Match Preview: Real Salt Lake vs. Minnesota United FC

by on 16 June 2017

Both teams have likely been looking forward to this game as a chance to break out of their respective nasty slumps. Real Salt Lake has lost its last three matches by scores of 5-1, 6-2, and 4-1 while Minnesota has been blanked 3-0 and 4-0 in two consecutive games against Sporting Kansas City. It should make for either a thrilling game between two evenly matched clubs desperate to turn things around, or the kind of game that unfolds when two truly poor teams slump their way toward being slightly less bad than their opponents after 90 minutes.

Recent form

Real Salt Lake L L W L W -20
Minnesota L W L L W -14

Previous meetings

Minnesota earned its very first win as an MLS club against Real Salt Lake on April 1 in a 4-2 romp backed by a pair of goals by Christian Ramirez. After falling behind early in the game, and with fans fearing yet another early season rout was on its way, United rallied to overpower the undermanned RSL back line in the second half. Earlier in the year, the two teams concluded the Portland preseason tournament with a 3-3 draw that featured a dramatic United equalizer in extra time. If this brief history and the clubs’ recent results are any indication, then we may see a goal fest on Saturday.


Referee Marcos de Olivera
Assistant Corey Parker
Assistant Eric Weisbrod
Fourth Juan Guzman

Marcos de Olivera will be pweeping the whistle and dealing the cards in his first MLS game of the season and his seventh MLS assignment ever. With this being a lesser-impact MLS game against two struggling teams, his deployment here is unsurprising. It is hard to draw definitive conclusions on de Olivera’s refereeing style with so few games under his belt, but he will be alongside two very experienced assistant referees and a fourth official with field experience as well to keep the game tidy and under control.

Roster report

Real Salt Lake
F Chad Barrett (knee surgery) – Out
D David Horst (knee surgery) – Out
D Demar Phillips (hamstring injury) – Questionable

Minnesota United
D Joseph Greenspan (concussion) – Out
M Bernardo Añor (hamstring injury) – Out
D Thomas de Villardi (left Achilles) – Out

Tactical outlook

The first impression for Minnesota faithful may be to head back to the drawing board with a large eraser and tear stained eyes. That would be short-sighted, as each of the Loons’ last two losses has come with challenges to depth. Of course the club needs greater depth (one piece appears to be on the way in the form of Scottish winger Sam Nicholson), but there is no reason to suspect the team cannot put out what should be called its most obvious starting lineup on Saturday. The only position for which there is even the remotest competition is at the second striker/attacking midfielder role. Both Johan Venegas and Abu Danladi should be ready to play. The pain of the failed lineup from the U.S. Open Cup embarrassment can be eased somewhat by the fresh legs of a healthy starting roster.

Real Salt Lake should field a mostly-fit and mostly-preferred starting lineup as well, having also opted for U.S. Open Cup embarrassment with the hope of a league win to follow. The club tends to play a 4-2-3-1 or a 4-3-3, depending on how you want to define the roles out there. Joao Plata, newly minted with Designated Player status this year, will hold court on the attacking left, youngster Brooks Lennon will man the attack on the right side, Yura Movsisyan leads the attack at striker, and Albert Rusnák pulls the strings as the attacking midfielder.

More casual fans of MLS could be forgiven for not recognizing any of these names, but that is the RSL style: the team is the star. That its most recognizable name, Kyle Beckerman, is a defensive midfielder, says a lot about the team’s approach to squad building.

A lack of star power is not what is necessarily behind the team’s struggles this season. A poor defense is a good place to start. The best of the back may be Justen Glad, the still-young right center back. Neither Aaron Maund nor Chris Schuler is anyone’s idea of an elite center back. Chris Wingert is neither fast enough at left back to be an overlapping attacking threat, nor a strong enough defender to sit back and excel there (and Demar Phillips has been injured in that role).

But easier to overlook is the role of the midfield in supporting the defense. Plata will not drop back and defend. Lennon could probably still be taught to defend, but it isn’t something he excels at right now. Rusnák lacks the physicality to succeed defensively. Only Beckerman, whose job it is to shield the back line, can consistently be relied upon to make the midfield muddied for opponents. But the team lacks a truly skilled No. 8 — a player that can play both sides of the ball and not only win possession in the midfield, but know what to do with the ball after he’s won it. In short, the kind of player Ibson has grown into for Minnesota United. Give an opponent all the time in the world in the midfield, and even the best back line will crack under the constant barrage.

For Minnesota, the style needs to fit the opponent. With two RSL wingers who can’t defend, and a back line that may be prone to play more consolidated in an effort to stem the tide of goals, the Loons may find room all day on both flanks for Miguel Ibarra and Kevin Molino to get into dangerous places on through-balls. And if Real Salt Lake dare to spread their back line wider to cover? Start to send full backs Marc Burch and Jérôme Thiesson up the sidelines and have the wingers cut in and find the wide open seams between center backs and full backs. As long as Minnesota can maintain the ball in the center of the park to give itself time to make those passes, it should be able to get in behind the porous Salt Lake defense.

How will it play out?

Like any home team, Real Salt Lake will have a little bit more bravery coming forward. RSL will try to conduct its attacks through the middle of the pitch with Rusnák acting as the playmaker. Minnesota, lacking an obvious No. 10, will continue to use Ibson as the catalyst to make a lot of inside out passes to the sidelines. Ultimately, two teams playing opposite objectives could leave spaces for each other, and a third high-scoring game of the year between the two sides could be the result.

Real Salt Lake will win if…

RSL needs to control the center of the pitch to give its defense a chance to avoid cracking. Luke Mulholland is probably a better defensive player than his counterpart, Sunday Stephen. As a former Minnesota player, Mulholland getting time could be very fortuitous. Keep the midfield press active and United won’t have time to exploit Real Salt Lake’s biggest weakness.

Minnesota will win if…

Minnesota needs to get the ball out wide. This takes Beckerman out of the play to a degree, takes advantage of the playmaking ability of Ibarra and Molino, and causes the RSL backline to spread itself out, opening seams that have been all too easy for teams to take advantage of this season.

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  • nomadic loon

    Minnesota soccer has not lost to Salt Lake; and that includes a preseason draw in Portland. Let’s keep it that way. We have our first MLS win as the Loons, we have an Open Cup win as the NSC Stars, and we have the 2005 Open Cup win as the Thunder at James Griffin Stadium. In that game, scoring his first goal in Minnesota, was Jamie Watson…. playing for RSL.