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Tactical gamble pays off for Real Salt Lake, backfires for New York City FC

Real Salt Lake forward Jefferson Savarino (7) celebrates after scoring a goal as Real Salt Lake and New York City FC play at Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy on Saturday, Aug. 3, 2019.
Real Salt Lake forward Jefferson Savarino (7) celebrates after scoring a goal as Real Salt Lake and New York City FC play at Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy on Saturday, Aug. 3, 2019.

SANDY — There’s not much room for error for center backs anyway, but Real Salt Lake’s center backs were forced to deal with even more pressure than normal Saturday night at Rio Tinto Stadium.

Kind of like a cornerback in football being left on an island to defend receivers one on one, that’s somewhat how Justen Glad and Marcelo Silva were forced to defend New York City FC goal kicks.

The pair handled their unique defending responsibilities almost flawlessly and it was a big reason RSL rallied for the 3-1 win over one of the top teams in the Eastern Conference.

“I thought we did well, I think we won most of those balls,” said Glad.

RSL’s coaching staff wasn’t required to leave its center backs on the defensive island on New York City's goal kicks, but it liked the alternative even less.

New York is one of the top possession teams in MLS and on goal kicks it would almost always prefer to have the keeper play a short ball and build the attack from the back. Especially at home, RSL had no interest conceding easy possession to a great possession team and had its attacking players push up and man mark everyone on the field.

Usually in those situations the keeper waves everyone up the field and then it’s about which team can win the first and second ball in the air to claim possession.

That’s not how NYCFC chose to tactically handle the situation.

With over half the players on his third of the field, NYCFC keeper Sean Johnson sent his goal kick toward the center circle where only a couple of RSL defenders were marking NYCFC players.

It was a gamble both ways. Had Silva or Glad lost an aerial battle, it would’ve resulted in a quick even-numbers transition for NYCFC. Conversely, the approach left the visitors pretty stretched out whenever RSL won that initial header.

“It was a risk we were willing to take and we have trust in Justen and Marcelo to win those battles,” said RSL captain Kyle Beckerman.

Glad said they’ve defended man to man several times on goal kicks this year, but never when everyone is so spread out and isolated. They were prepared and NYCFC rarely threatened.

“It was man to man and we knew that going in, and they did well to try and throw us off but I thought me and Marcelo handled it well and whenever there was an open player we kind of communicated and everyone switched on to someone so there was never really an open player,” said Glad.

RSL’s first goal in the 37th minute was the direct result of NYCFC leaving itself stretched on a goal kick — surprising considering it already led 1-0 and could’ve afforded to play more conservatively.

Real Salt Lake midfielder Albert Rusnak (11) jumps to control the ball as Real Salt Lake and New York City FC play at Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy on Saturday, Aug. 3, 2019.
Real Salt Lake midfielder Albert Rusnak (11) jumps to control the ball as Real Salt Lake and New York City FC play at Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy on Saturday, Aug. 3, 2019.

Silva started the quick attack in the 37th minute by elevating over NYCFC forward Heber to win the initial header about 10 yards into NYCFC’s half of the field. Two more quick headed balls by Beckerman and Damir Kreilach and Rusnak had the ball at his feet 30 yards from goal less than six seconds after Johnson’s goal kick.

Rusnak’s quick one-time pass to Beckerman led to another quick pass out wide to Jefferson Savarino, who banged home the 1-1 equalizer.

Had New York City been in its normal defensive shape, there would’ve been another winger out wide to help with Savarino. Instead, that player was 15 yards behind giving chase, which allowed Savarino time to pick his spot and fire the goal past the keeper.

The approach was a gamble for both teams, but it backfired for NYCFC as RSL gladly capitalized.

“We’ve seen it on film, we organized ourselves so that in order if that happens we know what the adjustments were. I thought Justen did fantastic in terms of winning those balls and anticipating and trying to get in front of Heber because he started behind Justen and trying to get a head start,” said RSL assistant coach Tyrone Marshall.

Marshall is a former center back himself and he knows Glad and Silva were particularly excited for the opportunity to win their one-on-one battles on Saturday.