Real Salt Lake faces a difficult task on Saturday: Defeat a San Jose Earthquakes side that hasn't lost at home in over a year. Given we were the last side to beat them at home, though, we can turn our focus toward more practical matters.
Watch the long ball
We have plenty of evidence that San Jose excels in situations where they don't have long spells of possession in advance of a goal. We've seen it over and over: They'll hoist a ball into the box, have one of their rather-large men get on the end of it, cause some havoc, and score.
Bypassing our midfield is the biggest threat we face. If we don't pay heed to long, direct passing -- or long, hopeful passing, as the case may be -- we'll be forcing our defenders to deal with some of the most difficult moments they'll face in MLS. It takes only a single pass for Steven Lenhart or Alan Gordon to have a prototypical moment in the box followed by a Chris Wondolowski poached goal for the damage to be done.
This starts at the front, too: While unreasonably high pressure or over-eagerness isn't the solution, standing off the midfield and allowing them long-ball opportunities could possibly be worse.
Watch for space
Against the Galaxy, we played a more direct style generally, and it worked well for us in the end. But we found our goal in a particularly probing moment, when our forwards were given opportunities to pull defenders out of position and generally cause problems. This was against two top-quality central defenders in Omar Gonzalez and Leonardo, which speaks highly of our movement.
We'll want to do exactly the same thing on Saturday against two defenders of slightly lower quality. Clarence Goodson and Victor Bernardez, both of whom are capable, will be vulnerable to the same types of movement. With a forward corps of Joao Plata and Alvaro Saborio, there's no reason why we can't continue to perform in the same way.
Jeff Cassar's substitution patterns will understandably be subject to some scrutiny in these early weeks of his career. How we reshape to approach a match from the 60th minute forward essentially shapes our game; a poor substitution and tactical decision, and we're in a difficult spot and struggling to regain any footing we had. A good substitution, and we can turn the game on its head.
Saturday saw three smart, effective substitutions: We brought in players who are hungry for playing time, capable on the ball, and who could have an attacking impact. The Jordan Allen substitution sticks out the most: He's a fast, bright attacking player, but most importantly, he can maintain possession. We saw exactly that, and his confidence on the ball made the game slightly easier for us to win in the end.
Don't succumb to the mind games
San Jose will hack us down, they'll bash us around in the area, and all-in-all, they'll do what they can to get inside our heads. Not literally, I hope.
It's hard to call it a tactical approach, but we'll need to keep our wits about us. We've lost these matches before because we get sucked into it like it's bad reality TV -- we can't let that happen. There is, of course, something tactically meaningful about retaining all 11 players in the game.