SANDY — Wednesday's match will be the only time Real Salt Lake faces the Philadelphia Union this season. RSL is currently the hottest team in Major League Soccer with seven wins across all competitions and unbeaten in its last 10 games across all competitions.
Four players missed Wednesday night's game with national team duty (Rimando, Beltran, Beckerman, and Saborio) filling the holes with a makeshift lineup that Philadelphia tried to exploit with physical play and a high attacking line. It rattled Yordany Alvarez, filling in for Kyle Beckerman in the all-critical holding midfield position, and RSL struggled to develop much momentum through the midfield all night.
Carlos Salcedo, filling in for an injured Chris Schuler, has been rock solid each time he's played for the Claret and Cobalt this season. He played well Wednesday night, except for one poor judgment call against crafty Philadelphia veteran Conor Casey who exploited a misjudged slide tackle in the box to assist Philadelphia's Sebastian Le Toux to an easy score to put RSL in the hole early.
RSL came back out in the second half as off kilter as it had been during the first half. Kreis wasted little time pulling Alvarez, Robbie Findley and Khari Stephenson from the game and replacing them with Luis Gil, Sebastian Velasquez and Olmes Garcia. All three had an impact but Gil and Velasquez were instrumental in bringing RSL level with Philadelphia in the 75th minute. Velasquez with his effort to keep the ball in Philly's end, and Gil with the header off Javier Morales’ corner kick. Philly responded almost immediately with another goal and it looked like RSL might end its unbeaten streak.
But speaking of Javier Morales, RSL's master midfielder went into beast mode, keeping Philly's defense on their heels during the final 30 minutes, and putting away a 94th minute PK to bring RSL level. And that with only 10 men after Lovel Palmer was sent off with a red card in the 59th minute. The fireworks the followed the game seemed like a continuation of the fireworks on the field as RSL turned the final 30 minutes into a visceral display of grit, determination and ability.
Josh Saunders is a quality keeper. Having won a cup with the LA Galaxy in 2012, RSL is fortunate to have such a quality backup to national team call-up Nick Rimando. That said, Saunders is not Rimando. He had a few nice saves Wednesday, but might have played more of a factor in defending the slowly developed play that gave Philadelphia its first goal, even if it wasn't necessarily his fault. Additionally, Saunders’ distribution into the midfield lacked the pinpoint accuracy RSL is used to with Rimando minding the net. Kreis seemed to have anticipated this, and as a result, much of Saunders distribution ended up on the ground for a buildup off the back line whenever possible. That said, Saunders made perhaps the most important save of his RSL tenure Wednesday when in the waning minutes of regulation, Philadelphia's Sebastian Le Toux was alone in the midfield when RSL misfired on a corner kick. Le Toux got the ball at midfield and almost strolled into the box to find a very big Josh Saunders, who parried away Le Toux's lethargic shot on goal. It ended up being the difference between a 3-2 loss and a 2-2 tie.
Tactics: The absence of Tony Beltran in the defensive lineup due to national team duty and Chris Schuler to a still-ailing foot gave Jason Kreis the opportunity to try out a completely new look on the back line. Lovel Palmer filled in for Beltran, rookie Carlos Salcedo filled in for Chris Schuler and Nat Borchers and Chris Wingert guarded their standard posts at right-center back and left back respectively.
Chris Wingert was a steadying force against Philadelphia's high line of attack. His physicality against Philly bruiser Conor Casey was solid in the air, and he kept his cool even with Casey on a rampage to tick off someone on the back line.
Nat Borchers played a critical role in helping RSL to settle down after Philadelphia's early go-ahead goal. Conor Casey was on a mission to get inside every RSL defenders’ head Wednesday, and Borchers' steady influence — not to mention his feisty physicality — kept Casey at bay and helped the RSL defense rebuild its confidence. Borchers unfortunately proved defensive mistakes can plague the best of them when he found himself on the end of another poor defensive tackle that allowed Philly to move back into the lead in the 76th minute off an easy Casey tap in.
Carlos Salcedo showed his youth in the 13th minute when he played off Conor Casey in the midfield, allowing him to win a ball and create space that Salcedo made up for with a nice run to the end line. However, the youngster went down for a slide tackle in the box that the veteran Casey easily side stepped to coolly slot the ball inside to a waiting Sebastian Le Toux who had no trouble dining the ball into the back of the net.
