Here are three takeaways from Real Salt Lake’s 1-0 win over Columbus Crew on Wednesday.
1. Real Salt Lake likes the long ball
Early on in the game, it looked like Salt Lake was relying a lot on long passes rather than building from the back, a tactic the team has tried to execute more this season. A short conversation with another reporter on the beat confirmed that feeling.
But even though RSL is working more on passing through its midfield and getting through gaps in defenses with those passes, the club still likes to send passes up and over. It's actually how Sam Johnson got in position for his goal. Aaron Herrera, while trying to clear the ball, saw Johnson in the distance and just pounded it in his direction. He had no real intention to directly pass to Johnson.
But sending long balls is part of how coach Mike Petke prefers his teams to play.
“Part of our DNA and part of my philosophy is we want to find the highest option under control,” Petke said.
Case in point: Herrera’s clearance that found Johnson. While his ball up the field wasn’t explicitly meant for Johnson in that moment, it’s an example of Petke’s philosophy paying dividends even when sequences aren’t necessarily on purpose.
“The first look should always be the highest, and then you build bak from there,” Petke said. “If it’s not on highest, then you look for the next progression to play. Perhaps they followed the philosophy and maybe that’s what they did purposefully.”
2. Back line? More like impenetrable back wall
RSL had some rotation to its lineup Wednesday because the team is in the middle of three games in eight days. Donny Toia was out, and Brooks Lennon was in at right back. Kyle Beckerman served a yellow-card suspension, and Corey Baird took his place, moving Damir Kreilach to the midfield.
But it didn’t matter who was out there because they all made a concerted effort to stop Columbus Crew in their tracks. Real didn’t allow a single shot on goal to the Crew, which got off only seven total shots compared to 14 for the home team. The reason for that was Salt Lake stifled Columbus when it tried to get into its attacking third.
Below is the amount of recoveries RSL had while defending the final third. MLS defines recovery as a player controlling the ball after the opponent has lost it. So yes, Columbus shot itself in the foot by this metric, but Real should be commended for being able to amass that many recoveries in the area of the field where they mattered.
RSL also had 19 clearances in the game. The Crew had 18, but still allowed three shots on goal. Salt Lake was just better defensively all night long.
3. Learning to win ugly
For the second game in a row, RSL players and Petke were disappointed in how they played. Those two games have been victories, but they still feel like they weren’t their best performances.
Petke said that in previous years, RSL wouldn’t be winning games like this. But they’ve been able to do it lately. They’ve been able to “find a way,” as Petke described it.
Winning games like that is a trait good teams have. And RSL has never been shy about its desire to climb up and be mentioned with the likes of LAFC or Atlanta United — maybe not financially, but in the consistency in quality. In the last four days, Real has started to be a team that can dig deep and find a way to win even when it doesn’t play well.
But two games is not enough to starting saying this is the new status quo for RSL.
“Two games isn’t showing that we’re a team that finds a way all the time,” goalkeeper Nick Rimando said. “We have to continue to prove it, and the last two games, we did. So we have to continue that, continue the fight and we have to know that we have a lot of tough games ahead.”
But with every gritty win comes more confidence, which is what RSL needs to keep this run of play going. As a whole, the team appears to be pleased with how it won Wednesday.
“I don’t think we played our best game tactically and in possession of the ball, but sometimes in MLS you have to grind out results, and we got a good goal from Sam in the first half,” defender Brooks Lennon said. “We were able to hang on to that 1-0 lead. The back four was good tonight, Columbus didn’t have a ton of clear-cut chances. Sometimes you just have to grind them out and that’s what we did.”