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Know Your Enemy: Real Salt Lake

I am hippy.  Hear me roar!  Beckerman remains the heart and soul of the side.
I am hippy. Hear me roar! Beckerman remains the heart and soul of the side.

So it has come to this.

Toronto FC faces the possibility of equaling the record for the worst league start to a season should they fall to a seventh straight loss on Saturday evening.

To make matters worse, they must try and avoid the ignominy of such a fate at one of the most inhospitable barns in North America, Real Salt Lake's Rio Tinto Stadium.

Dating back to their MLS Cup-winning 2009 season, Salt Lake have only lost five league matches at home over the last four seasons - in a stunning fifty-one attempts - but if there is one guarantee regarding the 2012 edition of TFC, it's that there are no guarantees.

Would it not be fitting for the Toronto sporting condition to have the streak come to an end on the road against one of the best clubs in the league?

A worthy first step on the long journey to the playoff promised lands once again forecasted by Aron Winter; but is it possible?

The Lineup

Salt Lake Manager Jason Kreis has exclusively used a diamond 4-4-2 formation; one honed and perfected over the past couple of seasons. Due largely to injuries - and more recently, suspensions - they have strayed away from a set eleven, making good use of the youthful depth they have acquired over the years.

The projected starting lineups sees Nick Rimando between the sticks; from right to left - Tony Beltran, Jamison Olave, Nat Borchers, and Chris Wingert across the back; Captain Kyle Beckerman sitting in the midfield hole; Will Johnson, Luis Gil, and Johnny Steele across the midfield; with Alvaro Saborio and Fabian Espindola paired up top.

football formations

Olave and Espindola should return to the lineup following one-match red card suspensions that saw them rested in Dallas, while Chris Schuler - who stepped up in the first couple of matches when Borchers was nursing an injury - could replace Borchers, giving him a rest during this busy period and breaking up the impenetrable Bor-lave central defensive duo against a theoretically weak TFC side.

RSL have plenty of interchangeable pieces in attack and given this will be their third match in a week, any number of changes are possible.

Off-season signing Jonny Steele - formerly of Vancouver and Puerto Rico, amongst others - was held back midweek, so he should get the start on the left of midfield ahead of the likes of Sebastian Velasquez, and Ned Grabavoy, who only recently returned to the pitch.

Javier Morales went the full-ninety midweek, while Gil was removed ten minutes into the second half, so expect the younger Gil to get the start, with the Argentine playmaker held in reserve should his services be needed.

First-year goal-scorer in Dallas, Emiliano Bonfigli could be used centrally instead of Gil or Morales, or up top, but will most likely be on the substitute's bench for the start to this match.

Brazilian Paulo Jr. has played a key role in the attack this season, particularly when Saborio was returning from a preseason knock, but should return to the bench with Espindola's suspension served; unless Kreis feels the Costa Rican Saborio needs a rest.

Fit again Canadian workhorse Johnson is a lock to man either flank, most likely the right.

First-round draft pick Enzo Martinez has not even made the bench thus far in the league, while Japanese outside-back Terukazu Tanaka made one start - against Montreal - and usually mans the bench.

Cuban midfielder Yordany Alvarez has only made two appearances this summer, both from the bench - coming on late in matches to seal up victories against Los Angeles and Colorado - and should remain there.

The Tactics

Salt Lake elegantly manages to pair a methodical, patient passing buildup game with an explosive, fast-break ability, often to devastating effect. The spine of their midfield, Beckerman and Morales, would normally provide most of the decision making on the pitch, but Morales has struggled - relatively speaking - since returning from a devastating ankle injury last season.

Gil has stepped in to that role admirably, but to ask so much of one so young - only eighteen - is impossible, and as such this is not the unstoppable Salt Lake of 2010.

Beckerman remains the heart and soul of the side, covering every blade of grass, pitching in at both ends of the pitch, in the old fashion box-to-box style. Deceptively skilled on the ball, he can pick a pass, or unleash a shot if given the opportunity, while he also relishes the more physical - and at time darker sides - of the game. Recall his nip at the heels of Mista that prompted the Spaniard to lash out and see red back in 2010's Champions League match in Utah.

Toronto must be particularly wary of him arriving late to the attack at the top of the box, to snap up half-clearances or pull-backs from the more advanced attackers.

