Real Salt Lake 2019 season preview: Can bevy of questions translate to wins?

There is no shortage of attacking talent for Real Salt Lake in 2019. There is also no shortage of questions about how the team will perform this season.

RSL was wildly inconsistent a year ago, backing into the playoffs following back-to-back defeats to the Portland Timbers to end the regular season and then upsetting LAFC in the knockout round on the road before pushing Sporting Kansas City to the brink in the Western Conference semifinals.

They are young and dynamic, especially in the attacking third. The team has reigning MLS Rookie of the Year Corey Baird and two of the most underrated players in MLS, Damir Kreilach and Albert Rusnak.

How will Mike Petke manage his highly-talented attacking side? Will there be more consistent performances from the backline and can veterans Kyle Beckerman and Nick Rimando find the fountain of youth somewhere in the Wasatch Mountains?

And how well will new Designated Player Sam Johnson perform in that attacking group?

There’s work to do, but if Mike Petke can find the right combination in the front four and some overall consistency throughout the squad, the sky is probably the limit for his young RSL squad.

Young, hungry RSL meets Houston Dynamo in opener

When: Saturday, March 2, 6 p.m. ET

Where: BBVA Compass Stadium

Broadcast: TV — KUBE 57, KMYU

Live stream: ESPN+

The buzz: When both teams field first-choice lineups, there’s a stunning array of attacking talent on display — the trio of Mauro Manotas, Alberth Elis and Tomas Martinez on the orange side against any combination of Sam Johnson, Albert Rusnak, Damir Kreilach, Joao Plata, Corey Baird, Sebastian Saucedo and Jefferson Savarino.

 

After booking their spot in the Concacaf Champions League quarterfinals, the Dynamo will likely have some roster rotation, while RSL coach Mike Petke is “99.9 percent sure” what his XI will be.

Other key matchups

March 23 at LAFC – The last time RSL played at Banc of California Stadium, they stunned the hosts, ending their impressive inaugural season with a 3-2 win. No one will soon forget Damir Kreilach’s karate-kick goal and its certain LAFC haven’t forgotten the result.

May 11 at Colorado Rapids – Round 1 of the Rocky Mountain Cup, which has been decidedly Claret-and-Cobalt of late, which includes a 6-0 rout at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park last August that extended RSL’s Cup run to four straight years.

June 1 at New York Red Bulls – This one figures to be personal for Petke, a club icon and all-time fan favorite when the organization was the MetroStars. He also guided New York to the first of their three Supporters’ Shield titles in six years before being unceremoniously dumped. Suspect the Tifo in the South Ward will be legendary for Petke’s first time back to RBA as the visiting manager.

Check out the full 2019 schedule here

Quotes & Notes

“We have a talented team. It’s a bit more talented,” RSL coach Mike Petke said. “Last year, we had a talented team. But the type of team that we are, especially on the road last year, we need equal parts capable players on the ball on the road and equal parts guys who are going to put it in for 90 minutes because that’s ultimately the difference-maker in a league like this.”

“Coming into the league as a Designated Player, there’s a big pressure, but I’m cool with it,” forward Sam Johnson said. “I’m just focused on trying to work hard to make the season a successful one for Salt Lake City.”

“The preseason was excellent,” Damir Kreilach said. “We used every day to be better. Because of that we are very excited for our game on Saturday.”

Biggest offseason moves

  • In what might be one of the most low-key Designated Player signings in recent history, Real Salt Lake brought in center forward Sam Johnson in a transfer from Valerenga. There’s plenty of attacking talent on the RSL roster, but Johnson gives Petke the only true No. 9.
  • Signed Brazilian defensive midfielder Everton Luiz on a yearlong loan from Serie A club SPAL, bringing a veteran presence to a young core.

Roster breakdown

ForwardsSam Johnson, 25; Brooks Lennon, 21; Joao Plata, 26; Luis Silva, 30

MidfieldersJordan Allen, 23; Corey Baird, 23; Kyle Beckerman, 36; Nick Besler, 25; Damir Kreilach, 29; Everton Luiz, 30; Pablo Ruiz, 20; Albert Rusnak, 24; Sebastian Saucedo, 22; Jefferson Savarino, 22

DefendersTony Beltran, 31; Justen Glad, 22; Adam Henley, 24; Aaron Herrera, 21; Marcelo Silva, 29; Donny Toia, 26

GoalkeepersAlex Horwath, 31; Jake Leeker, 23; Andrew Putna, 24; Nick Rimando, 39 

See full roster details here.

 

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Sloppy passing means defence shines for Torino

Torino came into this game on the back of a five-game unbeaten run in Serie A, scoring four goals and conceding none. Atalanta came to Turin on the back of a 3-1 loss against AC Milan, ending an eight-game undefeated streak in all competitions going back to Boxing Day. With both sides on the edge of the European spots, many were looking forward to this match as a contest between two sides who both play effective pressing football.

Torino have conceded fewer goals through 24 matches in Serie A than any campaign since the 1992/1993 season, but they are winless in their past five league meetings against Atalanta. Under manager Walter Mazzarri, Il Toro have become defensively impressive having only conceded 22 goals this season, but they have struggled in attack with only 30 goals scored.

