Despite sitting fourth in the West currently, and even better for most of the season, fans and analysts have struggled to figure out what Real Salt Lake's tactical gameplan is. Many have chalked it up to "xDawg," or just wanting to win more than the opponent.
That answer is fine, but not enough to explain how RSL has done so well for so long. Plus, as the Claret and Cobalt start to skid down the standings, desire and heart is clearly either not working or not the answer.
A quote from defender Aaron Herrera in May indicates the players want an identity, and that appears to have developed recently.
I watched every single one of the team's goals this season, both for and against, to try and figure out what the approach from head coach Pablo Mastroeni is. "xDawg" certainly plays a role, but it turns out the answer is much simpler than many thought.
RSL is at its best when other teams are at their worst. Essentially, Mastroeni's side attacks in a way that makes defenses unbalanced and uncomfortable. In these moments of vulnerability, RSL pounces, hammering in goals before the opposition can recover.
The biggest way that strategy is manifest is through set pieces. 11 of RSL's 28 goals scored (39%) come from set pieces, with the team leading the leauge in goal creation from a dead pass. RSL also takes the fifth-most corners in the leauge.
Being at the top of MLS in both set piece attempts and goals is not an accident. The team frequently has possession out wide, which is a result of the "empty bucket" formation that sees no attacking midfielders centerally. The passing network from the recent Minnesota game provides a great visual example of the ball being worked wide, resulting in five corner kicks on the night, one of which turned into a goal.
Despite the optics, Jefferson Savarino (No. 11) was not playing as a second striker. That was Rubio Rubin (No. 14), who dropped so deep to get the ball he looks like a midfielder. The lead striker, Sergio Cordova (No. 10), was so uninvolved no lines appeared for him.
This passing map shows a clear trend. RSL works the ball from either the fullbacks, in this case Herrera (No. 22) and Andrew Brody (No. 2), or a central midfielder like Pablo Ruiz (No. 6), to a winger like Savarino.
Having the ball out wide results in more corners, especially with the number of crosses RSL tries. At third-most attempts in the leauge, the plan seems to be for the team to play in dangerous balls that defenders have no choice but to put out for a set piece.
Set pieces are known to be some of the most unpredictable moments in soccer where anything can happen. Many teams have stolen points with one well-timed opportunity, and RSL is no exception. The club thrives on creating predictable outcomes from unpredictable moments, where it can exploit defenses in vulnerable positions.
Run of play
The same approach of taking advantage of vulnerable defenses applies to RSL's plan in the run of play as well. The team's plethora of crosses often come from some of the highest players on the pitch (see Savarino being positionally higher than Rubin in Minnesota). Late-arriving runners can then exploit stationery defenders who have to pick up a man while tracking where the ball is.
When successful, RSL snags a goal. When unsuccessful, corner kicks are often the result, a victory in its own right given the team's abilities on restarts. The third goal against SKC two weeks ago is a great example. Even though SKC is bad, and the visitors had basically given up by the 71st minute, the goal is reflective of RSL's season as a whole, which has seen seven goals (25%) from crosses.
Herrera fires a cross that turned into a switch, even though there was not really anyone in the box. While his pass may have been premature in this instance, it shows a willingness to cross quickly. Justin Meram picks up the ball on the left side, and by the time he sends in a cross of his own, the 18 is swarming with red jerseys. Meram picks out Savarino, who goes unmarked in the chaos.
Because two consecutive balls were sent in while the defense was still dropping into the box, RSL was able to take advantage of the mayhem. The desire to fire balls at the goal and see what happens is reflected in the stats as well. The team's average shot is 15.8 yards from goal, the closest in the leauge.
The goal also highlights how the empty bucket formation keeps the ball wide in the final third. Pablo Ruiz is one of two central midfielders, but the ball is off his feet and out wide while he's still at the midfield circle.
The switch from Herrera, whether intentional or not, is another way RSL scrambles defenses. It attempts the 10th most such passes in the leauge, with the team second highest in passes over 30 yards. The long ball, regardless of direction, is the team's primary form of attack, as it attempts the seventh-fewest passes from both 5-15 and 15-30 yards.
Mastroeni loves to affirm games are won in moments, which he is right about. Despite his gameplan of long balls, Mastroeni's side completes just 56.1% of them, worst in the West and fifth-worst in MLS. Those same rankings are true for passes received successfully, regardless of type. Even crosses are not super fruitful, as RSL is dead last in the league in progressive passes, which includes balls received in the 18.
In order to make up for those low rates, RSL goes for sheer volume, waiting for just one moment of error from a defense constantly under pressure. Plus, RSL's current slide indicates the attacking plan may not be sustainable. Its 28 goals for is an outlier among clubs nearby in the Western Conference standings, with the Claret and Cobalt tied with three other sides for eighth in conference goal production. Eighth, and obviously 11th, depending on how that tie would be broken, would see RSL out of the playoff line, far below its current fourth place position.
