Real Salt Lake have been bit by the injury bug yet again. Forward Joao Plata, arguably the best attacking player on the squad through the first two games, picked up a hamstring injury and tweeted earlier this week that he would be out for at least 3 weeks.
Just for some perspective RSL play a revitalized Toronto FC, defending MLS champs Sporting Kansas City, and the Philadelphia Union over that stretch.
In his first two games Joao was integral to the majority of the success that RSL had in the attacking third, adding a dynamic that we really haven’t seen at RSL in years. After he picked up an injury against the Galaxy this weekend and had to be subbed off there was a visible difference on the field for RSL.
What has made Joao so successful this season?
One of the big pushes for RSL this season is a change in the way that we are attacking. In the past we have played possessive, attack minded soccer but it’s been a bit toothless at times. We played in front of defenses, allowing them to play a pretty high line and box us in a bit. We saw this last season when teams would closed down space in the midfield and attack, stifling the RSL attack. With out space to pass in RSL seemed lost at times. This year the team is working to change that dynamic and add a little bit of depth to the attack. The best way to keep teams from cutting down the space you have to work with in the midfield is to stretch the defense from time to time with a ball in behind the defensive line. Be that a long ball through the air, a cutting pass on the ground or a little chip over the top, the idea is to make the defense have to think about not only what is going on in front of them, but have them also worrying about weak side runs in behind the line.
Joao has put on a clinic this season so far with dangerous, dynamic runs in behind the defense. The winning goal against the Galaxy in the season opener is a perfect example of this type of run.
Joao, in all 3 games this season, has played a bit wider than we have seen forwards play for RSL at times. His runs up the line and in behind the defense force the opposing teams defensive line to stay honest. They can’t cheat up with a high line to limit our space. Doing that just gives Joao more room to run into between them and the goal. Ghosting in between two defenders on their blind side as he did against LA in the clip above, winning a deep ball on the wing and holding to allow the attack to catch up to him as he did Saturday before being injured, or beating players on the dribble, Joao’s dynamic play has added depth to the RSL attack.
All of that allows for so much more to happen for RSL. Sabo has space to work in, Javier has space to work in, that alone should terrify teams and encourage fans.
And therein lies the issue.
With Joao out, who will be the player to stretch the defense? Who will make those runs in behind that will keep the defensive line honest? I believe that Olmes is that guy, but it’s a very different type of play for him. We saw this in the game this last weekend when he came in for Joao. Be honest, the game changed with him on the field. I really like what Olmes brings to the table as far as skills are considered, but he seems to be a little sporadic in his movements and positioning.
This is Joao’s Heatmap for the LA game this weekend before he was subbed out. In looking at the heat maps for the other games this season there is a pattern to what Joao is doing on the field. Notice how wide and high his positioning is throughout the time he was involved in play.
Olmes on the other hand, as you can see from the Heatmap from the same game, is a bit all over the place. He plays high, for the most part but the deep play is just not there at this point. Side note: My favorite part of this heatmap is the tackle at the top of the 18 in our defensive third. That was an amazing effort for a young kid that hasn’t been very committed on the defensive side of the ball in the past.
This week, I expect, has seen time spent with Olmes working on those types of runs in behind defenses and anticipating the through ball on the end of that run. The next three games could be huge for Olmes. He’s young and so talented that I think we’d all like to see him step it up a bit and fill the gap. He will need to learn quickly as this stretch that we’re starting over the next 3 weeks could be very dangerous for RSL.