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Know Your Enemy: Real Salt Lake - Part Two – Game Film Review and Points of Interest

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Previewing TFC's upcoming opponent, Real Salt Lake, reviewing the game film for strengths and weaknesses

Javier Morales strokes a free-kick into the back of the net against Philadelphia - There, be Dragons
Javier Morales strokes a free-kick into the back of the net against Philadelphia - There, be Dragons
Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

Part One, reviewing Salt Lake's lineup and form, was posted earlier.

The Tactics

The most obvious note that must first be address is that Jeff Cassar decided this season to abandon the much-discussed diamond midfield, preferring instead to field a 4-3-3. In many ways a subtle change, sacrificing one midfielder for another forward, the ramifications are just that: one fewer body in the midfield, and the attack spread further across the pitch.

The diamond midfield could, at times, force Salt Lake to be a little narrow, relying on width provided by the full-backs. Through two matches the added width in those advanced positions, embodied by Olmes Garcia and Sebastian Jaime, has been obvious. With attackers and full-backs now utilizing those areas, Salt Lake both stretches and lengthens the pitch – a concern that Toronto must minimize as best as possible.

In Cassar's own words, "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. 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."

Salt Lake has taken advantage of that speed and ability out wide – Garcia in particular, and Joao Plata when fit, can cause all kinds of trouble with their pace and trickery - to open the field and isolate defenders one-on-one. Whether with long or diagonal balls, namely from Kyle Beckerman and Javier Morales, TFC will have to be aware that the focus of the game can switch in an instant, should they collapse too much and open up those lanes towards goal. Maintaining good field coverage, refusing to be drawn tight, while being alert to the back-side movements will be vital to any possible result on Sunday.

This is the best video example of the above concerns, as a long ball from Morales plays Jaime in behind the Philadelphia defenses for a shot:

One further point, Jaime, as he does above, is more likely to cut in-field from his right-sided wide position, functioning more as a traditional striker, while Garcia tends to go wide before using his speed to force back any recovering defenders. A minor point.

For a third-straight match, Toronto FC faces a similar, yet wholly individual, primary threat: a talented South American midfielder/withdrawn-forward.

In Vancouver it was Chilean Pedro Morales; in Columbus, Argentine Federico Higuain; on Sunday the task at hand will be keep suppress the threat of another Argentine troublemaker, Javier Morales, long one of the classiest players in MLS.

Now 35, the veteran has lost a step or two over the years, but he is still of the highest calibre this league has to offer. He already has two points on the season – registering a goal and an assist against Philadelphia – scoring from a deflected free-kick and pinging a lovely set-piece into the box, which rattled off a few teammates before finding the back of the net.

Here's his goal against Philadelphia:


Needless to say, limiting his chances to have a direct effort on goal would be advantageous.

Morales is a fan of the formation change thus far, "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".

With Michael Bradley away, Toronto's remade central midfield will have to keep an especially close eye on the machinations of Morales. It may not be a bad idea to bring in an active, defensive-minded Collen Warner – a former teammate of the Argentine's - for the express purpose of monitoring and disrupting his flow. 

As with the goal directly from the free-kick above, TFC would be well served to limit all set-pieces, be they corner kicks, free-kicks, or even the ultra-rare indirect free-kicks (in the box, like TFC II experienced on the weekend). When allowed to get their defenders into the mix, Salt Lake has plenty of height to aim for – the likes of Alvaro Saborio, Garcia, and Jaime are no Platas either – and both Schuler and Olave are more than a handful for any marker.

Toronto does not have a ton of height at the back, especially if either Steven Caldwell or Nick Hagglund are left out of the lineup, so instead of rolling the dice with marking attempts, it would be better to eschew the whole concern entirely and go out of one's way to prevent those opportunities.

Salt Lake's second goal against Philadelphia virtually had targets lining up at the back-post, as Olave, Garcia, and Schuler were all there to get the needed redirection on Morales' service.


Saborio absence, as he is away with Costa Rica, will be a loss, but Devon Sandoval is yet another big body, and a particularly aggressive one, that Cassar can throw into the Toronto box to cause havoc.

One final concern, for the purposes of this discussion (they have plenty of other tools in their box), TFC would be well-served to be ready for quick restarts. Salt Lake is notorious for regrouping very quickly and using any momentary switching off by the opponent to their advantage.

Though it came to nought, this play against Portland should serve as a reminder of that potential:


Exploitation

One first bit of advice that may serve Toronto well to remember is that Jeff Attinella, who will likely take Nick Rimando's place between the pipes, does not play regularly. He is a fine keeper in his own right, but whenever a back-up keeper is thrust into the starting position, it is always a good idea to test him early and often, while making the effort to follow those attempts into the box-to-box, should a rebound or mistake provide a healthy chance. Mistakes will come, the combination of rust, nerves, and excitement can get the better of even the best keepers.

