LEHI, Utah — If you overhear tactical discussions about the upcoming CONCACAF Champions League semifinal between Real Salt Lake and Saprissa, you'll likely hear these three utterances:
High pressure. Counterattack. Compact midfield.
Fans are probably familiar with all three concepts, but what do they mean specifically to this matchup?
We asked Fox Soccer Channel analyst, realsaltlake.com contributor and former MLS player Brian Dunseth to break down the upcoming series.
Saprissa like to build their attack out of their defensive efforts, and often they’ll do this with high pressure. That simply means that when the ball is in RSL’s end, they’ll try to use their attacking players to pressure their opponents with the ball and force a quick turnover.
This is a tactic that many teams use although it has very seldom been employed successfully at Rio Tinto Stadium, where many teams tend to drop off in an effort to settle in defensively against RSL’s own potent attack.
However, Dunseth thinks Saprissa may use this tool straight out of the gate.
“I wouldn’t be surprised for the first 15 minutes if they do [bring the high pressure],” he said. “I feel like the Costa Rican media is going to play up Rio Tinto Stadium [and RSL’s home dominance] and I think there’s going to be a lot of emotion on the line for the first 10 to 15 minutes.”
The secret for RSL in counteracting this pressure is simply taking great care with the ball in their own end.
“It’s about quality possession," Dunseth said. "It’s about recognizing where you are at on the field. It’s about compartmentalizing your mistakes.”
If the high pressure fails, then Saprissa’s amoebic structure will transform quickly into a more defensive posture, with the midfield falling back into a more compact form. It sometimes resembles a 3-5-2 (when in attack), and other times looks like a 4-3-2-1 (defensively).
“It’s a functioning organism where defensively they’ll drop multiple numbers … as many as five to the top of the 18-yard box,” said Dunseth, a former RSL defender. “[They'll] look to absorb pressure like they did against Olimpia, where you saw Olimpia have a majority of possession and feel like they were banging on the door and then they’d use [Jairo] Arrieta’s speed – they’d look to counterattack.”
Arrieta is one of several pacey attackers that give Saprissa's counterattack teeth. However, the conduit for the transition from a compact defense to a besieging attack is usually midfielder Walter Centeno.
“He’s very similar to [Javier Morales] in that he’s a guy that floats, he goes wherever he wants, and he has no responsibility defensively other than putting pressure on the ball when it’s around him," Dunseth said of Saprissa's star and veteran of two World Cups. "He is their outlet.”
So Saprissa, a team that collapses quickly on the defensive side of the ball, also spring forward quickly in an attempt to catch their opponent off-balance defensively.
This could pose a challenge for RSL, who like to get numbers forward — particularly by the outside backs pushing forward up the flanks.
“If one of [the outside backs] gets stuck forward, then Kyle [Beckerman] is going to have to be very aware that he’s got some pace to deal with, and if he gets stuck up, then Will [Johnson] has got to slide in,” Dunseth said.
So that’s it, in a nutshell. But overall, what will it take for RSL to have success against this team?
“Small movements, and speed of play,” Dunseth said. “The moment you are able to pick up a ball in the midfield, you have to go. You have to individually be able to take advantage of situations. You’ve got to have that killer instinct – that tactical recognition that there is an advantage and how can you utilize it.”