On a basic level, the mathematics of soccer are pretty simple. In attack, teams look to expose opponents with numbers. And conversely, they attempt to keep superior numbers behind the ball defensively.
But the game is never that simple. In the case of Real Salt Lake, they’re quite happy to attack opponents with just four, no matter the numbers opposing teams have back. When those four attackers are Joao Plata, Albert Rusnak, Jefferson Savarino, and Luis Silva, you start to see why.
In 2017, RSL had an abysmal start. Through its first 14 games, it managed just 12 goals while conceding 24 to opponents. But in May, RSL acquired winger Jefferson Savarino as a Designated Player on loan from Zulia of the Venezuelan Premier League. Head coach Mike Petke teamed Savarino with the aforementioned Rusnak, Plata, and Silva in the RSL attack, and starting in July, the “Claret and Cobalt” outscored opponents 32-17 en route to a 7-2-3 record to finish the year.
By the end of the season, RSL’s quartet of attackers accounted for 27 of the team’s 49 goals, with Rusnak leading the way on seven goals and 14 assists. In the team’s opening match of 2018 against FC Dallas, the front four picked up where they left off in 2017.
There’s two aspects of RSL’s front four that make them so deadly: the speed of Savarino and Plata on the wing and the ability of Rusnak to pick out a pass. It’s a lethal combo with quick strike capabilities.Twenty-five minute into the first half against Dallas that combo was on display.
After a throw-in deep in their half, RSL recovered possession in a seemingly benign position in midfield through defensive midfielder Damir Kreilach. Kreilach wastes no time spotting Rusnak just beyond the halfway line though, and RSL are off to the races.
Given space and time to pick up his head, Rusnak is immediately looking to spring one of his two wingers. Against Dallas, it’s Plata angling his run from the left side. Seeing his teammate with a full head of steam, Rusnak is all too happy to play an early ball into space for Plata. The diminutive winger does the rest of there, cutting back to his right foot and slotting home.
Rusnak Plata BACK OF THE NET pic.twitter.com/QeYYbZgruu— Real Salt Lake (@RealSaltLake) March 4, 2018
Two passes. One to Rusnak. One to Plata. And RSL are immediately on the attack and in a dangerous position on the pitch. Dallas even have numbers back. But they’re scrambling from the sheer quickness that RSL transitions from defense to offense, and Plata makes them pay.
With midfielder Kyle Beckerman now on the back half of 30, RSL’s ability to attack with just four allows Petke’s side to soak up pressure and not expose their captain by gambling with numbers high up the pitch. It’s one of the reasons RSL went from near the bottom of the table early last season to just one point out of a playoff spot. And why many see them as a playoff team this season.
On Saturday, LAFC will need to be disciplined and sharp when going forward, knowing that simply having numbers at the back won’t necessarily mean success against RSL’s front four. If the Club properly handles that equation, it could mean three points.