Real Salt Lake will face a number of challenges against Toronto FC on Saturday, but of particular interest will be two types of moments from which we have been vulnerable.
Watch the counter
It is no secret that Toronto FC are going to try to beat us on the counter attack. It is what they’ve done twice this season to good effect, and it’s something they might see as something of a weakness in our constitution.
If you need convincing it’s something we can suffer from, look no further than this screenshot from Saturday’s draw against LA Galaxy.
Chris Wingert has just lost control of the ball and is struggling to get back in time. Nine players are inside the opposition half here, including Nat Borchers. Chris Schuler is only just inside our half and is not visible in this screenshot, but he’s there. The only remaining player is Nick Rimando, who, despite being the best goalkeeper in MLS, cannot defend an entire LA Galaxy attack on his own. The ensuing play is something we don’t need to repeat, but there is something strange about the way we’ve approached this one.
The solution isn’t to drop into incredibly deep positions at all times, but as a general rule, having nine players inside the opposition half when you’re playing a side with Robbie Keane in it is probably unwise. We all want to see attacking soccer, and we want to see our players committed in those moments. But what we don’t much want to see is anybody going one-on-one with Keane — or, in tomorrow’s match, Jermain Defoe. These are notably difficult players to defend.
Watch set pieces
Defending set pieces is a tough gig. We know that, and we certainly made sure LA Galaxy knew that with Alvaro Saborio’s goal last weekend. Marking individuals is never easy when they’re top quality, and we have two examples — one for and one against — that help illustrate that.
In our first example, Chris Wondolowski scores from a set piece thanks to some fine movement from him and a nice ball sent into the box.
San Jose has sent men forward to confuse our marking, and it certainly worked. This is sort of in their DNA, but it’s not some exclusive club that only hoof-and-run sides can get into.
In our second example, we have Alvaro Saborio as the scorer, with Joao Plata grabbing the assist. These two set pieces occurred roughly in the same part of the field, which is not entirely coincidental.
Plata’s pass to an unmarked Saborio was fantastic, but it was the movement of Saborio — or lack thereof — that confused the LA Galaxy defense and gave us our opportunity.
Both instances involve confusion in the box, and although they’re of different orders of magnitude, they come from the same place. Unexpected actions, whether it’s intelligent movement around a defender or simply letting defenders move away from their marking, are dangerous.
We’re facing a Toronto FC side who may try to capitalize on that. Our set piece defense has not been spectacular, but by the same token, it hasn’t been miserable. If we watch the fouls in these positions, we can cut out the most dangerous element, but it won’t always play out that way.
It will be important for defenders and, indeed, anyone marking on set pieces to stay aware and — to use a bit of a truism, “expect the unexpected.” After all, Michael Bradley’s not bad at those passes, and Toronto FC do have one or two very good strikers who will want to test us in these moments.