Real Salt Lake dropped its CCL opener in Costa Rica against CS Herediano with a score line of 0 -1. While the loss is not the end of the world it does place RSL in a difficult position for advancement out of the Group 2 phase of the tournament. The performance by the Claret and Cobalt was somewhat lackluster. It was not our worst performance either and walking away with only a 1 – 0 loss given the way the cards stacked against us was not the worst possible result. Fortunately, RSL was able to get a result at home against Tauro FC winning 2 – 0. Real will travel to Panama on Saturday to face Tauro FC at home on Tuesday the 18th. The match essentially becomes a must win match for RSL who sits second in the CONCACAF group in order to advance out of group play. CCL play is not the same animal as MLS play. As someone who follows a lot of football from south of the border I do believe there are some items we can learn from our previous matches and draw from to improve our CCL play moving forward which I have outlined below.
- Start Strong – Real Salt Lake started the first match against Herediano in a funk. They looked unprepared and unorganized all over the field. Not much was gelling, not in the defensive, midfield nor offensive thirds. Herediano on the other hand looked reasonably sharp to start the match. They made us pay for our lack of cohesion in the 14th minute with a goal from the 18-yard line. While the goal partially came due to the slippery surface causing Captain Kyle Beckerman’s slip, Kyle did erroneously over-committed defensively on the play, which caused his blunder and ultimately lead to the lane opening up for the shot. RSL must come ready and prepared to execute their game plan with sharpness from minute one or these CCL teams will make them pay. If the game plan isn’t effective in the first few minutes they must be prepared with ideas of how to make it work fast and become effective in a quick hurry. You can often have a bad half in the MLS and keep a clean sheet. It is much harder to do this in CCL play.
- Match Fitness – Before the Herediano match I heard local media and Coach Kreis mention that they thought RSL would out match Herediano in terms of fitness. They expressed that Herediano was in early-season match fitness with little preseason training due to club turnover while RSL was in mid-season fitness and form. Despite this being a fact, I think it is an error to consider that these teams don’t have the fitness to match up. I follow several leagues south of the border quite closely and for the most part their style of play is much quicker, more direct and more technically gifted than the usual MLS style of play. Herediano did certainly step off the gas later in the first half and it was evident that they wore down in the later minutes of the match compared to RSL. However, counting on wearing these teams down late in the match and scoring as a result is a huge gamble. We cannot underestimate a CCL team’s fitness, as their normal speed of play is more intense than our normal in the MLS.
- Injury and Center Back Deficiency – Real Salt Lake as a club is normally very cautious about bringing players back from injury prematurely. However, I have to wonder if we have not done this several times this season with our Colombian Hulk, Jamison Olave. We know that we have been at a deficiency at the Center Back position with the long-term injury of Chris Schuler. That situation and the lack of a decent back up option for Jamison until the arrival of Kwame Watson-Siriboe has likely forced the clubs hand a bit in the matter. However since late last season we have seen Olave come back from injury several times only to be re-injured within the next game or two. We need to find a way to be more careful about ensuring full recovery and full match fitness for players prior to reintroducing them into the lineup. Olave’s re-injury in the Herediano match and the time he has missed as a result may prove to be a very costly mistake as RSL battles for the Supporters Shield and MLS Cup in the later third of the season. I would have preferred we started Kwame and ensure Olave is 100% before starting him again. Kwame played a very solid match as a substitute, especially considering he had a makeshift Center Back next to him and did not have Nat’s leadership to guide him. The good nes is that Olave and Kenny Mansally played in the RSL Reserve match at Sporting KC earlier this week and appear ready for the match in Panama – just in time as Kwame has picked up an injury and may not be fit for action in the match.
- Underestimating the Foe – While the RSL coaching staff and players verbally expressed that they did not underestimate Herediano as a foe prior to the match; I think that their body language and some of their comments displayed the contrary. Keep in mind I may be wrong. However, we did hear them express that the amount of recent turnover and turmoil within the Herediano organization would be an advantage. We did hear them express as previously mentioned that match fitness might be an issue for Herediano. I think we took some things for granted. That is a mistake against any CCL side, even with what is being made out to be the lowly Tauro FC. These sides from south of the border are technically gifted and very fast. The truth is we do not have many players in the MLS that can strike half or full volleys in the heat of play on frame like these sides do. They are able to rip off shots from all over the pitch quicker than most of the opponents we face in the MLS. Sometimes we don’t compare with their technicality and quickness with the ball at their feet. We are generally larger and capable of being more physical but that is not a cure all. We must enter these matches with confidence but knowing that at any moment these guys can beat us and we have to play accordingly.
- Officiating – In CCL matches, home or away, we must remember that the officials will not be on our side. Latin American countries view our football as inferior and have a chip on their shoulders when it comes to facing a North American side. Their officials are no different and most CCL officials will come from Mexico and Central America. I know it is not fair but it is reality. The level of physicality in the MLS is also not permitted in most CCL countries. Against Herediano and Tauro at home we seemed to have forgotten that the officials will not be on our side. We put ourselves into situations that allowed the center official to hand out soft yellow cards and soft red cards. None were deserved but moving forward we must be careful about the physicality of our play and not give the officials any reason to execute their bias in our contra. That said, much to my surprise, Herediano played a much cleaner match than I expected based upon my experience with south of the border soccer. Sure there was some tying Sabo up in the box like a straight jacket, some embellishment and some fouls that could have/should have been called. However, overall I think Herediano knew we were a much larger more physical side and played as such. Tauro on the other hand spent most of the match embellishing, however I dont expect to see as much of that in Panama as they will be out for 3 points. In this CCL tournament players are only permitted two yellow cards before they are suspended from a match. Consequently, Sabo only has one to give before suspension. Beckerman will miss the match against Tauro due to his Red Card.
- Midfield Possession and Sharper Passing –RSL struggled against Herediano to retain possession of the ball in the midfield and move that possession into the offensive third. We did get sharper as the match wore on but overall could have improved in this matter. Again, these CCL sides are used to a faster paced style of play than we are. Our passing must be quick and crisp. RSL played their possession oriented attacking style of soccer at home against Tauro, retaining midfield possession with quick passes, and effectively moved that possession into the attacking third and retained possession there. We will need to do the same on the road at Tauro.
- Offensive Aggressiveness – Because we struggled to possess the ball in the midfield against Herediano, we struggled to move the ball into the offensive third. Much of our service in and around the box was long shot type service. Once we got a hold on our midfield game and were able to provide better balls into the offensive third we struggled for creativity and penetration in and around the penalty area. This is not something entirely new. We have struggled a bit with it since early 2011 when Javi was so grotesquely injured. Moving forward in CCL we will need to be sharper with our goal scoring creation.
- Finishing Chances – We also will need to improve at finishing our chances. Without need to mention names we had one golden opportunity against Herediano to pull level and walk away with a point but we failed to put the chance in the back of the net. In CCL play our quantity of chances is likely to diminish compared to MLS play. As such we must make them count. We need to ensure we put balls on frame and become clinical at finishing. We have to find a way to get balls in positions that make a save nearly impossible.
I know this all seems very doom and gloom but it is not meant to be such. Just my take on what we can draw from in our first CCL matches to improve our play moving forward. Trust me I don’t expect my amateur observations to be taken to heart by the club! I think these are all very correctable items from our RSL side and I have faith that they will correct them moving forward. RSL is very capable of advancing out of this stage of group play and I fully expect them to do so! This is a team who can win the CCL and go to the Club World Cup! Best of luck to the boys as they continue their CCL journey! As always BELIEVE!
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