s left flank. In fact, the two men in the middle will probably be the the most important players on the field. Gruezo must keep track of Albert Rusnak to stifle Real’s offense from cutting apart our back line. The combination of three new players in defense learning on the fly and Matt Hedges looking like a Monstar stole his life (my favorite conspiracy theory) means we need the midfield to be able to handle their business.
Carlos Gruezo vs Albert Rusnak. As outlined above, Rusnak is the main man in the middle. He has the ability to score from anywhere within 30 yards, but also has the vision to slice up an inexperienced back line. Real Salt Lake has shored up their whole attack around him, and he is talented enough to carry this team to a victory if left with time and space. Carlos hasn’t exactly been awful during the preseason, but he hasn’t look good either. He needs to come out with energy and some fire to keep the clamps on Rusnak.
Keys to the Game (and at this point, Season)
- Defensive unity — I know no one wants to think about defense in the season/home opener, but this season will be decided by how quickly that unit gels. It starts with the midfield being able to slow down the other team’s attack with good possession or good recovery shape. Reggie Cannon is going to go through ups and downs, so we need the rest of our defense to be consistently consistent to help him grow. Hedges getting his act together would help too.
- Mauro Magic — Dallas doesn’t need Diaz to carry the team’s entire offensive burden in this game, but a little magic from the magician never hurts. He truly is one of the best players in this league when in form; and his ability to find or put Urruti, Barrios, and Mosquera in positions to succeed, as well as dictate tempo, will help solve a lot of the problems above.
- The 3rd Midfielder — Ulloa is my guess as to who will replace Kellyn in this game. It is imperative that he do a serviceable impersonation of Kellyn’s box-to-box role. Yes, he will need to be defensively responsible. But he must also get forward more and support the attack. He has not been able to do that in the preseason, and our offense has stalled.
I believe Real Salt Lake will be a strong test for our home opener. They have the talent to win this game easily if our defense continues to play poorly. But in my humble opinion, the spine of Gruezo, Diaz, and Urruti is more talented, on balance, than their counterparts on the opposite side (not sure about the defense though). They give Dallas the best chance of starting the season on the right side of victory. 2-2 is my final call, because we have plenty of attacking talent, but I can’t shake the ghosts of last season just yet. I hope I am wrong.