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How Real Salt Lake's veterans made a tactical audible to flip script against Columbus

Real Salt Lake goalkeeper Nick Rimando (18) makes a stop on the ball as Real Salt Lake and Columbus Crew play a Major League Soccer game at Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy on Wednesday, July 3, 2019. RSL won 1-0.
Real Salt Lake goalkeeper Nick Rimando (18) makes a stop on the ball as Real Salt Lake and Columbus Crew play a Major League Soccer game at Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy on Wednesday, July 3, 2019. RSL won 1-0.
Scott G Winterton

SANDY — Midway through the first half on Wednesday night, Nick Rimando and Nedum Onuoha looked at each other and acknowledged the tactics weren’t working.

On a different night when Real Salt Lake was sharper, those same tactics would’ve likely worked against visiting Columbus, but it was obvious to everyone at Rio Tinto Stadium on fireworks night that RSL was in a rut.

Columbus routinely disrupted RSL’s attempt to play out of the back early on, at times even dictating the direction the home team tried playing out and quickly winning the ball back.

So Real Salt Lake called an audible.

“They were in a tight block. Anything we tried to play, we couldn’t. We couldn’t advance and I think halfway through me and Ned were talking and we said we’ve just got to go direct and we ended up getting some chances playing ugly and just hitting the ball forward and fighting for that second ball,” Rimando said.

A goal eventually came from that more direct approach — even though it was realistically more of a desperation clearance — leading to RSL's 1-0 win over Columbus, but the biggest impact from the in-game tactical adjustment was felt at the back. It made things less stressful.

Columbus Crew midfielder David Guzman (9) and Real Salt Lake defender Nedum Onuoha (14) go after the ball as Real Salt Lake and Columbus Crew play a Major League Soccer game at Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy on Wednesday, July 3, 2019.
Columbus Crew midfielder David Guzman (9) and Real Salt Lake defender Nedum Onuoha (14) go after the ball as Real Salt Lake and Columbus Crew play a Major League Soccer game at Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy on Wednesday, July 3, 2019.

“What we were trying to do really wasn’t working at all and we were probably giving ourselves more trouble than it was worth attempting something. So instead of that you go to your second or third option, and I think for spot it made a difference because it took a lot of pressure away from our goal and if we were to lose it we were losing it in far less dangerous areas,” Onuoha said.

RSL’s center back, who was eventually subbed off in the second half with a quad injury, said it’s important for the players to be able to dictate those type of changes in a match.

“I think a lot of times you put a lot of pressure on the coaches to always get the tactics right, but at the end of the day they’re not out there on the field and to be able to call audibles is a massive thing,” Onuoha said.

“There’s a lot to be said for being able to feel the pace of a game to understand what’s working and what’s not and the more players that you can have on a team that can sense what isn’t working then the quicker you can change the better.”

Much of the problem happened on the sideline. When RSL’s center backs would swing the ball wide to the wings the Crew pressured quickly with multiple players, which often led to another pass back to the center backs or to Rimando in goal.

Other times the ball got stuck in the middle of the field, with Columbus pressuring and winning it for a transition opportunity. The overall movement was too slow, something that wasn’t there a few nights earlier in the win over Kansas City.

“We weren’t moving the ball fast enough, we were taking too many touches on the ball and the movement wasn’t the best,” said defender Brooks Lennon, who was the player often stuck with the ball on the sideline with nowhere to play.

Petke said the lack of off-ball movement played a big role in RSL’s early struggles and many negative balls played backward — all of which led to the important tactical audible.

“I was not happy tonight with the amount of times we played back, but I think we’ve played back a lot throughout this year. Initially it’s always on the guy with the ball, but you look higher ahead with the things we’re identifying, who’s moving into space and when they move into that space if the ball doesn’t come, how quickly are they moving out and then someone transitioning into that space,” said Petke.

RSL will need to be sharper on the ball and move better this weekend against San Jose as it looks to extend its current two-game winning streak.