Different faces. Same beautiful game.
That's what fans saw at Gillette Stadium Saturday night as Real Salt Lake handed the New England Revolution their first loss of 2011 with a 2-0 win. Coming off a hard-fought match against Deportivo Saprissa in Costa Rica this past Wednesday that put them through the CONCACAF Champion's League finals and with three games over the next 14 days, including the first leg of the CONCACAF finals against Mexican side Monterrey, all eyes were on Jason Kreis. Most knew he would make changes to his starting 11. Especially with Jamison Olave and Alvaro Saborio nursing injuries. But nobody expected a nearly complete shift in staff. Starting only three of the (somewhat) usual suspects in Russell, Grabavoy and Johnson, Kreis maintained his usual diamond 4-4-2 formation, while filling it with a host of bench players, including Kyle Reynish at goal.
This proved to be one of many spectacular tactical moves made by Kreis in Saturday's game. The fourth year coach is making a name for himself as one of the boldest and most savvy in the game by mixing the tried and true with the unexpected. Here's how it looked on Saturday night.
A deep bag of tricks
A lot of the props need to go to RSL GM Garth Lagerway for piecing together such a potent second team. Of course the primary reason for playing the reserves was to give the starters a breather as they prepare for perhaps the toughest two weeks of RSL's season, but it proved tactically sound on Saturday as well, since New England ended up facing unfamiliar players who bring such a different skill set to the game. For instance, New England likely prepared for the holding style and air game of Alvaro Saborio and the slashing runs of Fabian Espindola at the forward position. But when met with speed and agility of Paulo Jr. and Arturo Alvarez, their back line just couldn't keep the two forwards at bay. Saturday proved RSL's bag of tricks is deep and could prove to be its most powerful weapon as the season progresses.
Everybody in Major League Soccer knows RSL plays a diamond 4-4-2. But like the Lakers and their Triangle offense, when you've got the right personnel to play it, it doesn't matter. Kreis' ability to fill that diamond midfield with a revolving door of skilled players makes it even more deadly. Revolution star Shalrie Joseph was frustrated all night Saturday by the formation, which kept him from pushing higher into the final third where he makes his money. The foundation of the diamond is the defensive midfielder. Jean Alexandre did an admirable job filling in for Kyle Beckerman, but lacked some of the quickness and awareness of the cagey veteran, causing him to draw a yellow card before the half and leading Kreis to pull him in favor of Beckerman midway through the second half. The difference was notable, as the midfield switches came from deeper and opened up the field for Real's talented skill players to control the speed of the game.
Real Salt Lake dominated possession throughout the game with great distribution out of the back and stellar ball control in the midfield. Robbie Russell's 50 yard switches were superb while every single midfielder had the chance to proved not only adept at evading New England's high pressure and swarming defense, but their ball handling skills with quick, tight passes that kept New England chasing shadows all night long and frustrating them to the point of two midfielders being ejected by game's end.
Kreis is known for preaching defense at every position. And not just cover defense. Hard pressing, physical defense. Against New England, he drew his line of engagement nearly 10 yards ahead of the midfield circle and it was too much for the young Revs. They never mounted a serious buildup out of the back and RSL took advantage time and again by using pressure to win the ball in New England's half and immediately counterattacking. Paulo Jr.'s solo goal was the result of terrific high field defense from fellow forward Alvarez and a perfectly slotted ball from my player of the match, Collen Warner, who assisted on Real's other goal as well.
Often the deadliest time in a soccer game, transitions are tricky. So far this year, Real has been textbook perfect at them and Saturday night was no different, even with the young guns on the field. Saturday's squad could have seen this game as an opportunity to show off their individual talents and go it alone but instead they played as a team, showing terrific patience and poise. These guys held their shape so well and shifted gears from offense to defense and back to offense so seamlessly they left no question in anybody's mind that the line between first and second team is very thin indeed at Real Salt Lake.
In the end, Saturday's win proved that Jason Kreis' life just got a lot harder when it comes to staffing his side for coming games. I have a feeling that's a problem he's happy to have.
Chris Higbee is the Product Director for DeseretNews.com and a soccer fan for life. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @chigbee.