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Monday MLS Breakdown: Preseason Expectations Yield to Regular Season Realities for RSL

By Kyle McCarthy

LEHI, Utah – Real Salt Lake general manager Garth Lagerwey wasn't expecting to have to crunch numbers and playoff scenarios with a gaggle of reporters as his team entered the stretch run.

After advancing to the Western Conference final in 2008 and acquiring key cogs Will Johnson, Clint Mathis and Robbie Russell during the playoff push, Lagerwey thought his team represented an essentially finished product heading towards the top of the table in 2009.

“I really looked at this group and said that this group is a group that is going to be in the top half of the table of the league for the entire season,” said Lagerwey, who added Ned Grabavoy, signed and released Luis Miguel Escalada and, later, re-signed Fabian Espindola to complement that group. “I looked at the group and said we're going to get off to a good start and we're going to roll from there.”

Those expectations were all well and good until the season started. Then reality, so to speak, hit them straight upside the head.

“I was guilty of being a little overconfident, the same as the entire team was,” RSL head coach Jason Kreis said. “All of the players, all of the staff, we were all a little bit overconfident about what we achieved last year. We were a little bit too happy with ourselves. We thought maybe it was going to be easy. We forgot along the way that we're not a team made up of stars.”

It didn't take long for RSL to figure out that one playoff run didn't translate into regular season dominance. After splitting home and road games in March and April, the good ship Salt Lake took on serious water in May after picking up just two points in six matches (0-4-2). Continued struggles away from Rio Tinto Stadium – RSL didn't score in its first five road games and didn't collect a road point until snapping an eight-match winless streak on the road dating back to 2008 with a 2-0 victory in Los Angeles on June 13  – exacerbated two poor home results against the Galaxy (2-2 draw on May 6) and Kansas City (2-0 loss on May 16) and plunged RSL into the depths of the Western Conference table.

The stuttering start (and a match without Kyle Beckerman and Javier Morales) forced Kreis to reevaluate his tactical approach. RSL rode a narrow 4-4-2 to the Western Conference final and continued with it in the early stages of the campaign. Although it worked like a charm during the latter half of 2008, that narrow 4-4-2 wasn't working as well early in 2009.

“For me, the (4-4-2) system is about the midfield,” Kreis said. “When our four midfielders are clicking, they are some of the smartest and best midfielders in the league collectively as a midfield. I don't think we were doing that over the first half of the season. I think some of those guys were not playing at the top of their game and that caused us issues.”

Kreis didn't name names, but then again, he probably didn't have to. RSL's narrow diamond midfield places significant pressure on Morales to create offensive chances and the Argentine playmaker hasn't followed up his glittering, Best XI-worthy 2008 campaign (6 goals, 15 assists) with a similar showing in 2009. Aside from a virtuoso display in RSL's 6-0 home win over New England on May 25, Morales struggled early in the season as defensive midfielders around the league keyed in on him, scythed him to the ground consistently (Morales entered week 20 as the most fouled player in MLS and Kreis said he thinks that the referees could and should do more to protect him) and restricted his space to roam.

Kreis decided to rectify those offensive issues by switching to a 4-3-3 formation in time for RSL's 1-1 home draw against Colorado on June 6. RSL doesn't have the wide players to run a traditional 4-4-2, but needed to find a way to create attacking alternatives while also keeping Morales away from the burden of defensive responsibilities. The three-man front line gave RSL some width in the attacking third when Morales couldn't drift wide effectively, allowed Robbie Findley and Yura Movsisyan more opportunities to isolate defenders one-versus-one to exploit their pace advantage and facilitated a more direct route to goal if Morales wasn't particularly involved. The new shape also allowed RSL to pick up better spots defensively as the two wider players up top could drop in and essentially create a 4-5-1 when the opposition picked up the ball. Morales had plenty of cover with two defensive midfielders playing behind him.  Most importantly, it jostled a few complacent players out of their comfort zones.

The results have improved significantly since Kreis made the change. RSL has picked up 12 points in its past eight league games (3-2-3) and had scored in every road game until Saturday's 1-0 loss in Chicago. RSL picked up those points despite losing Beckerman and Johnson for a month to CONCACAF Gold Cup duty. Ned Grabavoy, Russell and Mathis ably stepped in to unfamiliar spots to fill the breach in defensive midfield, but the versatility of that trio hasn't necessarily translated into other areas (the wide players in the three-man forward line have struggled to provide good service consistently, for example).

