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RSL drop season opener, lose 2-0 to Miami

A messy showing, but not the Messi show.

RSL drop season opener, lose 2-0 to Miami

I should have put Lionel Messi in the headline. For SEO reasons, you know. I’m not going to, because Real Salt Lake were awful, and it had nothing to do with Lionel Messi.

Start of the season, yeah, yeah. New system, sure, sure.

What’s that? A new system, you say?

That’s the word on the street. What’s that new system? I don’t know. I rushed over to Major League Soccer Soccer dot com to look for a passing chart, but it looks as if they’ve removed it this year. Fun. There was of course one thing that looked at least slightly different, and that was Pablo Ruiz playing in what appeared to be a number 10 role, but beyond that? I don’t know, it looked a bit like what RSL did last year when they weren’t playing with two strikers.

But let’s start there. How was Ruiz in the 10? In a word: Inadequate. We know what Ruiz’s strengths are at this point, and while he’s a very good midfielder when he’s on, but he thrives deeper in the field alongside a partner who can organize. What we saw was anything but that. There was a short period where Nelson Palacio exited the match that Ruiz dropped deep, but seven minutes later, Noel Caliskan — up from Real Monarchs on a short-term call-up — dropped into that deeper spot.

The first half of the match felt like an RSL team adrift, and I don’t think it’s on the players. Go back and watch Miami’s first goal. At 38:26, RSL has the situation largely under control. Diego Luna goes out to lightly pressure a player on our left wing, forcing Miami to play backward. All well and good, right? At 38:27, the ball’s at Miami’s right center back’s feet. Pablo Ruiz — who has rarely been involved in an organized press at RSL owing to his deep positioning — does, I dunno, fine? He moves up to pressure, and Chicho Arango starts sprinting to press their left center back.

And that’s all of the press. That, right there. It gets worse, though. If I asked you who I might see in a defensive midfield position when the ball’s at the feet of a center back, you’d probably rightly tell me it was Sergio Busquets, even if you know nothing about how Miami plays. You might even think that if you leave him in that free position, you’d better make sure you’re well set up further down the field.

Instead, he finds Messi between Braian Ojeda and Nelson Palacio. The player who you know will drift around has drifted around, and RSL’s midfield is none the wiser. It’s not hard for Lionel Messi to find Robert Taylor’s run, in part because Brayan Vera is statuesque as Taylor drives past him, and Andrew Brody is behind him and struggling to catch up. Taylor takes a quick strike, catching Zac MacMath flat-footed. It’s a goal, and MacMath gets the error attribution, but that’s a front-to-back breakdown for RSL.

The trouble isn’t the one play. It’s that the play felt normal, usual within the context of the match.

But here’s the thing: Miami was just as bad. They gave the ball away in excellent positions. RSL was one moment of Andres Gomez selfishness away from leveling the match. There were other opportunities — an Andrew Brody volley that wasn’t going anywhere near the goal but might have with a better player, a Brayan Vera header that was tipped over the bar — but RSL didn’t look considerably worse than Miami.

That’s not a compliment, though. Looking roughly at Miami’s level is probably bottom-quartile in MLS. Miami looked absolutely gassed through the second half of the match — a consequence of a world tour preseason with a roster nowhere near the size required to pull that off.

All eyes were on MLS tonight. Or at least some were. The league picked Real Salt Lake to play Inter Miami first. That should have been an opportunity for the league. Instead, we saw two teams playing quite badly, one of which happened to have Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez. And yeah, the team MLS probably would have preferred winning did so (which isn’t me trying to incite controversy — one team is tremendously easier to market, and it’s not the team in Salt Lake.) But if this is MLS in 2024, who wants to watch?

Quote of the match

From the commentary: “We spoke to Pablo Mastroeni … about how to handle this game. He said, ‘it’s kind of like the Washington Generals versus the Harlem Globetrotters. … We want to change the result, though.”

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