Atalanta, under Gian Piero Gasperini, have been one of the most entertaining sides in Italian football. They have scored the second most goals (51) in Serie A, only two behind league leaders Juventus.

Lineups

Torino Atalanta Serie A Tactical Analysis Statistics

Fresh off an impressive 0-0 draw with second place Napoli, Torino made three changes. Mazzarri reverted from a 3-5-1-1 against Napoli to his more standard 3-5-2 against the team from Bergamo. Iago Falque came into the starting lineup, leading the front line alongside Andrea Belotti. Daniele Baselli came into central midfield alongside Sasa Lukic, taking the place of a suspended Tomas Rincon, while Soualiho Meite came into the midfield as Cristian Ansaldi dropped to the bench.

Atalanta made four changes over the side that lost at home 3-1 to AC Milan. Alejandro Gomez missed the match through injury, which meant Timothy Castagne moved from left wing-back to the right attacking midfielder behind Duvan Zapata, who has the fourth most goals in Serie A so far this season (16).

Chelsea loanee Mario Pasalic started in midfield instead of the suspended Marten de Roon. The biggest changes were in the backline, where two of the three centre-backs were changed. Andrea Masiello and Gianluca Mancini started alongside Berat Djimsiti, which meant Rafael Toloi and Jose Luis Palomino didn’t keep the starting berths they had held against Milan.

Keys to the match

This tactical analysis will look at some of the key points in this match, such as the sloppy play by both sides. We will also look at how Torino were able to neutralize Atalanta’s defensive pressing, and how Torino worked to slow down Duvan Zapata.

A messy matchup

This was expected to be a match between an excellent defence in Torino, and an exciting attack from Atalanta. Unfortunately, this match never really got going as a result of some sloppy passing by both sides. In the first half, neither team could complete even 85% of their passes. They were responsible for giving the ball away early and often. It was common that the passes coming out of the defence were sloppy or miscontrolled, even when under very little pressure.

Torino Atalanta Serie A Tactical Analysis Statistics
Passing statistics for Torino and Atalanta in the first half.

As we can see from the image below, Atalanta are deep in their own zone and under pressure from Torino. Instead of playing a safe ball forward to Duvan Zapata, a powerful presence in the air, Remo Freuler attempts a backheel that is easily intercepted by Torino. This ball recovery allows Torino to counter attack from within Atalanta’s half.

Torino Atalanta Serie A Tactical Analysis Statistics
Frueler (purple) tries a backheel in his own half, allowing Torino to easily recover the ball and launch a counter-attack.

When Atalanta were able to play out, they had a constant dangerous target in Josip Illicic. He played behind Zapata and was the most dangerous attacking option for La Dea. He typically plays up front alongside Zapata with Papu Gomez in the playmaker role, but without Gomez in this game, he played deeper and took up the playmaking responsibilities.

In the image below, we can see that Atalanta are on the counter attack. Illicic is peeling off his defender and looks to receive the ball in space. The ball is played out to him, and he is able to dribble at his defender with pace to give Atalanta one of their few chances in the match.

Torino Atalanta Serie A Tactical Analysis Statistics
Atalanta looks to release Illicic on a quick counter-attack.

Torino bypass the press

Atalanta looked to press Torino high up the pitch, but Mazzarri was prepared for the challenge. With Soualiho Meite in midfield, the Granata used him as a target man to play into. As you can see from the graphic, most of his touches came from long balls launched forward for him.

Torino Atalanta Serie A Tactical Analysis StatisticsThe French midfielder won half of his duels, allowing his team to bypass Atalanta’s very organized press. Ola Aina played at left wing-back for Torino, but he played a more reserved role as Meite was often the option for providing width on the left side of Torino’s attack. We can see from the image below that Meite is able to outmuscle his marker to win an aerial ball, which allows Torino to establish themselves higher up the pitch.

Torino Atalanta Serie A Tactical Analysis Statistics
Torino bypass Atalanta’s press with a high ball into Meite.

Torino keep Zapata quiet

Torino worked hard to keep Duvan Zapata quiet during the match. The Colombian striker has scored 16 goals so far this season in Serie A, averaging 0.6 goals a game, and has been a key component of a dangerous Atalanta attack. To close this down, Torino’s back line were very man-oriented in their marking. Torino’s best centre-back, Nicolas N’Koulou, marked Zapata and managed to limit him only four touches inside Il Toro’s penalty area.

Torino Atalanta Serie A Tactical Analysis StatisticsAdditionally, Armando Izzo and Emilano Moretti were willing to step forward to close down the space for Illicic and Timothy Castagne. This limited the ability of Atalanta to progress the ball up the pitch. Their best option would end up being to get the ball early to Illicic and having him drive forward with the ball at the Torino defence.

Conclusion

Torino Atalanta Serie A Tactical Analysis Statistics
The expected goals throughout the entire match by Torino and Atalanta.

This was a messy match that Torino managed to win through some lucky bounces and momentary defensive lapses on the part of Atalanta. According to the xG from Understat.com, this match should have been much closer.

Torino’s ability to bypass an aggressive press from Atalanta allowed them to get forward easier than it was for Gasperini’s side. This might not have been the attack vs defence match we were looking forward to, but Torino’s 2-0 victory was the result of Walter Mazzarri adjusting his strategy to solve problems.


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