Three Points: An early look at two strikers, duels lost, and did RSL commit a handball?

Real Salt Lake lost its first game after drawing or winning its previous four.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Real Salt Lake midfielder Damir Kreilach (8) makes a shot on goal in MLS action between Real Salt Lake and Minnesota United FC at Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy, on Saturday, May 29, 2021.

Here are there observations from Real Salt Lake’s 2-1 loss to the Seattle Sounders from beat writer Alex Vejar.

1. Handball or no handball?

RSL lost the game on a penalty shot that came as a result of Anderson Julio getting called for a handball in the 86th minute of the game. Below is video of the sequence for reference.

The ball definitely hits Julio’s left arm. The quibble RSL players had was it went off his chest first before reaching his arm. Albert Rusnák could be seen on the broadcast arguing that point, and it was reflected in coach Freddy Juarez’s comments after the game, although he did not want to give a definitive opinion before watching film of the sequence.

“Many people have messaged me saying it wasn’t a penalty, that it hit him twice on the body before hitting his arm,” Juarez said. “I think with the new rule, that’s not a penalty. That’s not a handball.”

Here is how the 2021-22 update for FIFA’s Laws of the Game from FIFA defines a handball offense, other than the obvious. If a player “touches the ball with their hand/arm when it has made their body unnaturally bigger,” it’s a handball.

Furthermore, “a player is considered to have made their body unnaturally bigger when the position of their hand/arm is not a consequence of, or justifiable by, the player’s body movement for that specific situation. By having their hand/arm in such a position, the player takes a risk of their hand/arm being hit by the ball and being penalized.”

Going by that definition, it does seem like Julio’s left arm is coming up as the ball is coming toward him after bouncing off Raúl Ruidíaz. It’s true that the ball appears to hit his chest/shoulder before it hits his arm, but perhaps what the referees saw was a situation where Julio’s arm didn’t actually need to be in that position.

It’s a tough and unlucky call for Real Salt Lake. But in this case, it appears it was the right one.

2. Early look at two strikers

New RSL striker Bobby Wood made his club and Major League Soccer debut against the Sounders. When the starting lineup came out, Wood was on the bench, indicating that there was at least a chance he would appear.

But when Juarez pulled the trigger in the 67th minute, he didn’t sub Wood in for fellow striker Rubio Rubin. Instead, he took out midfielder Nick Besler and opted to go with a two-striker system. When it happened, the announcers on the broadcast immediately started trying to figure out when RSL last had two strikers play in the same game. It’s been that long.

“It was good to be side by side with him,” Rubin said.

Wood did not play in last Saturday’s game, but he’s been training with the team for about two weeks. Rubin said that during that time, he’s been talking to Wood and the two have been trying to “figure each other out” in terms of gameplay.

Juarez said he liked what he saw from Wood, first pointing out how his big body made it difficult for Seattle’s center backs to jump over him. He also liked how Wood exhibited some leadership and a desire to get in the box when the ball was played wide.

It remains to be seen how Wood will factor into the lineup once he becomes fit enough to play a full 90 minutes. Saturday could have been an experiment for Juarez to see how playing two strikers can look moving forward.

3. Looking at duels

RSL this season has done well competing and sometimes winning Juarez’s favorite hustle stat: duels. Those are when a player wins a ball when two players have a 50-50 chance of getting it.

But against the Sounders on Saturday, RSL lost the duels battle 51-38. It was the largest margin of defeat for Salt Lake in that statistic in all eight games this season.

RSL duels won vs. every opponent this season

• Minnesota 56, RSL 48

• RSL 41, Sporting KC 35

• San Jose 44, RSL 39

• Nashville 40, RSL 38

• FC Dallas 53, RSL 49

• RSL 49, Minnesota 38

• Vancouver 45, RSL 44

• Seattle 51, RSL 38

Juarez likes the statistic because, he has said, it tells him a lot about his team’s effort on any given night. Win the duels battle, RSL has a very good chance of coming away with the result.

But it wasn’t so against the Sounders. Rubin said Seattle was winning a lot of those situations early on in the game, when RSL looked ragged and like it would concede a goal much earlier than it actually did.

“I don’t know what it was today, but we were obviously a step behind,” Rubin said.

RSL has another game on Saturday at home against the Houston Dynamo. It’s a short turnaround and the team will want to redeem itself after a loss. Duels will be a statistic to watch in that game to see if RSL is tired and a step behind again.

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