Like sand sifting through the hour glass, so are the weeks of the MLS season. Dallas travels west to Utah to take on Real Salt Lake at Rio Tinto. RSL is coming off a loss to Los Angeles FC and now have 4 points with a 1-1-2 record and sit in the 8th spot in the Western Conference. After the win last week, Dallas is 2-1-1 and tied with Houston for 3rd in the West with 7 points.
When reviewing a team I’ve already written about, I like to take a look back and see how things have changed between games. See what opinions were wrong (because they are rarely ever right) and how the game lived up to expectations. Since the first game against RSL was a preseason one, that last part isn’t useful. But a few things have certainly come up since that preseason preview.
For starters, the main piece RSL brought in over the winter has turned out to be Everton Luiz, midfield destroyer – and not Sam Johnson the new striker. Johnson is being worked in slowly for some reason and has thus far not made much of an impact. But Luiz, woo boy, has his impact been felt – like a swift kick to the shin. He has become the battering ram everyone loves to have on their own team…and absolutely hates on other teams. His partnership with Kyle Beckerman has been one of the lone bright spots this season for RSL. They have conceded eight goals through four games, or another way to look at it, seven goals in their last two. But with only three goals scored on the season, well, the math isn’t working out. While Albert Rusnak and Damir Kreilach have stepped up to lead the charge, no one else has joined in. Joao Plata has been a difference maker in the past, but he is out for this one through injury. Jefferson Savarino has yet to make much of a difference thus far, apart from a red card against DC. Of the four main attackers, that leaves Corey Baird, who has one assist, but not much else to his name. It’s early in the season, I get it, can’t have much stats, but somethings got to give for RSL if they are to reach the lofty expectations so many have put out for them.
One problem for Salt Lake has been the loss of defender Justin Glad to injury. He broke a toe a few weeks back and has missed the last few games. His missing presence in the back has hurt and he’s still doubtful for this one even though he has returned to training. But Glad alone can’t make up for some of the issues plaguing the team. Brooks Lennon, former winger turned full back hasn’t adapted just yet to playing in the back. His lax attention to tracking runners has allowed opposing teams to exploit the space he leaves empty. Everyone else – Aaron Herrera, Marcelo Silva, Nedum Onuoha – is…fine, I guess. Neither inspiring nor terrifying. They are solid but beat-able defenders. And that’s why Lennon is playing, because he brings that needed element of attack into the game; and the attack is where it’s at for RSL…except it’s not.
One way to kick start the offense is through a formation change. Lots of coach’s like to say that formations don’t really mean anything because once it gets to the field tactics can’t be properly conveyed through a piece of paper. But, how you line up shows the main ambition, like the premise of a story. Yes, Coach Petke wants Lennon to push forward and overlap on the right. Yes, Rusnak will squeeze in toward the middle while Kreilach breaks forward. But since that hasn’t been working, RSL have made a few subtle tweaks, morphing the 4-2-3-1 into a 4-4-2 or even 4-5-1. This shift mainly effects Rusnak and Kreilach. It moves Rusnak out wide where he can use his speed and creativity in more open space. Kreilach basically goes from attacking midfielder to a number 8/second striker, running box to box – into the box as striker - thus shifting the formation between 5 midfielders or 4 depending on who has possession. The changes have yet to pay off, but with the insertion of Johnson into the lineup, and his speed (most importantly), you can see how RSL could have a nice counter attacking setup.
That’s where Dallas will have to be careful in this one. All the player’s everyone talked up in the offseason are still there for Salt Lake. The attack could be* lethal. As is usual, the midfield will be tasked with keeping possession and slowing down transition opportunities for RSL. Our own El Chico Carmona has been steadfast in his love for Ryan Hollingshead this season and he may well play an important part again. Keeping Lennon in check on the wing while also making his usual runs forward and popping up into opportune spaces will be vital to getting three points. But the main key for Dallas will be…
Key Matchup: Paxton Pomykal vs Everton Luiz
It’s been apparent since the season opener, the brightest star in the constellation for the Dallas offense is Paxton – pulling strings from the midfield. His forward runs, possession, and passing create a tempo that brings everyone in sync. He creates space for others with his movement and is already manipulating said space to create chances. That will be key against this veteran midfield in Salt Lake. New signing Everton Luiz has become a disruptive force in the middle of the field and is causing problems the way Gruezo does for Dallas. Kyle Beckerman is playing as steady as ever and the two of them form a solid pairing. Paxton will have his work cut out for him, but it will be imperative he find a way to influence the game for Dallas to get a positive result.
Three Keys to the Game
1. Keep RSL at bay – Salt Lake, as mentioned above, has not been great on the attack this season. The offense has not been shooting (9.8 per game, bottom 3), which leads to not scoring. Dallas needs to frustrate them more and choke the life out of them (figuratively, of course). Force them to take bad shots or no shots and keep them off the score sheet.
2. Find a Striker - If Dom Badji continues to not produce or contribute in meaningful ways, Luchi needs to make the change. Zdenek Ondrasek finally got on the field and impressed everyone. Ferreira has been biding his time as well. There are good options, Luchi just needs to find the right one and run with them. Easier said than done, I know.
3. Keep Calm, Carry On - Along with the offense not clicking, RSL has become a feisty team that tends to get a bit carried away. They lead the league in yellows (12) and reds (3) shown! Dallas needs to use that against them, keep a level head, and let RSL go down a man, or two, and take control from there.
I know lots of people were expecting Real Salt Lake to take a step forward this season. The younger guys were improving, the DPs were producing, and RSL seemed to be on the verge after taking down LAFC in the playoffs. But I’m not so sure things are going to work out as anticipated. The defense is still prone to mistakes that lead to goals. And for all the talent up front, it hasn’t clicked. Dallas has just as much talent, but a better defense. As I say every week, I’m a huge homer, but I think Dallas can win this match. RSL has been outscored 8-3 this season while Dallas has only allowed three goals all season (all from set pieces - hat-tip Ben Lyon). Dallas needs to prove a point - and they will, with another 2-1 win.