Four games into the season, and after a 4-0 thrashing at home against expansion side St. Louis, RSL fans are already left wondering: What exactly is going wrong with this team? The short answer is everything. Column over. Thanks for tuning in. We'll see you next time!
On a more serious note, RSL's problems can be explained by a couple of key factors, some of which are obvious like they do not score goals outside of set pieces and others are a little subtler. Let's dive in.
1. The Offense Stinks
Famed Liverpool legend and well-documented genius Michael Owen once made a quite astute observation discussing Manchester City when he said "When they don't score, they hardly ever win." I think it is safe to say this life-changing truism can also be applied to RSL. Over four games, RSL has scored three goals. Two of those goals have been Justen Glad from set-pieces, meaning over 360 minutes, RSL has created a solitary goal from the run of play.
Now, this is a familiar problem and was something RSL struggled with all season last season as well, but why exactly isn't RSL scoring goals? It's not bad luck. RSL is very poor at creating quality shots. According to FBref.com, RSL ranks — you guessed it — dead last in xG with 4.0 expected goals for this season (well, technically tied with Minnesota, but RSL shows last in the table, so we'll keep it for dramatic effect). On a per-90 basis RSL moves up to the bottom four at 1.0 xG per game.
RSL's game plan is extremely predictable: Get the ball to the wings and look to cross into the box. RSL is so well-drilled at this, that they honestly do not even look to have a plan B. This is plan A through Z. According to WhoScored, RSL ranks as weak in aerial duels, which isn't exactly a great sign for a team looking to win headers in the box. All the best aerial duelers tend to be in the defense, which starts to explain why RSL looks far more dangerous on corners than in the run of play and why Glad is the team's leading goal scorer.
Due to the predictability of the game plan, opposing defenses aren't being significantly challenged. Have strong in air, tall center backs, and you've almost completely eliminated RSL's attacking plan. On FBref, RSL has only successfully completed four through balls this season, meaning that the team is generally putting very little pressure on the ground through the center of the opposing team's defense. The attack is entirely too one-dimensional, and playing for high variance set-piece opportunities is not really a long-term strategy for success. RSL has to become more dynamic and unpredictable in the final third.
2. Press Here for Destruction
Part of Mastroeni's game plan is to win the ball high up the pitch and get it quickly into the box. He's said as much in his availabilities, and it has appeared to be more of a point of emphasis this season. There is just one tricky little problem: the RSL press is ineffective.
For the season, RSL has a total of six successful tackles in the opponent's final third. Compare this to RSL's opponent last weekend in St. Louis, who has 18 successful tackles in the opponent's final third. St. Louis put RSL in some difficult positions that led directly to goals, and it was a masterclass in what it should look like. Generally, it seems like Löeffelsend and Ojeda or Ruiz have been asked to pressure slightly higher upfield this season in an attempt to create turnovers. In reality, what has happened too often this season is that the opposing team is able to completely bypass the RSL midfield with a single ball to a free midfielder.
Once the ball has bypassed the midfield, it's feasting time for opposing strikers and attacking midfielders, who have time and space to run directly at RSL's center backs. The midfield is generally too high up to recover and RSL's defenders are left playing 2v2 or outnumbered in transition. Just look at Wolff's goal in the Austin FC game: Löeffelsend is higher up the pitch than Rubio Rubin, who is pointing for someone to cover the midfield run. The problem is that there is no one behind Rubin to cover the run since Löeffelsend is already ahead of him. Wolff is able to run free at the defense and get an uncontested shot at the top of the 18.
The final goal for St. Louis is also another good example, Löeffelsend and the rest of the press fails to win the ball, Ruiz's positioning is too high up the field, and St. Louis is able to get the ball into space with numbers running at RSL's backline. RSL's failure in the press makes them extremely susceptible on the counter and a big reason why they look so vulnerable right now.
3. Kreilach's Anonymous
Damir Kreilach is a club legend, great guy, and on the Mount Rushmo... [comically large cane yanks me away from this conversation]. Everyone loves Dami, we all want to see him succeed, but the problem is that at the moment he is simply a ghost out on the field.
Kreilach is nominally playing as a number 10, which comes with a set of expectations. Your number 10 should be getting involved in play often, creating opportunities for others, and putting pressure on opposing defenses. The problem is that Kreilach simply isn't doing any of those things.
|xA + xG per 90
For a comparison, I looked at some of the more talented number 10s/attacking midfielders so far this season or with track records in season's past. Compare Kreilach with Carles Gil of New England, Luciano Acosta of Cincinnati FC, Lucas Zelarayán of the Columbus Crew, and Thiago Almada of Atlanta FC, and the picture is bleak. Kreilach has completed nearly 50 percent fewer passes than the next lowest Gil (61 versus 114) despite playing almost a full game more than Gil. Almada has been having an incredible season and has completed just under four times the number of passes.
In terms of touches, Kreilach has 105 in about 320 minutes of soccer, Acosta, Zelarayán and Almada have nearly double the number of touches in similar minutes. Now touches and passes are one thing, but maybe Dami makes them count? Well, sorry to disappoint you, but not really. When you compare the expected goals and expected assists per game, Kreilach is not even close to these guys at 0.18 xG + xA per game.
Now, to be clear, I don't really blame Kreilach for this. He isn't a number 10, he never has been, and at 33 years old I doubt he'll get much better at it over the course of the season. The directions from the coaching staff also specifically don't play through a number 10 (see point 1), which is not helping his numbers either. But the reality is that the formation isn't working to Kreilach's strengths. It isn't as simple as putting him on the field and hoping something works. A rethink is required.
4. It's All Up to You, Coach
They say the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results and, well, it's all starting to look a little bananatown. RSL has six wins in their last 26 matches, which you don't need me to tell you is not very good. The way this team is playing right now is rotten, but not because the mentality is lacking. I don't think it's because the players don't want it or aren't trying hard enough.
Tactically, this team has problems. Big ones. But, even if nothing changes, the results won't always be this bad, RSL will pull out some wins and have some good form. Ultimately, however, the results are not shaping up to be an improvement on last year unless some new solutions are found. Additionally, the new playoff format is far less forgiving to underdogs. For RSL to advance deep into the playoffs, they'll have to be the better team over several games and can't rely on advancing with zero shots. This is where a coach earns their keep, and we'll see if Pablo is a guy who can be a guy that turns these guys around.