Watching Real Salt Lake under Mike Petke feels quite a bit like watching the current version of D.C. United. It’s not just that the clubs play the same formation, or that both have the same tendency to become more cagey after getting a lead, or even that the attacks are constructed of a broadly similar mix of players (a key European import, a hard-working American with a knack for making plays, and young South American talents).
Ben Olsen shares a similar vision as Petke for how to get the best out of his players, and it’s one that allows for plenty of freedom for their attackers. Both RSL and United are looking for the same thing: they want to get their attackers in isolation, and from there it’s on those players to make an impact.
These teams aren’t highly structured like many teams you see around MLS, nor are they reliant on their high press to be anything more than an option (as opposed to, say, the New York Red Bulls, for whom the press is also their playmaker). The most skillful players on both teams are given plenty of freedom, provided they continue producing the goods and putting in the work without the ball. The idea, to be brief, is to let the players be the star rather than the system.
That said, there are certainly differences. RSL doesn’t have anyone like Wayne Rooney, which is kind of a big deal, and they don’t have as much experience as United can claim at either fullback position. There’s also a certain lack of patience in their attack that can lead to taking too many shots from long range. On the other hand, there’s more speed in the Utahn side’s attack, and more of a reliance on one man (the extravagantly talented Albert Rusnak) to carry both the creative and goalscoring load.
(quick aside: Did you know Utah natives prefer this spelling over “Utahan,” which for some reason is given as the official demonym? Well, now you do.)
There can be the occasional shift into 433 for Petke, particularly on goal kicks, but only if Damir Kreilach is playing as a sort of unconventional #10. Of course, with Kreilach able to play multiple positions, it’s not entirely clear that brief switch will be worth worrying about.
Let’s start with a living legend: barring an MLS Cup finale between these two teams ending up on Buzzard Point, this will be Nick Rimando’s last visit to the District. Despite his impending retirement, Rimando remains one of MLS’s better goalkeepers (if not quite in that top tier), and that fourth star on your United jersey doesn’t exist if not for him coming through with some penalty kick stops way back when. Hopefully as a fanbase, we can deliver an appropriate thank you before this one kicks off.
The back four appears pretty settled at this point. Despite the presence of healthy veterans Tony Beltran and Donny Toia, the fullback spots have been pretty much taken over by converted winger Brooks Lennon (on the right) and Aaron Herrera (on the left). Both players are products of RSL’s widely respected RSL-AZ academy, though Lennon had a detour in England with Liverpool. At home, both get forward fairly regularly, though interestingly it’s been Herrera showing more of an attacking bent. Tonight, they’ll be more choosy about when to join the attack, but RSL will need them to contribute something on that side of the ball to be at their best.
At center back, RSL had a bit of a murky situation after a ton of chopping and changing last year, but Marcelo Silva and Nedum Onuoha have emerged as the starters. It’s not hard to see why: they’ve both been pretty solid thus far in 2019, and their skill sets are complimentary. Silva brings the toughness and aggression (while also being a pretty reliable passer), while Onuoha — a Manchester City product from back before they had bottomless wealth — tends towards a more measured style.
In central midfield, Petke seems to have finally found a good partner for Kyle Beckerman. After cycling through several options that didn’t work out for one reason or another, newcomer Everton Luiz (on loan from Serie A side SPAL) appears to have the quickness and awareness to fit the role. Like Beckerman, he plays with a real edge, showing no fear of going in hard to send a message. This is a no-nonsense midfield, and given that United has seen teams opt to tactically foul rather than allow breaks forward, don’t be surprised if their foul totals are both in the 4-5 range tonight.
There is an odd note about Everton Luiz, though: per WhoScored, he’s been dribbled past 8 times in his first 2 MLS appearances. To put that in context, the worst total in the category by any starter over the course of a full season in the last 3 years is Matias Laba’s 2.8 per game in 2017. We’re talking about a very small sample size, obviously, but if this sticks for another game, Luciano Acosta should be able to put on a show.
The front four looks like it could be complicated in the graphic above, but mostly it boils down to whether Damir Kreilach plays as a forward (as he did on the road in their opener) or as the attacking midfielder (where he was last week at home). Another possible influence in that situation is that RSL’s new Designated Player Sam Johnson is being brought up to speed with how Petke wants the attack to work. If this is the game they think he’s ready to start, that ensures that Kreilach will be in the middle, and that Albert Rusnak will play from the left.
However, if Petke decides that a road game against one of the best teams in the league isn’t the time to throw Johnson out there for his first MLS start, it’ll be interesting to see whether he opts for Kreilach or Corey Baird up top. They’re very different players in that role, with Kreilach functioning as a back-to-goal option (think a less sophisticated version of Wayne Rooney) while Baird prefers to run the channels. Given that United sees the Kreilach approach on a regular basis in training, I’m leaning towards Petke going with Baird up front.
That means Kreilach underneath as the attacking midfielder, though he’s not exactly a conventional choice for that role. Initially brought to Utah as a box-to-box option to partner Beckerman, Kreilach was a bit too slow for the job, but still too skillful to drop. Petke got creative, and Kreilach rewarded him with goals like this. He has the strength and toughness of a combative midfielder, but plays this role more as a fulcrum for combination play with others rather than looking to play the killer ball himself.
It works because, should Kreilach end up as the #10, Rusnak will be over on the left. Petke gives Rusnak plenty of freedom to drift inside and find the game, much like Olsen allows his front four to cycle around at times to try and throw the defense off. Rusnak, as I said earlier, is the sun and the moon as far as RSL’s attack goes. He’s their chief creative force (9 key passes on the season), but also arguably their most prominent goal threat (he has both of their goals thus far, and had another chalked off for offside). The single most important thing for United to do tonight is to make sure Rusnak has a frustrating night.
The final man in this quartet is Jefferson Savarino, who has been a bit more active this season than last year’s more passive, complimentary role. He’s leading the team in shot attempts, though some of those haven’t been the best choices, and he’s also got more successful dribbles this year than the rest of his teammates combined (7 to 6). What D.C. wants out of Savarino, no matter if he’s on the right or the left, is to force him into blind alleys or leave him with no better option than the hopeful, contested 20+ yard shot that he’s been opting for in 2019.
You might be wondering where Joao Plata is, but for two reasons, it seems like he’s not a major factor for RSL at the moment. He’s “day-to-day” with an injury, first of all, but he’s also fallen down the pecking order even when fully fit. The positional flexibility of their attackers, combined with Johnson’s arrival, has pushed him down to being in a battle with Bofo Saucedo to be Petke’s sixth option in a battle for four starting jobs.
Johnson (if he doesn’t start) and Saucedo feel like sure bets to come into this game in almost any circumstance, with Baird likely making way for Johnson and Saucedo replacing Savarino. After that, the subs will skew tactical, with Petke showing a willingness to deploy a 541 last week to make sure their 1-0 lead over Vancouver became a win. If there’s a result to protect at Audi Field, we could see that again, with Nick Besler the most likely option as the extra center back.