The strong defensive pairing of Olave and Borchers is not as impervious as they were during the glory days of the club, perhaps this is in part due to the loss of Robbie Russell, who left for DC United in the offseason. Tony Beltran has stepped into his shoes admirably at right-back, adding more forward thrust from the position, but is not as sound defensively, leaving the centre-backs a touch exposed to attacks from the wide positions.

The attacking duo of Saborio and Espindola is a very clever one; Saborio, the wilier of the two, is adept at finding space, while Espindola, the more fleet of foot, stretches defenses with his surging runs to make the space for the intelligent movement of his fellow attackers.

If there is a weakness to the midfield, it is that at times they can be narrow, with Johnson and his partner on the opposite flank, compressing in-field to pressure the ball and outnumber the opponent. Normally the full-backs are expected to contribute to the attack by providing that necessary width, but that can in turn result in plenty of open space on either of the wide defensive areas.

The Form

All told, Salt Lake has five wins, three losses, and a draw on the season; three wins and a single loss coming at home. However, in a congested month of April, after winning their first two - 1-0 over Montreal and 2-0 over Colorado; both at home - they are winless in last three, all on the road.

The run began with a toothless display in Kansas City that saw them fortunate to only lose 1-0. They then held off San Jose in the Bay Area last weekend, despite being down to nine men, until a stoppage time collapse saw them relinquish their grasp on the draw and ultimately fall 3-1, giving up two goals after the ninety had been played.

The streak was continued midweek with a dour performance in Dallas on Wednesday night, drawing 1-1.

Controversial officiating did play a role in the last two matches.

Neither red card in San Jose was cut and dry; Espindola's tackle on Cronin that drew the first, looked more a clumsy slip than a vicious challenge, though the league has decided to have zero tolerance on two-footed lunges; the debate over whether Olave or Lenhart initiated the contact will rage on ad infinitum, the result was a handful of shorts for the attacker and the defender's dismissal.

The penalty awarded to Dallas was a ludicrous example of a referee applying the strictest interpretation of a handball, regardless of intention.

Even without the graces of the officials, were it not for the goalkeeping of Rimando, Salt Lake would have little cause to complain about the results.

A miraculous point blank save on a Kei Kamara header limited Sporting's dominance to a single goal. Several fine saves keep San Jose at bay for the majority of that match, while he was called upon again in Dallas to keep his lethargic looking side in the contest, so that once a chance did fall their way they were able to put it to good use.

Even with Rimando's heroics Salt Lake has conceded nine goals on the season already; a goal a match. Six goals have come directly as the result of cross into the box - four from the right, two from the left, five of those goals came from headers.

Poor man-marking and a failure to recognize attacking runs are the primary culprits behind this defensive vulnerability. In Los Angeles Edson Buddle was able to position himself between centre-backs for an unmarked header. Against Kansas City Saborio failed to track the run of Aurelien Collin allowing his free header. In San Jose both Borchers and Gil were caught flat-footed against Khari Stephenson and Chris Wondolowski respectively, while nobody picked up the run of Simon Dawkins allowing the Englishman a clear path for his diving header.

The other two consisted of Darlington Nagbe's impressive brace of shots from the top of the box in RSL's comeback 2-3 win in Portland and Brek Shea's penalty kick.

Salt Lake has scored thirteen goals this season, tied for second most in the league with San Jose, trailing only New York - both of whom have played fewer matches.

They fall into four main categories - putting aside the two penalty kicks - both for handballs - and the own-goal in LA: Fast breaks by Espindola; cut backs to late arrivals; clever balls in behind the defense; and mazy dribbles through the middle.

Thrice Espindola has tallied - against LA, New York, and Colorado - on fast breaks. Salt Lake will either play a diagonal ball into space - usually on the left - or over the top behind the defenders for the tenacious forward to run onto. When moving in from wide positions he will then either place a low shot across the keeper aiming for inside the far-post, or, on occasion, try and power it to the near-post regardless of how tight an angle he is presented. Against Colorado a ball over the top split a pair of defenders - Marvell Wynne and Kosuke Kimura - possible handball aside, Fabian kept his cool and slid it under Matt Pickens in goal.