One goal-scoring wrinkle in the run of play is to possess the ball out wide, before a smart pass or individual brilliance sets up a goal. The same opportunistic attacking principle applies, as a switch or other ball to the wings starts to unscramble a defense, allowing RSL to pounce. Take a look at Ander Brody's game winner against Austin:
Possession on the right side starts to pull the defense that way, and an Anderson Julio run toward the endline turns Austin toward its own goal. Meanwhile, Brody is just hanging out, waiting until no one is watching to make his run. The space created by an unbalanced defense gives him all the time in the world to pick out the top right corner.
Taking advantage of sloppy defending is prevalent in other goals as well. Some have come from pressuring teams in their own defensive third, resulting in turnovers or capitalization on blunders. Savarino's insurance goal against San Jose was one such instance:
Cordova doesn't do much on this play, but he runs at the San Jose defender enough to force a back pass. The header itself was disastrous, as it completely misses any teammates and goes straight to Savarino.
The big picture
One could argue that every goal in soccer comes from an offensive exploiting defensive mistakes, and that's true to an extent. But RSL is not going to be more talented, or string together quality possession to break down a well-structured defense. The cross and hope for a corner or mistake method ranks relatively low on the success scale, and it is also unreliable. Teams that have a more possession-heavy attack - often via a more talented roster - can force their way through defenses for goals instead of waiting around and hoping for a mistake like RSL has to.
That is where "xDawg" comes in. In the rare moments opponents do make mistakes, RSL must be lethal to make the moment count. Wanting to win more than your opponent goes a long way toward taking even the tiniest of errors and turning it into a big enough chance to score. That is something Mastroeni has preached throughout his tenure.
Having one main line of attack makes breaking down smart and/or more talented teams difficult. RSL had a season-high 69.3% possession against Dallas, but still resorted to mainly crosses, sending in 25. While the effort produced 25 shots, only five were on goal. Dallas took advantage of a defensive error to grab an early goal, allowing them the ability to sit deep, making it less likely they would be stretched and produce mistakes.
The shot barrage against Dallas and beating up on a bad SKC team shot RSL up to 12th in MLS total shots, coming in at 11th in shots on target. But prior to the SKC game RSL was 20th in both categories.
RSL's possession numbers also indicate the team has fewer opportunities to exploit errors. It has held a majority of the ball just seven times this season. The Dallas game was the first time the Claret and Cobalt broke 60%. A 46.7% total possession rate is also fourth-fewest in the West and eighth-fewest in the leauge.
The biggest problem, however, is at striker. The three No. 9s are all below their expected goal mark this season. Cordova, who also has the most minutes, is the biggest culprit. His four goals lag far behind his 7.3 xG. That discrepancy puts him in the bottom six percent of MLS forwards this season.
Bobby Wood has 4.1 xG for three goals, while the seldom-used Rubin has 0.9 xG and no goals. As a team, the Claret and Cobalt's 30.7 xG is average, good for seventh in its conference and fourth among West playoff teams. But the difference from xG to actual goals is fourth-worst in the West.
That stat would be even worse if it was not for defenders taking advantage of set pieces. Justen Glad's three goals is much better than his 1.8 xG, as is Marcelo Silva's two to 1.5 xG and Tate Schmitt's 2 to 0.5 xG.
Bringing quality players into the team would likely see RSL's goal scoring tally soar. Look no further than Savarino, whose four goals have come off an xG of just 2.4. Prior to his latest contribution to the score sheet, Savarino had three goals with just .8 xG. Even Meram is clinical this season, notching three goals to go with an even 3.0 xG.
The issue in defense is that the talent gap (RSL had the lowest payroll in MLS entering the season) is frequently exploited. The backline often gets burned by central through balls, which are well placed by midfielders who have ample space to pick the right pass. Six of the 27 goals against have gone from through balls, with eight more coming from the other team just being better in various ways. The fiasco in the Bronx showed this time and again.
For such a small field, NYCFC sure had a lot of space on that goal. They go back to front quickly and concisely, simply exposing RSL's inability to keep up with talent. The ball from midfield is well-timed, and while Mastroeni is probably wondering where his left back was, the play shows how easily the backline is beat by a good pass.
Minnesota did the same thing against a better-organized defense.
Another strange problem is the team consistently attempts plays that do not work. Despite attempting the eighth-most aerial duels leauge-wide, RSL is sixth-worst in aerial duels won, with a 47.4% rate. Losing a majority of these balls, especially at the volume they are attempted, leads to the low possession numbers. This strategy may be part of putting defenses under pressure (see Savarino's San Jose goal), but it is weird to see the tactical plan consistently include such an unproductive approach. Then again, a lot of of what RSL does is unproductive, further adding to the concerns that the team is unsustainable.
But a club does not spend nearly two-thirds of a season at the top of the West on accident, so RSL must have some sense of sustainability. The recent slide has not been great, but the team has elite enough wingers to produce sufficient chaos out wide to keep finding a way to score.
(Advanced stats via FB Ref)