With the slide halted and RSL back in the playoff picture, Kreis is now trying to fix the perplexing consistency issues that have plagued his side all season. Looking at RSL's statistical breakdowns is an exercise in contradiction. RSL has scored three, four and six goals in a half this season, but has also been shutout six times. The same team that has posted five wins by two or more goals has also lost six matches by a similar margin.

If Lagerwey's mathematical computations are any indication, RSL will need to find that elusive consistency heading into its final 11 matches in order to secure a playoff berth. Lagerwey estimates that it will take 43 points to book a playoff place – more than has ever been required to make the postseason – in 2009. With 23 points already in the bag, RSL will have to pick up another 20 points (1.8 points per game) to book a playoff place. With visits by Chicago and Seattle, a trip to Toronto and a home and home with Houston included in that final stretch, RSL may soon lament dropping all three points to New York at Giants Stadium and Kansas City at Rio Tinto earlier this season.

Lagerwey said he knows his team has enough talent to reach that 43-point mark (entering the season, Lagerwey established 45 points as RSL's floor based on its form at the end of last season), but recently added Dutch winger Rachid El Khalifi (“He's played the 4-3-3 his whole life,” said Lagerwey about his new right-footed, left-sided player. “He's a ten-year vet in this system and he can play on either wing, which is where we're the weakest of anywhere on the field. It was a no brainer.”) to bolster the front line just in case.

Now that he has altered his preseason expectations, added to the squad and crunched all the scenarios to discern what RSL will need to accomplish to return to the playoffs, Lagerwey said he's left with just one question as the season enters the final stretch.

“From my chair, we're capable, but are we capable consistently,” Lagerwey said. “That's the one thing our guys have to go out and prove. It's one thing to say that we're talented, but it's another to prove it.”

Movsisyan's positive mentality a must for RSL's playoff push

If Real Salt Lake manages to find its way back to the playoffs, Findley (7 goals) and Movsisyan (6 goals) will have to provide the firepower. In early July, it looked like Movsisyan wouldn't be around to propel the playoff chase. Movsisyan signed a pre-contract agreement to join Randers on Jan. 1, 2010 and the Danish side submitted a transfer bid to acquire his services early.

Lagerwey said Randers' offer – pegged in the neighborhood of $250,000 by the Salt Lake Tribune – wasn't enough to tempt RSL into selling one of its prized strikers. Kreis said the decision to turn down the offer became a simple case of economics once the Danish club rejected RSL's counteroffer – pegged in excess of $700,000 by the same source – and didn't return to the bargaining table.

“To have Yura here is extremely important,” Kreis said. “I don't think he's a player we can easily replace and could certainly never replace for the type of money we were offered to sell him in the middle of the season. The decision became a simple one. It was an economic, simple decision.”

Kreis and Lagerwey praised Movsisyan's attitude and application since RSL rejected the move, but the key is how Movsisyan – a streaky goalscorer prone to ups and downs – will react as the rest of the season progresses. Although Movsisyan said he wants to focus on helping out his teammates and doesn't care where he's playing, he also revealed a glimpse of his internal struggle with the situation when asked last week whether he had expected the move to Randers to go through immediately.  

“Yes and no,” Movsisyan said. “It's difficult to answer that question. Whatever I say is going to sound bad and I'm sure you guys are going to make it even more juicy. I'll just not answer that question.”

Whether Movsisyan answers the question or not, he needs to find a way to keep his head in suburban Salt Lake City and shake off a strained right rotator cuff suffered in Saturday night's 1-0 loss in Chicago in order to support Findley and keep RSL's playoff push well stocked with goals.

Week 20 – Questions, Thoughts, and Answers

Monday MLS Breakdown Player of the Week – Jeff Cunningham, FW, FC Dallas


Just one day after losing Kenny Cooper to 1860 Munich, FCD watched as Cunningham picked up the slack for its departed franchise player. Cunningham's four goals – including a second-half hat trick – powered FCD to a shocking 6-0 home win over Kansas City on Saturday night and broke a tie with Kreis for third in the all-time MLS goalscoring chart.

