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Tactics Time: How To Take Three Points From Salt Lake

Can NYCFC stay hot in a midweek clash with RSL?

MLS: New York City FC at Real Salt Lake Jeff Swinger-USA TODAY Sports

Despite starting last weeks game against San Jose about as poorly as possible, New York Cty FC showed grit and resilience, eventually managing to snatch a 2-1 victory away from the Earthquakes.

This week, NYCFC return home to face Real Salt Lake, who currently reside in 4th place in the Western Conference. Much like the NYCFC’s last opponent, RSL have been through significant upheaval in recent years. Gone is both club legend Jason Kreis (RSL, of course) and Jeff Casser. With their departures, Salt Lake’s famed 4-1-2-1-2 diamond formation has also been discarded.

With the instillation of former Red Bulls manager Mike Petke and his attacking 4-2-3-1 has come an infusion of young, pacy attackers. Patrick Vieira and NYCFC will need to be on their A-game to stop this talented young group. Here are some ways that they can blunt the RSL attack.

  1. Line Up Like This

4-3-3: Johnson; Sweat, Callens, Chanot, Tinnerholm; Herrera, Ofori, Moralez; Tajorui-Shradi, Medina, Villa

Bench: Stuver, Abdul-Salaam, Ibeagha, Awuah, McNamara, Wallace, Berget

Despite Ebenezer Ofori’s performance in the last few matches that can be generously classified as uneven, he returns to the starting XI. Part of his inclusion comes from the fact that a competitive alternative hasn’t emerged yet; Vieira will play his signature 4-3-3 until the heat death of the universe. Yangel Herrea stays in his box-to-box role, and Maxi Moralez will once again step in as an attacking midfielder. Kwame Awuah — a regular on the bench — will feature once more, as will the largely unused Tommy McNamara.

Up top, Ismael Tajorui-Shradi gets another start at left wing. There is absolutely zero justification for starting Rodney Wallace over the Libyan based on their current form. David Villa hasn’t featured in three games due to a nagging injury, but he looks ready to go for this match. Flanking him on the right will be Paraguayan dynamo Jesus Medina. Wallace is relegated to bench duty, as is Jo Inge Berget. Berget has been extremely inconsistent to start off, but there are certainly worse options for a backup striker.

The usual suspects return on the back line, including Sean Johnson, who had a career game against San Jose last time out. The Alex Callens-Maxime Chanot partnership will hold down the middle of the pitch, and Anton Tinnerholm, fresh off his second goal, starts at right back. Saad Abdul-Salaam will be on the bench while Ronald Matarrita recuperates from his injury, while Sebastian Ibeagha gets the nod over Cedric Hountondji.

2. RSL loves to attack from the wings and shoot from distance. Playing aggressive and staying wide will be key.

MLS: Real Salt Lake at Toronto FC Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports

Mike Petke’s Red Bulls teams could hang a crooked number on the scoreboard any given match day. He’s doing his best to duplicate that style at Rio Tinto Stadium. He was gifted a phenomenal talent in 5’3” Joao Plata, who can play in the middle, as a striker, or a winger. RSL’s two designated players are Slovakian international Albert Rusnak — a great short passer with an eye for goal — and Jefferson Savarino, a 21-year-old Venezuelan winger with blistering pace.

Luis Silva may be the striker, but it’s their midfield trio that stir the drink. Salt Lake are tied for 4th in MLS in possession on the left side, with 40% of their possession coming from that area. While Plata will occupy the left side most of the time, Petke has been known to place Savarino on the left and Plata as a center forward if the attack becomes stagnant.

These attackers present a unique challenge because of their skill with long range shots. While RSL rank 19th in MLS in percentage of shots from within the 6 yard box at 4%, they clock in at 6th in shots outside the 18 yard box, with 42% of their attempts coming from that area. Petke is trying to set up a “pick your poison” style of attack, but there is a way for NYCFC to quell their attack. Getting wide and not allowing Savarino or Plata to cut inside onto their preferred foot or make runs inside will be key. Sweat and Tinnerholm are good defenders, but not fleet of foot. They will need to play instinctually and disciplined.

While giving Rusnak more free reign with the ball at his feet has burned NYCFC before, letting one attacking mid dictate things as opposed to two lightning-quick wingers seems like the better choice.

3. Central midfield and defense are aging, and don’t have the pace to stay with NYCFC’s speed.

MLS: Vancouver Whitecaps at Real Salt Lake Rob Gray-USA TODAY Sports

The fact that Jason Kreis has played with Kyle Beckerman and Nick Rimando, managed both of them, left to manage NYCFC, got fired, and is now at Orlando City serves as a testament to the captain and goalie’s longevity.

Look at the MLS goalie records, and most of them will have Rimando’s name next to it. Ask most fans to say the first thing that comes to mind when it comes to Real Salt Lake, and they’ll likely think of Beckerman and his signature dreads. However, in 2018, the images of a dominant Rimando and Beckerman don’t sync up with reality (especially in lieu of Beckerman’s haircut).

It’s obvious that Rimando’s reactions and Beckerman’s pace aren’t what they were even a couple years ago. Because of this, Damir Kreilach was brought in to shore up midfield. However, as (Lord) Adam Nemec and even Ebenezer Ofori are proving, the jump from 2. Bundesliga to MLS can take some time.

NYCFC have the athletes to turn this into a track meet. Tajouri-Shradi’s lateral quickness and Medina’s sprint speed will be a tough ask for the slower midfield of RSL. The temptation to lean on David Villa is there, but letting a slower midfielder hone in on a striker with average speed is exactly what RSL want. Use your pace and speed to keep peppering Rimando. He may be the best goalie MLS has ever seen, but at age 38 he’ll let one go by him eventually.

4. RSL like to play long balls. A high press should nullify that strategy.

MLS: Vancouver Whitecaps at Real Salt Lake Rob Gray-USA TODAY Sports

Few teams in MLS like to use the long ball more than Real Salt Lake. On average, The Claret and Cobalt attempt 73 long balls per game. With a 6’0” striker/attacking midfielder in Luis Silva to win aerial duels, as well as the aforementioned pace of Savarino and Plata, their strategy makes sense. The best way to combat RSL’s style of long balls is to press them high. By pressuring them up the pitch and now allowing them to pump the ball forward, one of the major components of their attack gets all of their teeth taken out of it.

The biggest problem with this would be getting Vieira to sign off, as he prefers to sit back and play for possession. If Vieira can show some adaptability and press RSL high, he may have a much easier go of winning his 5th game in 6 tries.

What do you think NYCFC needs to do? Lets us know in the comments!