Continuing a fine U.S. Open Cup run which has surely frustrated and delighted Jason Kreis in equal measure, Real Salt Lake faces yet another side from the lower leagues in the form of Carolina Railhawks on Wednesday at Rio Tinto Stadium. With both preceding matches in this run-up having taken 120 minutes to run their course, Kreis will be looking to ensure his side wins in regulation.
But how can it be done? It's simple, really. Stretch the play but don't get stretched yourself. And insofar as it is simple, it is also a difficult task, and one which requires a concerted effort to really pull together in a cohesive manner, as it invariably involves a slew of moving parts.
Let's start with some base-level assumptions: Carolina Railhawks will come in looking to win. That's an easy one. Perhaps the most tried-and-true method — and one that has nearly felled us twice in this competition this season alone — is to leave defenders and midfielders in retreated positions while one or (if they're feeling adventurous) two attackers attempt to capitalize on gaps in the defense. Let's operate under this assumption, as it seems the most likely.
The first question that must be answered: How can Real Salt Lake avoid getting caught in possession? The chances will likely spawn from Railhawks clearances or long passes from the defensive third, and they'll probably come after a good chance for an RSL attacker is scuppered at the last minute. It's when we'll be most eager to win the ball back (and naturally so) and we're more likely to commit somebody forward in search of regaining possession. And why not? Their defenders will almost certainly be on the back leg. But this creates a difficult scenario: If one or two players commit errors, the odds of a goal against skyrocket. If Carlos Salcedo or Nat Borchers makes an error there, the ball is free for the taking and even a moderately quick striker will be in on goal in no time. It's easy to simply say something like "Just don't make mistakes, boys," and hope that it works, but we all know (I would hope) that it's not so simple.
One solution, then: When the ball is lost in a good attacking area, retain confidence that you will soon be creating another and allow the opposition a little bit of harmless possession before regaining the ball; instead of pressing even harder than before, drop into more reasonable positions such that the defense is better supported. It's an exercise in prudence, and it's one we have sometimes suffered from. It's a difficult ask when you're among the best in the league at what you do — press hard in the midfield, gain possession, and create chances when the opposition isn't quite ready.
So now that we've quite obviously solved that unenviable task (sarcasm included for free here), let's move on to the other difficult question to answer: How can Real Salt Lake score goals without intense pressure in the attacking third to force errors? When the midfield and defense merge into one gelatinous (but remarkably solid) blob, the metaphorical parking of the bus makes goal creation intensely difficult.
The answer is simple, but the execution is certainly less so. The strikers, who are more likely to be attracting the attention of the central defenders, should be trading moments of stretching play laterally, drawing defenders wide or forcing a zonal shift. The former option allows more runs into the middle from midfielders; the latter allows unprotected full backs to get into play more readily. With one striker remaining in a central position and the other wide, a late run from anyone deeper than Javier Morales could lead to a tantalizing opportunity.