“Tonight was a celebration,” Cunningham said to the Dallas Morning News. “Tonight was one of those nights every striker dreams of. Everything you do goes well...I've got to thank my teammates. They were looking for me, you know?”

Who should have diverted his attention elsewhere? Chad Barrett, FW, Toronto FC

Barrett fixated on New England fullback Kevin Alston early in Saturday's 1-1 draw at Gillette Stadium. The oft-maligned TFC forward struggled to beat the rookie defender time and again in the first half and often took out his frustrations by fouling the puffy-haired former Hoosier. After picking up a 36th minute yellow for a tackle on Alston, Barrett picked up his second card five minutes into the second half after sliding right through Alston unnecessarily on the right wing. Barrett left the field with five fouls committed and one angry coach on the sidelines.

“Chad (Barrett) was being unprofessional tonight and got himself sent off,” TFC interim boss Chris Cummins said after the Revs erased TFC's 1-0 lead while up a man. “I told him there are no second chances. He’s let the team down tonight and he’s let myself down. He’s a young kid and as long as he learns from it, then it’s not a problem. There are games where he does good things for us and scores the goals, but he’s let us down tonight and he knows that.”

Unenlightening Exchange of the Week

As the pool reporter at Gillette Stadium, I have the opportunity to submit three questions (with the chance to submit one followup question after the first three questions have been answered) in writing to the referee after the game. Since I have to hit both locker rooms after every game, I try to avoid invoking the privilege because it tends to distract from my other duties. On this night, the two dismissals in the game (Revolution boss Steve Nicol earned his walking papers shortly before the match ended) indicated that I needed to followup on a couple of points of confusion.

Here is the transcribed version of my post-game game written exchange with referee Terry Vaughn:

KM: “What, if any, impact did the four fouls Chad Barrett had previously collected in the first half have on the decision to issue the second yellow card for Barrett's tackle on Alston?”

TV:  “Commits a Direct Free Kick Foul in a reckless manner while tackling for the ball from any direction.”

KM: “What prompted Steve Nicol's dismissal?”

TV: “Irresponsible behavior.”

KM (followup): “What is irresponsible behavior?”

TV: No written answer, but an explanation conveyed through the (quite helpful) referee liaison that the behavior would be defined in the written report handed to both teams after the game.  

While the opportunity to question the referees after the match is potentially a great way to glean insight, this exchange probably wasted the time of everyone involved. It's tough to blame Vaughn for his answers because there isn't much incentive to answer expansively – he'd only get himself in more trouble if he happened to say the wrong thing, a point seemingly reinforced by the MLS referee who reportedly answered his questions in yes and no form earlier this season – and he already has to submit a written report, but it's also fairly clear that those answers won't provide much information to anyone.

It all begs the question of whether there is a better way to accomplish the same function. The best answer would be to make the referee's full report available in the days after the match, but that simply won't happen for more reasons than I can recap in a short space here. Barring a stunning display of transparency, something has to be done – whether that means asking U.S. Soccer to take the same proactive stance it takes in its weekly MLS refereeing reviews by encouraging the referees to talk freely or perhaps including the post-match interview as part of an official's match duties with corresponding repercussions should it not be carried out pursuant to the spirit of the rules – to make this a worthwhile exercise for both referee and writer.  

The Starting XI

1. The questions about whether New England striker Edgaras Jankauskas can contribute at this level should have ended after Saturday's 1-1 draw with TFC. Jankauskas scored the equalizer and submitted a clinical performance in holding up and distributing the ball. Jankauskas' finishing probably isn't quite where he wants it right now, but he adds significantly to the Revolution attack by effectively performing in his target role.

2. Give TFC interim coach Cummins some credit for breaking free from the shackles of a rigid formation and allowing Dwayne De Rosario and Pablo Vitti plenty of license to express themselves. Both players possess ample skill on the ball and operate best when given the freedom to roam and create opportunities for Ali Gerba – a handful of a target forward, at least in this pundit's eyes – and others. While Vitti didn't submit his most influential display on Saturday night, De Rosario's constant movement gave the Revolution fits in the first half and scored TFC's only goal.

