Are you ready for some playoff soccer? Hopefully you read that last sentence in the voice of Macho Man Randy Savage. If not, go back and read it again, because that's how hyped up you should be. On Saturday, the LA Galaxy will travel to Salt Lake City to meet a playoff opponent they know all too well. No, that's not déjà vu you are experiencing. The script is literally the same every year as Real Salt Lake and LA Galaxy have seemingly turned their playoff meeting into an annual tradition.
And here is the fun thing about these match-ups. While LA and RSL may be miles apart in terms of philosophy and style, they are unquestionably the two dynastic pillars on which the history of MLS 2.0 will be remembered. Star powered team vs. "the team is the star". That's narrative the media likes to spin. Of course, it's a bunch of bologna because Javier Morales has and continues to be one of the best players in league history. Still, the narrative does speak to something larger.
LA v RSL is a testament to the beauty in the way our league is set up. Financial fairness has leveled the playing field such that a small market teams like RSL can compete consistently on the level of a deep pocketed club like LA. At the same time, LA singlehandedly brought about the era of the DP which pushed the league to new heights. LA v RSL represents the multiple avenues of success available within this great league of ours.
Not to mention, the games are usually just flat out entertaining.
RSL - What they do well
Pass and move. It's not just RSL's possession numbers that are impressive, (LA's are better) it's the manner in which they move off the ball. RSl loves to pass and move, methodically pulling defenses apart, and their off the ball movement is unreal.
According to SB Nations advanced Statistics, 26.8% of RSL's shots come from slow build up.
A common theme of RSL's attack is to circulate the ball around the box with Morales and Beckerman acting as a central hub. They'll work quick combos with the outside shuttlers, and spray the ball out wide to their fullbacks who push up in support. RSL then does a tremendous job of quickly returning the ball from wide to center, pulling open the seams through which they love to strike.
Despite the similarities in possession numbers, RSL is really the anti-LA. The Galaxy offense scores by brute force. Not physical soccer, LA likes to control possession, but that comes with attempts to create chances and shoot often. It's offense by bulk. If you shoot the ball enough, eventually the goals will come.
Just take a gander at Robbie Keane's shots to goals total and you'll see what I mean. RSL, on the other hand, is far more selective. They hold on to the ball as long as possible and very rarely shoot. They don't create a ton of chances, but they tend to convert the chances they create. This is not because they are lucky, but because the offense works in such a way that only high percentage chances are created. They are so selective in their shot selection that they tend to break every expected goals model out there.
One frustrating aspect about this type of offense is that it can completely neutralize LA's biggest defensive asset; the number of shots LA allows. When it comes to shots allowed, the Galaxy are king of the mountain. They only give up about 10 per game. That's ridiculously small. No team in the league has an "Expected Goals Against" as good as the Galaxy's. Aside from Vancouver, no one even comes close.
With most offenses, limiting their shots severely cripples their chances of scoring. RSL, however, is different. For the stylistic reasons I went over earlier, RSL's offensive output isn't nearly as dependent on the number of shots they take as most teams in the league. RSL has figured out a way to do more with less, which makes LA's ability to limit their shots on goal nearly irrelevant.
So how can LA deal with this offensive menace?
1. Be disciplined. RSL is one of the few teams in the league that LA can't beat senselessly over the head with possession. There will be long periods of the game where RSL will have the ball, and that's long stretches of time that LA will have to contend with the tracking all the off the ball movement of RSL's offense.
As Mike pointed out in his recent article, LA's defensive shape hasn't been up to snuff in the last two games. Luckily, however, most of the trouble has come from the fullbacks, whereas LA's center pairing has been solid. This is important because RSL rarely creates chances directly via wing play as seen from this chance creation map.
This is not to say that they do not play out on the wings. They do, and often, however, the goal is usually to bring the ball quickly back to center.
2. Shut down Morales. Javier Morales is an ageless wonder and has been running the RSL attack for years. People like to say that RSL is a team with no stars. Few players have been better in MLS over the past 5 to 6 years than Javier Morales. This year was no different. He accounted for a whopping 28% of their chance creation this year. The man is deadly if given time and space. Watch for Morales to drift left to right, trying to slip his mark and work himself into pockets where he can work his magic. Juninho and Sarvas have to be on the same page at all times when tracking Morales, and their hands offs have to be quick and smooth.
3. Shut down Joao Plata. Normally I would use fancy xG+xA numbers to hammer home how good a striker is, but RSL's expected goals killing offense makes his numbers somewhere between Chad Barret and Snooze. A tad hyperbolic, but you catch my drift. Don't be fooled, the man is fast and can work in space. There is a reason he gets call ups for Ecuador. The man is good at soccer. Luckily, the Galaxy have AJ DeLaGarza making it hard to muster any sort of real panic for a striker with dangerous movement. It's still something to keep an eye on, especially if he manages to find himself one on one versus Omar.
On the offensive side of the ball LA doesn't need to make any real adjustments. LA is not an especially aerial team, so they don't have to worry about the aerial dominance of Schuler and Borchers shutting them down. Schuler's form is also in question as this will be his first game back after missing a month. There really isn't a backline in the league that can't be picked a part by Keane and Donovan without extra help, and RSL isn't going to be sitting back.
Expect Beckerman to show up early and often down LA's left hand side, trying to shut down Landon. This will open up more room for Sarvas to play more directly to Keane as he checks back, who can then bring Gyasi Zardes or Landon Donovan into the play as they make those late runs on the post. It's the Galaxy's bread and butter and I've yet to see any evidence from RSL that they have the capability to stop it. LA will get their chances. They just have to convert.
In the end, the winner in this match-up is casual the viewer. The Galaxy and RSL play some of the prettiest soccer around, and the series is always a great advertisement for the league. The Galaxy look to take revenge on RSL for bouncing them them out of the playoffs last year, while RSL has their eyes on MLS cup in hopes of exercising their trophy demons. Should be a fun one.