The timing couldn’t have been tricker for Real Salt Lake to face the San Jose Earthquakes in a game with massive playoff implications.
RSL travels to San Jose on Wednesday after drawing with FC Dallas just this past Saturday. Short rest is the norm during the coronavirus pandemic, but the Earthquakes are not a normal Major League Soccer team.
San Jose plays man-to-man defensively for the full 90 minutes and thus like to speed up its opponent. No other team in the league plays that way, which makes the Earthquakes a difficult scout even with a full week to prepare for them.
And with just three games remaining in the regular season and RSL sitting in ninth place in the Western Conference, a game against the league’s most tactically unique team doesn’t look promising. But RSL’s goal is to muster the appropriate amount of effort to reduce the seismic nature of the Earthquakes.
“If we don’t match and overcome the way they work and the way they fight on the field and then all the tackles and the duels in the air [and] on the ground,” midfielder Albert Rusnák said, “you can’t have success if you don’t at least match that.”
RSL AT SAN JOSE EARTHQUAKES
When • Wednesday, 8:30 p.m. MDT
TV • KMYU
San Jose sits eighth in the West — that’s above the playoff line — and only two points ahead of Salt Lake. If RSL wants to stay within striking distance of the playoffs, it needs at least a draw. But a win would catapult Salt Lake back into the playoff picture.
“We’re going over there to win,” coach Freddy Juarez said. “We understand the importance of it.”
RSL has won five road games against San Jose and lost eight of them, while drawing four. The last time Real played the Earthquakes was in a Round of 16 game in the MLS is Back Tournament. Salt Lake lost that game 5-2.
Juarez said San Jose has improved since last season in its style of play. The man-marking style it has developed has gotten smarter, he said. But he believes RSL has improved over this season as well, evidenced by how many scoring opportunities the team created against Dallas.
Juarez said the Earthquakes have created enough chances to win every game he’s seen from them. But they also give up many chances to opponents. In light of that, Juarez is looking to balance the level of fight versus the level of patience RSL will need to succeed.
Juarez said the key to unlocking San Jose is making quick and smart decisions. Limiting touches on the ball. Receiving the ball on the move.
Rusnák said the team shouldn’t expect to have much space when players receive the ball, so sharp passes will be important. And when one-on-one situations present themselves, Rusnák said, that’s the time to break the Earthquakes defense down. He’ll have some responsibility in that.
“Once you beat the man and start outnumbering them and running at their back line four against three, five against four, that’s where we’re going to find the success,” Rusnák said. “So whether I can do that with the ball or with the pass to break them open and to create some chances for us, that will be my role.”
Juarez said there will be chaotic moments when playing the Earthquakes. RSL will have to control the chaos while also attempting to out-energize them on the field in moments like winning second balls, quickly transitioning into a defensive block when San Jose wins the ball, and matching the speed and urgency of play and the intensity during set pieces.
“I think all of that stuff you can match or overmatch — ideally you overmatch intensity, but in a controlled manner,” Juarez said.