Where's Real Salt Lake's famous attacking style?

It's a simple question, really. Once a great attacking team, RSL are now being propped up as inefficient perpetrators of the beautiful game. Possession time in an average match is down, goals are decreased and the team's passing just hasn't been at its best.

It's the sort of thing that drives some people a little crazy. This was a team that was sometimes called (inaccurately, of course) the Barcelona (after the death-by-a-thousand-passes side led by the team's then-coach, Pep Guardiola, at the start of the decade) of Major League Soccer for their passing style. But as much as that's been the theme, it hasn't always been accurate.

Real Salt Lake have dropped in possession percentage this season. That part's undeniable, especially given that possession numbers are calculated by comparing the number of passes for both sides in a match. It's nothing too complicated and every few months it prompts discussions about what “possession” actually means. There's no point in getting into that here, but it does give a little leverage to what these bandied-about statistics actually mean.

Glancing over the statistics doesn't give Jeff Cassar's side a positive possession-oriented look in 2015.

  • 16th most successful passes per game in 2015 — 265.
  • 12th highest passing accuracy in 2015 — 77 percent.
  • Lowest average pass length — 18 meters.
  • Lowest chances created per game — 6.
  • Third-lowest shots taken per game — 9.4.
  • Most clearances per game — 40.6.

All of those are symptoms of a larger cause, but they're not the only statistic worth looking at. Scoring 1.2 goals per game on average isn't the worst metric. It lands RSL with the fifth-most goals per game in the league. The conceded rate is equally positive, with 0.8 goals given up per game, fourth-best in the league. None of those statistics are strictly correlated to standings, which gives us some reason to be skeptical of them. Still, there's a sense that RSL's play isn't the most effective it's ever been. That's to be expected when the expectations are as lofty as they've been over the last six years for the club. Those expectations have been shattered, though, and it's correlated with Real Salt Lake's transition to a new formation. That shattering may even be caused by the transition, but it's a little too easy to look at the formation as the problem.

The year 2015 is a transition year for Real Salt Lake a bit unlike any they've seen. Despite losing experienced players in the past, 2015 saw two veterans leave through that mechanism in Ned Grabavoy and Chris Wingert, and two others through other league mechanisms in Nat Borchers and Robbie Findley. It was a culling that put the club in the position, though, to explore a new shape and style of play.

That style of play — that 4-3-3 that's been the talk of the league — hasn't clicked for one of the league's most-vaunted teams. There are, as one would naturally expect, a combination of factors at play.

Chief among those is that the spacing and movement of players has changed. After years of the same shape and style, those patterns become ingrained in the fabric of the side. Now that they've been ripped away, there have been the expected struggles in creating scoring opportunities.

Additionally, Salt Lake has found it difficult to keep a consistent lineup in attack: Alvaro Saborio, Devon Sandoval, Jordan Allen, Luis Gil, Sebastian Jaime and Olmes Garcia have each started at least one match in one of the three available forward positions. Cassar might be scratching his head a bit that his side hasn't created chances, but the rotation in the forward roles hasn't made anything easier. Only one of those changes was unforced — so perhaps it's also an element of timing.

Ultimately, the thing that will most benefit Real Salt Lake in the quest to improve will be time. Players like Javier Morales might be doing remarkably well, but others haven't hit any sort of a creative stride. But Cassar does have to find a way to get those wide players contributing more in chance creation — and that's the biggest change of them all. After playing the better part of a decade without traditional wide players in any sense, Real Salt Lake's play lacks the spark and know-how it needs to capitalize on those players.

There's plenty of time left for Real Salt Lake to find its footing. Only five games in, Cassar's squad will be given the time to figure this out. There's not a likely change in approach in the short-term. But it will certainly be interesting to watch as Real Salt Lake tries to find stable ground — and Saturday is the first chance to try to show that in a match.

Matt Montgomery is the managing editor of RSL Soapbox.

Twitter: TheCrossbarRSL

Email: montgomery.matt@gmail.com