Whether a new keeper or not, this is a recurrent prescription of these articles: get into those positions and be ready to take advantage of them. In fact, Philadelphia's first goal two weeks ago came from just such a play, as Fernando Aristeguieta pounced on a Rimando save, after Beckerman had forced a good reaction out of his keeper by deflecting a hopeful cross towards his own goal:

The Venezuelan makes the run and stays alert enough to respond; work hard, stay sharp, and good things will come.

The most glaring weakness Salt Lake presents is a lack of pace along the back-line. The full-backs are a little quicker than the oft-lumbering centre-backs, but when they are caught up-field, on a quick counter  for example, both Olave and Schuler can be exposed for pace.

As aggressive centre-backs, they both prefer to end threats by stepping into them, rather than shuttling the danger away and waiting for the attacker to waste the chance with a mistake.

Without the services of Jozy Altidore, TFC is a little short-handed up front. Altidore would actually be a solvable problem for Schuler and Olave, each capable of matching his physicality, if not necessarily his pace. Bright Dike is one option, but he may cut to similar a figure.

Toronto may be wise to utilize the speed of Robbie Findley to threaten on one side and the silky skills of Luke Moore on the other; Moore dropping off to draw a centre-back high before dishing off for a streaking Sebastian Giovinco or Jonathan Osorio may well prove the more fruitful method of attack.

It may in part be early season rust, but neither Schuler, nor Olave have looked particularly good when forced to turn and face their own goal. A quick bit of interplay or a devastating through-ball will be Toronto's best hope of crafting chances against Salt Lake on Sunday.

One of the downsides of the switch to a 4-3-3 for Salt Lake, is that with one fewer body in the midfield, should a pass be misplaced or intercepted, several players, including the eager to advance full-backs, can be caught up field, exposing that vulnerable core.

Something Cassar is well aware of: "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."

Should those full-backs indeed be caught high, utilizing the space they have vacated to force the centre-backs to defend out wide – a position few find comfortable – can create nice running lanes for the likes of Giovinco. Picture Benoit Cheyrou intercepting a pass, finding a teammate, say Findley or Osorio, hugging the touchline to draw a centre-back wide, only to feed a little pass inside for a streaking Giovinco to gallop towards goal.

All three of goals Salt Lake has conceded this season have come from their defenders being put under pressure.

Arristeguieta caught the back-line sleeping and stretched from a quick throw-in for his second:


Schuler had been drawn out wide and was forced to stretch to get a touch on Cristian Maidana's toss, only to touch it into the path of a streaking Giovinco (sorry, Aristeguieta), who had broken away from the marking of Olave to pounce on the loose ball and beat Rimando.

The Union's third, saw the full-back caught high, once more forcing Schuler out wide in a vain attempt to end the threat early, putting Olave on the back-foot, facing his own goal, to rashly extend a leg and redirect the cross into his own net:


It should be pointed out Aristeguieta's tireless running played a part in that own-goal, piling more pressure on Olave and distracting Rimando and the tracking defender enough to open up that left-side of goal for the redirection.

Something about fortune favouring the bold.

But as noted by the Salt Lake coach, "Those were three very odd goals. So I’m not going to dwell on [them]."

Whether that is true, remains to be seen.

Points of Interest

Last Meeting: March 29, 2014    Salt Lake 3: Toronto 0

Interestingly, they met on the exact same day last season, similarly in TFC's third match of the year, with Salt Lake rolling out 3-0 winners, handing TFC their first loss of the season. Evil portents, indeed.

The host's first goal came from the penalty spot after just ten minutes when Doneil Henry was adjudged (by Baldomero Toledo) to have brought down Saborio, who took the kick himself, beating Joe Bendik. Luis Gil would add a second eighteen minute later, pouncing on a rebound to beat Julio Cesar with a deflected shot.  And Saborio would complete the victory ten minutes into the second half, latching onto a Morales ball over the top to finish past Cesar.

It was their third-straight win over Toronto.

Salt Lake has largely dominated the all-time series, winning seven matches and drawing two, losing four. They have won the last six matches played in Utah, outscoring TFC 16-5 during that stretch; never scoring more than three goals, but reaching that mark on four occasions, including the last three.

Both draws were played in Toronto, so TFC's only points from their travels came back in 2007 in the first-ever meeting, when Jeff Cunningham and Colin Samuel scored in either half, book-ending an Alecko Eskandarian strike.

They of course met in the CONCACAF Champions league group stage back in 2010, when Salt Lake won their home match 4-1, before drawing 1-1 in Toronto in the return fixture.

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