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MLS Cup: Looking at Real Salt Lake’s tactics, style

Dec 7, 2013, 3:05 PM EDT

Javier Morales

KANSAS CITY – Real Salt Lake manager Jason Kreis has allowed himself just a little more tactical breathing room in 2013, now more comfortable that his team (and he, himself) know how to manage a slightly different set-up and still fulfill the tenets that have made his bunch so successful.

Still, the only starting point in a discussion of Real Salt Lake tactics and style is that signature diamond midfield, which we are almost sue to see Saturday at Sporting Park.

For Real Salt Lake on the attack, it is all about Javier Morales (pictured), the team’s highly skilled and very wise Argentine playmaker. Morales, who has been in such splendid form in the playoffs, places himself nominally at the top of the midfield diamond — but it is really just a starting point.

Morales can drift around, comfortable that outside midfielders Luis Gil and Ned Grabavoy will position themselves accordingly in the event RSL loses the ball. So Morales will drift, frequently all the way to the touchlines to pick up balls from Kyle Beckerman and the RSL defenders.

Drifting into these disparate starting spots serves another purpose: SKC’s penchant for tactical fouling becomes more difficult. Sporting KC is quite wise in its exploitation of some naivete that still prevails in MLS refereeing circles. If Kansas City center back Aurelien Collin or holding midfielder Oriol Rosell adjudge that RSL is about to catch their team in a numerical disadvantage, they will foul quickly so that the team can organize defensively.

They will, that is, if they can find Morales and get to him in time. Morales will be well aware of what’s coming, and he’ll try to find Robbie Findley in advanced spaces, quickly so.

Findley’s speed, his ability to get behind defenses – and therefore to stretch those defenses vertically, adding more space in the midfield – has been a huge difference in RSL from 2012 to this year. Adding space in the midfield allows a bit more operating room for the swell, passing interchange we’ll see from Morales, holding man Kyle Beckerman and the outer midfield edges, occupied by Ned Grabavoy and Luis Gil.

Their ability to retain possession in the midfield – when they aren’t looking to use that deadly Morales-to-Findley combo on the counter, that is – will tell much of the story Saturday. It won’t be easy against SKC’s 4-3-3 and high press, but all four RSL midfielders have the technical ability to work out of tight spots.

RSL’s outside backs – it will be Tony Beltran on the right and either Chris Wingert or Lovel Palmer on the left – will get  forward, although surely not as much as their opposite numbers for the home team.

Kreis knows his team must be dialed in early; sucking some life out of the Sporting Park bunch – sure to be “hot” even if the weather is ridiculously frigid – would mean so much. That would force SKC outside backs Chance Myers and Seth Sinovic to cheat forward even more, to risk those gaps in behind.

Betting men should rush to Vegas with fists full of cash to wager that Aurelien Collin will be the first man booked at Sporting Park. In fact, the visitors should make every effort to provoke it.

An early booking would require Collin to completely alter his game, being less physical and less confrontational. When stripped of his best asset, that ability to create contact and look to win balls with maximum intensity, Collin becomes a very average defender, and one far more vulnerable to Findley’s speed.

Defensively, RSL center backs Nat Borchers and Chris Schuler can probably contain SKC’s crop of workaday forwards. The danger will be in the midfield, where Graham Zusi and Benny Feilhaber can crush with their creativity.

Under Kreis, RSL is one of the league’s top teams at minding its positioning on the attack, always aware of where the pieces find themselves in case they lose the ball. RSL will lose possession in bad spots here and there; it’s all but inevitable against SKC. If the visitors can maintain that positional discipline, they have a good chance of handling SKC’s attack, leaving the home to create mostly off set pieces.

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