Real Salt Lake – San Jose Earthquakes: Persistent Salt Lake Turn Over Tired San Jose (1-0)

A blistering start between two high intensity sides produced a captivating spectacle before tired legs and a lack of defensive discipline led Real Salt Lake to a well-deserved win in front of a tense home crowd.

Tactical analysis and match report by Tom Quartly.

Tonight’s main event saw two top Western Conference sides go head-to-head in a game that placed a major impetus on the final season standings. Real Salt Lake sat just behind the visitors San Jose Earthquakes in sixth spot, however a win could see them rise as high as second. A loss for either side would put them at risk of slipping out the play-off spots altogether. Tensions riding high at the Rio Tinto Stadium in Salt Lake City, and a solid argument in favour of a play-off structure.

Real Salt Lake’s manager Mike Petke has cultivated a highly structured side capable of stumping opposition teams with a relentless high press. What we still do not know is if they can transfer this aggressive defensive style into three points on a consistent basis. A loss to ten man Portland last time out meant that Petke had changes to make within his preferred 4-2-3-1 formation.

Croatian attacking midfielder Damir Kreilach was the only player to keep his place from Salt Lake’s front four, whilst a change in the double pivot 4-2-3-1 is one of the most frequently occurring formations in football. The two most defensive midfielders are called a ‘double pivot’. saw Kyle Beckerman come in for Kelyn Rowe. On the other hand, San Jose manager Matías Almeyda had the luxury of retaining the majority of his starting eleven; Valeri Qazaishvili and Jackson Yueill the main omissions from the squad following their call ups to the Georgia and United States national teams respectively. This allowed him to continue with his 4-2-3-1 shape.

Excellent Salt Lake defending slows frantic start

The opening exchanges showcased what either side is about: two high intensity teams going head-to-head. Despite the Rio Tinto usually resembling a fortress, it was San Jose who got on the front foot first. Eleven minutes in and Earthquakes’ Cristian Espinoza had already questioned Salt Lake’s structural integrity: a quick turn and a strike with enough venom to sting the palms of keeper Nick Rimando, but it could not beat the 40-year-old stalwart.

What was instantly put into question was the high attacking duties that came with the Earthquakes’ possession and subsequent counterpress. After losing possession, a team immediately moves towards the ball as a unit to regain possession, or at least slow down the pace of the counterattack.Matías Almeyda’s strategy of overflowing the final third The one-third of the pitch that is closest to the opposition’s goal. can usually be too much for opponents, but Salt Lake were well-drilled for the task. The hard-working wide players and effective screeners in midfield meant that although Earthquakes were allowed room in the halfspaces, If you divide the field in five vertical lanes, the halfspaces are the lanes that are not on the wing and not in the center. Because there is no touchline like on the wing, players have the freedom to go everywhere. But this zone often is not as well-defended as the very center. This makes it a very valuable offensive zone to play in and a lot of chances are created by passes or dribbles from the halfspace. there were limited options for them once they were on the ball. Combative tactics from Mike Petke.

Plus, the sheer number of players that San Jose throw forward obviously leaves them overexposed to the counterattack. Petke’s team latched onto this. Thirty-five minutes into the first half and Salt Lake almost had the lead themselves. A floated ball from right winger Brooks Lennon allowed Damir Kreilach to rise – his powerful downward header was flailed to safety by Earthquakes Argentine goalkeeper Mario Daniel Vega. By half time, large spaces were already beginning to emerge as San Jose’s midfielders simply did not have the fitness to get back and defend.

Tired legs and plenty of space. Note the fluidity between striker Juan Manuel Martínez and the number ten Kreilach.

Defensive discipline and a game winner

A fairly balanced first half gave way to a dominant Real Salt Lake performance. The fatigued legs of San Jose had no chance against Petke’s well-formed 4-2-3-1 shape, which gave plenty of options throughout the midfield. Spearing passes from Nedum Onuoha easily broke the lines and, soon enough, shots were attacking San Jose’s goal with a worrying regularity. Despite this, Almeyda still drove his team forward in search of the all-elusive three points, a rarity when teams visit the mountainous Ohio.

Whether it was the manager’s plan or simply a lack of defensive discipline, the game soon became a case of Real Salt Lake against the back four of San Jose. The breaks forward and the reluctance to get back was eventually going to catch up to San Jose, and in the seventy-fifth minute, it did. A flashback thirty minutes earlier saw the Croat Kreilach’s header denied by Vega. Not this time. Brooks Lennon recouped what seemed like dead passage of play to float a ball into the far post. Kreilach was there and his thunderous header left Vega standing. A well-deserved goal following a build up of possession and chances.

The main issue in this game was not a gulf in quality. It was the way either side set themselves up. Almeyda’s resistance to change meant that his side chased the ball with a great intensity early on. What we saw subsequently is what we often see in the Premier League, specifically against Manchester City. If the opposition take the lead when the high press is in effect, they are able to sit back and defend. If they cannot find a goal in the opening exchanges then they are left to be picked off. This is exactly what happened to San Jose Earthquakes, meaning they lost this game.


Well there you have it. One win in the Western Conference has taken sixth place to second. If that does not emphasise the growing competitiveness of the MLS, I don’t know what will. A crucial game away to fourth placed Minnesota awaits Real Salt Lake as they try to hold onto the incredible position they find themselves in. The play-offs could be all but secured in just a week.

San Jose Earthquakes also have a tricky tie: away to Eastern Conference table toppers New York City FC. A win is imperative if they want to maintain a stake for the MLS trophy. Against perhaps even more dangerous opponents, Matías Almeyda needs to ensure his side can hold a balance that keeps them defensively sound whilst also offering something going forward. Against a side like LAFC, it’s curtains.

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