For the last several years, Real Salt Lake has been known for its proficiency with the diamond midfield as much as anything else. RSL has been ruthlessly efficient in the formation, winning MLS Cup in 2009 and reaching the final in 2013.
However, as the roster has evolved in that time, so has the need to shift out of the comfort zone that the diamond midfield has brought to the club. And while players have needed to learn new methodologies with the formation shift to a 4-3-3, the new setup looks to fit the personnel. And while preseason success is no indication of regular season glory, RSL did roll through preseason with a 4-0-0 record in the FC Tucson Desert Diamond Cup and Head Coach Jeff Cassar saw progress throughout the camp.
“This is a formation, I think we’re going to continually get better throughout the year. We’re going to get better and better and more efficient. As we get more comfortable and better in the system, I think we’re going to be a very, very dangerous team,” Cassar said. “It’s a high-possession offense, but it’s with a little more intent getting forward. A lot of them change a bit, but it’s a lot of the same philosophies.”
One player that stands to benefit from the new formation is Javier Morales. In the diamond formation he was asked to stay high, but could often get congested with the forwards. Now, not only can he drop back deeper into the midfield to get the ball, but he also has more options in front of him with three forwards and a more liberally attacking pair of outside backs.
After netting a career-best season with nine goals and 12 assists in 2014, Morales has his sights set on even loftier individual goals in 2015.
“We have more people in the attacking third. We have three guys in front of me and I have a lot of options to play up there,” Morales said.
While having three forwards on the field caters to the players available for Cassar, especially once Joao Plata returns from a foot fracture around June, it is the midfield talent that really drives the shift.
Along with the play-making of Morales, Luis Gil looks to be featured in a role more fitting of his talents while Kyle Beckerman remains a rock-solid presence as a defensive midfielder, connecting all of the moving parts.
However, even with the veteran talent on the field, everyone acknowledges that the transition will not take place instantaneously, but over the course of the season.
“It’s a work in progress, it really is. The main thing is that we need to keep trying to improve,” Beckerman said. “We just have to keep steady, working hard every day and in the beginning of the season it’s really important for us to pick up wins and pick up some draws and find ways to get results even when the formation isn’t looking the best.”
Added Cassar, “They’ve seen where they can have success, which is a positive. But we’ve also seen where we can get caught a little bit. I think it’s a formation that’s going to benefit a lot of players. It’s just making sure we’re right on the defensive end as well.”
RSL will see its first official test in the new formation on Saturday against the Portland Timbers. Kickoff from Providence Park is scheduled for 8:30 p.m. MT with television coverage on KMYU.