After a month of Real Salt Lake's new formation, some needs for revision and opportunities to improve week-after-week have appeared, especially when we consider the defensive shape and approach. What have we learned about RSL's adventures in the 4-3-3 from a defensive perspective?

Defensive shape exposure

RSL's defensive shape might be exposed more frequently in the 4-3-3, but that doesn't have to remain the case. There have been visible incremental improvements over the three matches, and it's hard to see those dropping off. In fact, in terms of some of the metrics, a decrease in clearances (where RSL led the opening weekend by a pretty significant margin) speaks to that fact. The defense is more comfortable, and the shape is improving.

It won't look complete for a few weeks yet, as the team is still — as RSL technical director Craig Waibel put it — playing 60 minutes of effective soccer in the new formation, with 30 minutes lacking. Those 30 minutes will come with review of game footage, and Waibel says the team is on board with the changes.

“(RSL coach) Jeff (Cassar) is building a great system here, and the guys are buying in,” he said in an interview on ESPN 700.

Olave's return

Jamison Olave has returned to Salt Lake City, but he's still reaching for consistency on defense. While his own goal against the Philadelphia Union is the most prominent, he's also been a little lackluster in other moments. While it's easy to blame his age, it's more accurate to look at the team's shape, and why he's not always making the best decisions. Olave's struggles have been the team's struggles, and the two are, at this point, fairly inextricable. With time, he has an opportunity to right the mistakes.

Mansally stepping into short-term starting role

Despite the arrival of Jamaican veteran Demar Phillips to RSL, Abdoulie Mansally has been starting matches while Phillips has been recovering from a hamstring strain. Mansally has clearly improved his defense from when he first arrived in Salt Lake City in 2012. But with the new shape, and as he's starting somewhat unexpectedly, Mansally has both had to adjust his defensive game to cover and given an opportunity to actually display his attacking characteristics.

Midfield shields the defense differently (but maybe not worse)

For this new-look RSL, the midfield plays a different defensive role than it was asked to before. When in defensive shapes in the past few years, the two wider midfielders were able to drop and cover the passing channels between the full backs and the center backs. But now, that role is changed. The full backs might tuck into more narrow positions or come out wider, with the wide forwards coming deeper to help cover.

This year, with two midfielders in more nominally defensive roles instead of three, there are adjustments that have to be made. How does Kyle Beckerman fit into the mix? Does he still sit more centrally while others move around him, or does he move and pivot with another midfielder? These aren't questions with easy answers regardless of the formation, but once Cassar cracks it, the team will be in a better position defensively.

The full backs will perhaps be less so exposed with two wingers dropping into defensive positions. This might leave the center backs needing a little more aid, but those things seem accounted for.

While RSL's 3-3 draw with the Philadelphia Union would seem to indicate a defensive deficit somewhere, it's probably more the case of bad timing, problems with tactical shape and poor luck that all came to a head at once.

Matt Montgomery is the managing editor of RSL Soapbox. Contact him at