When I don't have to make a lot of saves it's my best game. That means we're organized and means that the defense is intact. —RSL goalkeeper Nick Rimando
In a 2-0 win against the Whitecaps on Saturday, the Real Salt Lake defensive unit tightened up, allowing Vancouver very few chances. Prior to the game, defense was a concern for the coaching staff considering the defensive effort shown the previous week.
After a 2-0 loss to L.A in which Real Salt Lake gave up two goals within the first 15 minutes to an injury-ridden Galaxy team, RSL clearly needed to clean up its act on the defensive end. Asked by the coaching staff to come out with more intensity, the Claret and Cobalt first 11 did just that.
“That's improvement,” RSL head coach Jason Kreis said in his postgame comments. “That's what we asked our players to do. We needed improvement in the first 15 minutes of the match and I think we got it.”
Despite a better showing in the opening minutes, Kreis was not totally pleased with the first half of play. The Whitecaps had some dangerous crosses and situations where they could have scored, but the difference was the RSL back four. Kreis didn't have any complaints of his defenders, however he was not pleased with the rest of the team losing the ball in critical spots on the field.
“I felt like Vancouver was giving us some troubles in the first half, serving a lot of really dangerous balls into the box,” Kreis said. “But I think the majority of that wouldn't be so much about how our defensive unit played, that would be about the decisions we were making with the ball.”
Statistics back up Kreis' statement, with the Whitecaps 26 crosses coming in open play, not off set pieces. With an addition of six corner kicks, it would seem that RSL goalkeeper Nick Rimando would've been called upon more often than the three saves he made. The difference was the steady defensive force created by Nat Borchers, Chris Schuler, Tony Beltran and Chris Wingert.
“When I don't have to make a lot of saves it's my best game,” Rimando said. “That means we're organized and means that the defense is intact.”
In the 62nd minute with Vancouver nearly scoring an equalizing goal, Rimando deflected a shot and the ball trickled toward the goal line. Borchers slid in a heroic effort to prevent the goal and clear the ball from the line. It was this kind of stacked, team defensive effort that gave RSL a clear advantage in the game.
“I think we did everything right to keep them off the board,” Borchers said. “We gave them, I think maybe one or two chances and it seemed like we dealt with those pretty well. Everyone was in good spots tonight and was just committed to defending.”
RSL's four defenders have played numerous games together and, with the addition of Wingert making his full return from injury and first MLS start of the 2013 season, RSL's backline seemed to finally be complete. Although Kenny Mansally and Lovel Palmer's play at left back has been stellar at times, Real Salt Lake has lacked consistency at that position. Wingert adds an extra boost for the defensive unit.
“I was really pleased to have him out there, he's a steady influence I think on the rest of the group,” Kreis said. “He puts himself in some really good spots just to intercept passes ... then he made some really nice tackles. That's important for our guys to see somebody that's willing and able to do that.”
Wingert affirmed that after numerous games with them at his side, he is comfortable playing with Borchers, Schuler and Beltran, and fitting back into the lineup is second nature. In order to rehab fully, he knows he needed to play in reserve games, but admitted he's here to play on the first team. He's looking to continue to compete for his starting spot in order to help his team earn points each week.
“We are playing to play in the first team games,” Wingert said. “Try and help the team earn points. My whole focus the past (four months) has been to get back out there and to be in good form so I can help the team win.”
Though it seems obvious, Wingert said his role on the team is to stop the opposing midfielders. However, on Real Salt Lake in particular, the outside back position is also used to create width. RSL's midfielders tend to pinch in, and he said it's important to push up to feed the attack. This is one thing Wingert does well and it often helps the defense create offensive opportunities.
Mansally started Real Salt Lake's first four games and in the most recent three, with exception of Saturday, Palmer received the starting assignment. The addition of Palmer in the offseason added depth and for the first time in years, RSL is truly four deep at the outside back position. In the first third of the season without Wingert, this depth proved to be a huge difference in every game. In addition, the depth adds a healthy amount of friendly competition among RSL's defense.
Along with the rest of Real Salt Lake's position groups, as the squad heals from injuries that plagued them earlier in the season, the defensive unit is beginning to take the pressure off of Rimando and resume play as one of the toughest defenses in MLS.
Whitney O'Bannon is a new media sports writer for the Deseret News. Follow on Twitter at @whitney_oban.