Three Points: RSL goes diamond, defense has a rough night, and the goals that weren’t

Minnesota United midfielder Kevin Molino (7) shoots the ball while defended by Real Salt Lake midfielder Kyle Beckerman (5) during the first half of an MLS soccer game, Sunday, Sept, 6, 2020 in St. Paul, Minn. (Jeff Wheeler/Star Tribune via AP)

Here are three observations from Real Salt Lake’s 4-0 loss to Minnesota United.

1. Diamond in the rough

The year 2014 was the last time RSL aficionados saw their beloved team play a 4-4-2 diamond formation. It’s a setup that harkens back to days of old, when Jason Kreis coached a squad that won a ton of games and legitimately contended for trophies.

RSL dusted off the diamond against the Loons, but it wasn’t fan service or experimentation for experimentation’s sake. The decision to set up that way was a product of who coach Freddy Juarez decided to start.

The truncated nature that is the Major League Soccer schedule right now is forcing more lineup rotations than usual. RSL used 10 new starters Sunday, a whopping number. And because the guys he wanted to use included two forwards, he thought a 4-4-2 might actually make sense.

“The personnel that was going to play this game, this was the tactical formation that would set them up for success,” RSL assistant general manager Tony Beltran told The Salt Lake Tribune.

Juarez asked Beltran and captain Kyle Beckerman for their feedback on playing the 4-4-2 diamond because as two players who played under Kreis, they have intimate knowledge of how that system works. Ultimately, Juarez decided to give it a shot.

For the first half and some of the second, the shift seemed to work. Salt Lake kept Minnesota’s offense at bay and got some good looks of its own. Defensively, there were multiple occasions where the number advantage stopped Minnesota’s buildups in their tracks.

Midfielder Nick Besler thought RSL could have done a better job taking advantage of the new look when it had the ball.

“I think we could have done a better job of keeping the ball in the middle,” midfielder Nick Besler said. “We had the number advantage and I think we could’ve had longer spells of the game keeping the ball.”

Juarez said he liked that he had two options with the two forwards up top in Douglas Martinez and Sam Johnson. He liked how a numbers advantage in the midfield came so naturally. With more prep time, RSL could have added more wrinkles to the formation, he said.

RSL went to back its normal 4-2-3-1 in the 73rd minute.

Beltran said it’s certainly possible that circumstances could dictate RSL going to back to the 4-4-2 diamond at some point this season, but people should not expect to see it week to week.

Still, Beltran couldn’t help but think about the old days when he saw that diamond on the field.

“It’s kind of fun to see RSL play the diamond again,” Beltran said. “It definitely does give me nostalgia.”

2. Defense had a very bad night

Goalkeeping stats are unfair.

Zac MacMath’s goals allowed on the season jumped to seven after Sunday’s game. He’s a veteran goalkeeper who earned the starting spot to start 2020 before the coronavirus pandemic hit, and he kept it in Orlando. Andrew Putna played the previous three games before MacMath started again.

But MacMath gave up a lot of goals. So is he bad all of a sudden? The short answer is no.

“It’s the team, the team, the team,” Juarez said. “It’s never just the goalie. The only way it could just be the goalie is if Zac caught a ball and then just threw it back into the net.”

Juarez is right. I brought up the fact that MacMath has given up seven goals this season, and asked Juarez if he still had confidence in him. Juarez said he thought it was a bad question.

Right again. Here’s why.

Looking back at each of the four goals RSL gave up, each of them revealed a mistake by someone in the back four that sprung a Minnesota player who either scored or assisted on a goal.

In the first clip, all of RSL’s midfield and defense is sucked in to the right side. Chase Gasper is on the other side of the field with tons of space.

Despite trying very hard, RSL can’t dispossess the Loons and the ball ends up with Gasper, who had a running start and only MacMath to beat. Glad tries closing to the side that’s his responsibility, but he was so narrow that he probably didn’t have enough time to get back.

The second clip shows Glad doing a good job getting the tackle and forcing the ball out of Minnesota’s possession. But Glad stays behind as the Loons get the ball back and pass ahead to Robin Lod, who he was guarding, and there’s no way he can get back in time. Onuoha tries to sprint back, but in vain.

For the third goal, Glad and Erik Holt miscommunicated and ran into each other. Raheem Edwards somehow got the pass off despite between almost squeezed between those two. MacMath’s positioning here is definitely questionable as it forced Onuoha to cover for him, which he tried to do but got beat.

On the final one, Tate Schmitt leaves his area to after Hassani Dotson receiving the ball. But Schmitt stops short of truly challenging. Dotson hops around Schmitt and finds Lod wide open in the area Schmitt had just left. Schmitt probably wants that sequence back.

Goalkeepers are the last line of defense, and there are likely some decisions MacMath would have made differently upon reflection. But when the defenders in front are out of position so often, leaving MacMath on an island, he shouldn’t get all the blame.

3. Goals that didn’t count

The scoreboard may have read zero for RSL, but it could have very easily been three.

RSL put the ball in the back of the net three times against Minnesota, which lends credence to the idea that the attack has been working recently, and working really well. Salt Lake just ran into some bad luck, and unfortunately officiating was involved.

Two of the goals RSL scored were later waved off due to players called offside. One was from defender Nedum Onuoha on a set piece where his shoulder appeared sightly ahead of the final defender. The other was a situation in which Sam Johnson’s shoulder and foot were ahead of a defender before he passed to Corey Baird for the goal.

But it was the shot from forward Giuseppe Rossi that was hit in the air by Loons goalkeeper Dayne St. Clair and appeared to float into the goal and past the goal line before he caught it that frustrated the team. The video assist referee didn’t look at the sequence, Juarez said, because a good camera angle wasn’t available.

Those that watched the game on television saw a replay from the side of the goal that appeared show the ball pass the goal line.

Juarez is not the type to get upset at and complain about officiating. But he made some comments about them Sunday.

“I feel like lately, when it’s something that’s close for us, no one ever really goes and takes the time on the VAR to take a look for us,” Juarez said. “Yet anything close for the opponent is always paused and always … taken a look at. And that one for me was like, come on.”

Onuoha said that even if someone isn’t an RSL fan, that moment definitely looked like a goal. And if that call goes in their favor, Nedum thinks the game could have had a different result.

“We’re disappointed to not have been given that,” Onuoha said. “Because as I say, goals change games. And I think giving us a 1-nil lead at that point, I would’ve fancied us to continue and win the game.”