The cut back to a late-arriving attacker has also led to three goals for the Royals. Against LA, it was good work by the left end-line from Grabavoy to pick out Morales arriving near the penalty spot. Versus New York, it was a rebound from an Espindola shot that fell kindly to an unmarked Gil following up on the play. In Portland, a chipped cross from Espindola picked out Beckerman at the top of the box for a low volley to win the match in the ninety-third minute.

Clever balls and mazy dribbles have each accounted for a pair of Salt Lake goals.

Beltran found Saborio sneaking off the shoulder of the defenders with a right-sided cross to the heart of the box against Colorado that the forward chested down and smashed in, while midweek Dallas was undone by a Johnson ball over the top that picked out Bonfigli's run to place a low shot under the keeper.

Steele drew the side level in the final minute of regulation in Portland with a neat jink through traffic and a left-footed shot past Troy Perkins, setting the table for Beckerman's winner, while the captain himself combined with Steele in San Jose for a wonderful goal. Winning it in midfield, dishing out to the left wing, before continue his move forward and eventually receiving a return ball from the Northern Irishman - dummied by Saborio - in the space above the box. Beckerman surged forward, side-stepping a pair of sliding challenges with some fine footwork and lashed a low right-footed shot to the near-post past Jon Busch.


Toronto FC must look to take advantage of tired legs and defensive miscommunication - as mentioned this is Salt Lake's sixth match of the month - the final of three in a week - and defensive miscues on defending crosses into the box has resulted in nearly all of the goals RSL has conceded.

Luckily for Toronto, they are one of the top sides in the league at flinging crosses into the box. The trick to success will be to get on the end of that service.

Since Danny Koevermans, Nick Soolsma and Luis Silva will reportedly not be making the trip to Utah, the likes of Ryan Johnson, Joao Plata, in-form Reggie Lambe, Eric Avila, and even Torsten Frings and Julian de Guzman will have to make up for their absences in attack.

Salt Lake has a tendency to get narrow in the midfield, relying on their full-backs to provide width to the attacking buildup. Toronto will have to make use of this space and the corresponding open areas behind RSL's full-backs in transition to find any time on the ball.

Once they get into those positions Toronto must take the opportunities to get numbers into the box. Salt Lake's big central defensive pairing will eat up desperate crosses to lone targets, but are vulnerable when overwhelmed.

Get in Rimando's face - chances are if he sees it, he will stop it; sometimes even if he doesn't, he will. Despite being one of the smaller keepers in the league, Rimando can be very adventurous when it comes to collecting crosses. The goal that saw Chivas USA upset Real - and hand them their only home loss - was the result of a cross into the box that Rimando attempted to collect, only to drop it when Casey Townsend challenged him. It fell conveniently to the rookie striker's foot to smash into the unguarded net.

Be cautious in approach and don't get discouraged. Rimando will turn goals into saves, but keep at it, Salt Lake is not impenetrable.

The midfield battle is going to be where this match is won or lost. Getting out-numbered regularly is a major risk and Toronto will have to be reinforced in that area by both their wing-backs holding position when necessary and their attacking wingers coming back when called upon.

Points of Interest

This is the only meeting between the two clubs this season.

They have met ten times in the league with each side dominating at home - the road team's only positive results have seen Salt Lake twice draw 0-0 in Toronto and Toronto win their first-ever meeting at Rice-Eccles Stadium in 2007 - off goals from fan-favourites Jeff Cunningham and Collin Samuel, no less.

The clubs were drawn together in the 2010-11 CONCACAF Champions League group stage with Salt Lake winning 4-1 at home and drawing 1-1 in Toronto to move on, eventually reaching that edition's final.

Laurent Robert's lone goal for TFC won their early season meeting at BMO Field in 2008. Jim Brennan scored his final goal in one of his final matches for the club against RSL at the end of 2009. That 1-0 home win put Toronto in the driver's seat to clinch the final playoff spot that season, needing only a result in their final match in New York. That collapse in the pouring rain allowed Salt Lake to take that place; they went on to win the MLS Cup that season.

Toronto drafted Salt Lake manager Jason Kreis in the 2006 MLS Expansion Draft from RSL, he was returned to them for allocation money to play his final season before stepping up to the front office.

You can find more of James Grossi’s insightful ramblings over at Partially Obstructed View and follow him on twitter @Grawsee