CARSON, Calif. — To say that Real Salt Lake coach Jason Kreis is putting defense first as his team heads into the MLS Cup Playoffs would be an understatement.
It's almost all he talks about, to his players, to the press, maybe even to his family and friends and anyone else who will listen.
“I don't think there's any way to win playoff series or win championships if you don't focus on defending,” Kreis said ahead of Sunday's Western Conference Semifinal first leg against the LA Galaxy.
“You're not going to go into a playoff series and win the game 5-4," he continued. "So you have to make sure everything is right — very organized, very tactically smart about how you push these matches. And a lot of that starts with how you defend.”
It's not that RSL are going to pass up scoring opportunities in order to defend. But, first and foremost, Kreis & Co. are hoping to get out of Southern California with a chance to win the series back home in Utah.
That means either a win, a tie or — worst-case scenario — a one-goal loss on Sunday night.
“We are the kind of team that defends well,” midfielder Javier Morales told MLSsoccer.com. “So we have to focus on defense and then take the chances that we have.”
“It's just part of the RSL way,” center back Chris Schuler said. “Defense has to be first. We build a lot of our offense off our defense, now and always.”
Kreis admitted that his players haven't recently been as aggressive near the goal as he'd like. But he bristled when the subject of his team's declining offensive output over the last couple of months of the season was raised. RSL averaged just .83 goals per game over September-October, after averaging 2.4 goals per game over the period between May and August.
“I'm sorry for my frustration, but this is what happens in MLS,” Kreis said. “Let me spell it out. At the beginning of seasons, you struggle to score goals because you're fresh. You're a new team. At the end of seasons, you struggle to score goals because opponents are now worried much more about defending.”
Indeed, the up-and-down nature is borne out by the numbers: Before hitting that clover patch midseason, the Claret and Cobalt averaged .78 goals per game in March and April.
Not that statistics matter in the end. At some point, scoring is simply about taking shots. In September-October, RSL averaged 11 shots per game and 3 shots per goal.
“We need a player to take a risk at that point,” Kreis said. “Shoot the ball. Deflect if off a defender. Put it through somebody's legs. Make the goalkeeper make a save. Just say, 'I'm going to take the last chance here. I'm going to step forward and make a play for my team or at least take a risk for my team.' ”
But not too big of a risk, particularly against a team that counter-attacks as well as the Galaxy, because if you do, Kreis cautioned, "you may be picking the ball out of your goal.
"You do that one time at this time of year and the game's over."