3. I agree wholeheartedly with fellow MLS pundit Steve Davis on Houston's Geoff Cameron: the All-Star First XI central defender should play central defense. It's not that Cameron can't or won't play right mid – he put in an admirable shift there in Saturday's 4-3 win over D.C. United – or fill any other position Dominic Kinnear needs filled but why hand a spot in your central defense to the perpetually shaky Julius James when you've got Cameron shunted onto the right wing for the injured Brian Mullan? Cameron has distinguished himself at the back this season and should remain there despite his versatility.

4. As a former defender, United coach Tom Soehn probably looked upon his team's first half display in Houston with palpable disgust. United's real defensive problems stemmed from the lack of coverage in the corners on Houston's wide players. The outside defenders in United's usual back three – Bryan Namoff on the right and Marc Burch on the left – can't make a habit of tracking out there all of the time because it will stretch out a backline that is supposed to concede that space. The idea is for the outside midfielders to track back and fill those spots. Fred and Santino Quaranta just weren't doing it well enough in the first half and allowed Brad Davis and Cameron plenty of room to operate.

5. As for Dejan Jakovic's suggestion to The Washington Post that United should shift permanently to a four-man backline, I'm not sure I'm willing to buy it just yet because I'm not sure the personnel really accommodates the shift in defense and midfield. Namoff and Jakovic are pretty steady at the back, but questions start to pop up soon after that. Burch can play left fullback, but his defending is up and down and he really isn't suited to center back. John is a rugged veteran, but he too has vacillated between decent and not so decent this season. Greg Janicki doesn't often fare well in a three, but could play centrally in a four. Maybe David Habarugira can step right into the breach, but that's asking a lot of a 20-year-old Burundian defender who has barely stepped foot in the country. But those questions mask the real problem: who sits in United's midfield if you cut its allotment from five to four? Once Clyde Simms (hernia) returns, United already has six players for five spots. Depth's great and all, but the allocation of resources appears questionable when Fred or Rodney Wallace is cooling his heels on the bench while Janicki or John starts. Whatever Soehn decides to do, it's clear the defense needs some help.

6. Another decent road performance goes unrewarded for RSL in its 1-0 loss in Chicago. It's beginning to become a bit of a pattern, though it'd be tough to say they deserved much more than a point out of a relative snoozer at Toyota Park.

7. After posting his fourth consecutive shutout, Chicago goalkeeper Jon Busch extended his shutout streak to 374 minutes. Chicago's defensive stinginess – and the contributions from veteran squad players like C.J. Brown and Brandon Prideaux – explains why the Fire managed to hold out Cuauhtemoc Blanco and Wilman Conde and still grab maximum points.

8. “You guys can ask questions,” Kansas City head coach Curt Onalfo said after his side lost 6-0 in Frisco. “I'm not going to give you my general thoughts. It will have so many profanities in there that you won't be able to publish it.”

9. What a poor goal Colorado conceded to hand Columbus a 1-0 victory in Commerce City on Saturday night. Cory Gibbs' foul – two hands, straight to Steven Lenhart's back – didn't need to happen because Lenhart's not posing any danger in that spot. Chad Marshall's resulting free kick – aided by a little start from Robbie Rogers – didn't pose significant danger either until Matt Pickens caught it late through Gibbs' screen. The Rapids goalkeeper should have found a way to push it around the post, but instead pushed it into his own net. “We're talking about a defeat on the back of a bad goalkeeping error, if you like,” Rapids head coach Gary Smith said. Omar Cummings' profligate finishing didn't help either.

10. “We got embarrassed, and I hope they feel the way I do,” Seattle head coach Sigi Schmid said after his Sounders FC got pasted 4-0 by Western Conference cellar dwellers San Jose in NorCal.

11. Big, big difference for San Jose in the center of the park with Andre Luiz and Ramon Sanchez in the engine room for the Earthquakes. The ball actually moved through the middle of the park instead of getting turned over or sprayed to a less-than-ideal location. “I think the new players did a good job of not so much making the spectacular play, but keeping the team moving the ball and being in the right spot at the right time,” Quakes coach Frank Yallop said. “It makes a difference. You have the confidence to play into them and run off of them because they're not going to lose the ball.”

Kyle McCarthy writes the Monday MLS Breakdown and frequently writes opinion pieces during the week for Goal.com. He also covers the New England Revolution for the Boston Herald and MLSnet.com. Contact him with your questions or comments at kyle.mccarthy@goal.com and follow him on Twitter by clicking here.

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