Lovel Palmer did well filling in for Tony Beltran. He didn't seem to have a case of whatever it was that appeared to have Yordany Alvarez flummoxed much of the game, or the boneheaded positioning and tactical errors that came uncharacteristically from Carlos Salcedo. His quality of play helped significantly to both settle the game in the defensive end, and to create some linking opportunities for RSL along the right side of the pitch. In a strange turn of events, Lovel was sent off with a red card in the 59th minute for what looked both during the play and in replays to have been both a legal and clean tackle on Philadelphia's Michael Farfan.
Tactics: Kyle Beckerman is away with national team duty in the Gold Cup. Last week's goal scorer, Yorday Alvarez, filled in for Beckerman. Kreis went back to a 4-4-2 formation from his 4-3-3 that harried Toronto's back line last week.
Ned Grabavoy: Grabavoy played two positions Wednesday night, attacking wing and holding midfielder after the Alvarez sub. He was excellent at both positions. His play at holding mid was the difference in the second half, allowing Javier Morales more freedom to roam and attack along Philadelphia's back line and exact an assist and a goal on the visiting Union.
Javier Morales played solid soccer in the first half, but he seemed possessed by both the officiating and the ejection of Lovel Palmer in the second half. The addition of Luis Gil and the repositioning of Ned Grabavoy to the holding midfield spot gave Morales much better service out of the backfield and that, combined with terrific individual skill and effort, put RSL back into the game during the final 30 minutes of the game. But without 11 men on the field, it would have taken much stronger play from the entire team during the second half to keep RSL tied up after Luis Gil's goal. But that didn't phase Morales. The RSL all-star found himself at the penalty spot in the 94th minute after a Raymon Gaddis handball in the box and pinged one in off the right post to bring RSL level to stay unbeaten in their last seven games across all competition and win Man of the Match.
Yordany Alvarez looked rattled at times during the first half. Philadelphia played a very high line of engagement and the pressure gave Alvarez fits. He struggled to link up with Javier Morales and the forward line and RSL struggled to find much rhythm during the first half.
Khari Stephenson struggled to find a way into the attack without Kyle Beckerman directing play in the midfield. His positioning was too shallow much of the game, though his touch and physical presence were decent quality. He did have a shot from distance in the 44th minute that gave fans some hope, but it skidded low and wide left to no avail.
Luis Gil (Sub '58) Jason Kreis had enough of Alvarez's struggle at defensive mid and subbed him out in place of Luis Gil, who moved into Ned Grabavoy's spot to get into the attack. He made a massive impact, scoring off a Javier Morales corner kick in the 75th minute to even things up — his third goal of the season, all three scored with his head.
Sebastian Velasquez (Sub '71) had an immediate impact, putting a beautiful stopover move on Philly's right back Raymond Gaddis, taking him out of the play completely and taking the attack into the box to Plata, who played it back to him for a near goal but for a fingertip save. He was pure magic with his feet much of the night, including his pesky play in the box in the 94th minute that threw Philly defender Raymon Gaddis off enough to throw up his hand and deflect the ball that put Javier Morales at the PK spot.
Tactics: Alvaro Saborio was out for the second game in a row for Gold Cup duty with the Costa Rican national team. Kreis elected to go for speed and more speed with Joao Plata and Robbie Findley.
Robbie Findley played perhaps his poorest game of the season. He was lethargic and his second touch, particularly in the attacking third was poor. He had two shots but neither challenged Philly keeper Zac MacMath.
Joao Plata made every moment count Wednesday night. With his team struggling for the first 60 minutes, he was a bright spot on the forward line. Plata tracked down ball after ball and used his speed and quickness to keep RSL in the game during the first half, and putting the one-man up Philadelphia defense on their heels the final 30 minutes of the game.
Olmes Garcia (Sub '56) struggled Wednesday. His touch was off — he lacked patience and just seemed anxious after being subbed in to what, at the time, seemed to be a tired and dejected losing RSL side. His effort and speed injected some energy into the game, and perhaps that, combined with the tremendous efforts of Luis Gil, Javier Morales and Joao Plata, was the difference in the game.