SANDY — Real Salt Lake dug itself a hole early against the Charleston Battery in the U.S. Open Cup Wednesday at Rio Tinto Stadium. Then, in a 40-minute stretch spanning the final 25 minutes of regulation and the first 15 minutes of overtime, Real Salt Lake exploded offensively, scoring five goals. How? Tactics.
An early 2-0 advantage allowed Charleston to bunker down. As such, RSL was forced to battle 10 Battery men inside Charleston’s penalty area for more than 50 minutes. On the occasions that Charleston managed to get the ball past RSL’s midfield, the Battery’s three-man front line enjoyed a decent advantage in the counterattack game.
In the end, RSL’s offensive-minded substitutions and massive advantage in the possession game, plus a little luck, gave Devon Sandoval two goals, Joao Plata and Javier Morales one goal each from the penalty spot and Khari Stephenson one goal from another 20-yard wonder strike. The final result — a 5-2 victory — was what RSL desperately wanted, even if it took longer and was more difficult than the Claret and Cobalt hoped.
Prior to the match, head coach Jason Kreis repeatedly emphasized the importance of the U.S. Open Cup tournament to both the media and his club. That, along with the fact that RSL is in the middle of a two-week break from MLS play, meant that most of the team's starting 11 came from its regular starting lineup.
When RSL’s substitutes came on, everyone knew Kreis was serious about this game. The better-conditioned and technically superior Utah squad simply put the hammer down and dominated.
Here’s a breakdown of how each individual position group performed in Wednesday night’s match versus the Charleston Battery.
Starters: Devon Sandoval, Olmes Garcia
Substitutions: Joao Plata for Aaron Maund (defender) in the 63rd minute, Robbie Findley for Olmes Garcia in the 75th minute
Tactical shift: RSL went to a 3-4-3 formation when Kreis substited Plata, a forward, for Maund, a defender, in the 63rd minute.
Through the first half, Real Salt Lake’s attack severely struggled, and allowing the two Charleston goals didn’t make matters easier. Charleston abandoned the attack and put virtually everyone behind the ball, determined not to allow RSL to get through, which really frustrated Garcia and Sandoval.
“I actually think he wasn’t the sharpest,” Kreis said of Sandoval, “until he scored the goal, and then I thought he was fantastic. The work rate is always there. He scored that goal and then he really didn’t put a foot wrong the rest of the way.”
The key in the change was a dual substitution in the 63rd minute. Plata came in and RSL shifted its shape, putting three forwards at the top — Plata, Garcia and Sandoval. RSL instantly became twice as dangerous at the top, particularly because of Plata’s passing. Sandoval finally broke through in the 66th minute, and Plata earned and took the penalty kick that sent the game to extra time.
“All the guys who came into the match were difference-makers for me," Kreis said, "and that’s what you need to have. The guys coming off the bench were critical. All of them did well, worked hard and were part of the difference.”
Sandoval was everywhere in the second half; as service in the box improved, so did his game. He got RSL its first goal and tied RSL’s U.S. Open Cup scoring record (three goals) with a second goal in the first overtime. He also took the foul that earned RSL a penalty in the 108th minute.
Man of the Match: Devon Sandoval
Starters: Javier Morales, Kyle Beckerman, Ned Grabavoy, Sebastian Velasquez
Substitutions: Khari Stephenson for Velasquez in the 63rd minute
Tactical shift: Following Sandoval’s 63rd-minute goal, Grabavoy shifted back to left back, restoring RSL’s 4-4-2 formation.
The midfield, once again, was the engine that got RSL through the game. Its combination play and distribution kept Charleston chasing the game all night long. The Battery didn’t register a shot at RSL’s goal from minute 37 to minute 110, partly because of their temporary 2-0 lead, but chiefly because RSL simply wouldn’t allow them possession.
If there was a weakness in RSL’s midfield, it was an unwillingness to have a go from distance. The Battery, bunkered down with 10 defenders in the penalty area, were not about to allow combination play near the goal, yet RSL’s midfield through the first half was reticent to size up the 'keeper and strike it hard.
That changed when Stephenson entered the match. RSL instantly became more potent from distance, and it paid off in the first half of extra time. Stephenson found space at the top of the box and rifled a wonder strike into the upper-right corner of the goal. Charleston’s 'keeper had no chance.
“It’s still a progression,” Stephenson said, “but I think we’re clicking well and moving well, creating spaces for each other and options for everyone else. It’s getting to where it needs to be.”
A Javier Morales penalty kick at the end of the first overtime period sealed the deal for RSL.
Starters: Nat Borchers, Aaron Maund, Chris Wingert, Tony Beltran
Substitution: Joao Plata (forward) for Maund
Tactical Shift: Upon Plata’s substitution, RSL shifted to 3-4-3. Following Sandoval’s goal, Grabavoy dropped from midfield to defense, restoring the 4-4-2 formation.
Jason Kreis presented Maund with a big opportunity to show his skill and earn more minutes in the defensive rotation Wednesday night. He didn’t do himself many favors.
“It wasn’t the best, to be honest and frank,” Kreis said. “He looked a little hesitant both with decisions when we didn’t have the ball and when we did have the ball. It’s a learning experience for him. We’ll be looking for teaching moments and improvement.”
Though not directly responsible for Charleston’s two early goals, Maund struggled with positioning and passing, crucial parts of RSL’s defensive strategy. He didn’t handle Charleston’s three pressing forwards very well, and Charleston obviously knew it and took advantage early.
Besides Maund, the rest of RSL’s defense performed admirably. Those players kept their shape and functioned well as a good release for pressure from the midfield. Other than a dismal 15-minute stretch in the first half, the defense didn’t allow Charleston to seriously test Josh Saunders.
That is not to say, however, that Charleston really tried much after getting its second goal in the 18th minute. Furthermore, by the time extra time rolled around, the Battery’s forwards were spent.
Starter: Josh Saunders
Saunders was severely tested in one major spurt in the first half — a sequence in which Charleston scored twice — and then didn’t have to do virtually anything for the rest of the game.
Because of the Battery’s counterattack strategy, and because of RSL’s tactical shift, the only threat Saunders faced over the final 100 minutes of the match was the occasional counterattack or set piece, and in every case, he either made the stop or was heavily assisted by Real’s strong defensive presence.
“The guys did a great job breaking down opportunities,” Saunders said. “(Charleston) had a couple chances. You commend them but at the same time, our character came through. The defense, when they played three in the back, did awesome.”
Certainly not a 'keeper to the level of Nick Rimando, Saunders still demonstrated that he has the skill to continue to compete at American soccer’s highest level. This is one position where RSL is rock solid.