Real Salt lake enters tonight's match against Orlando City sitting in the eighth spot in the Western Conference table, four points south of the sixth and final playoff spot. RSL has struggled to score to this point in the season, managing 17 goals (second worst in MLS) through the first 18 games of the campaign.
One area where Real Salt Lake has excelled this season, though, is on set pieces, where the team has generated 35% of its goals. This is a high percentage compared to the rest of the league, where the average percentage of goals scored from set pieces is currently just over 23%.
The only team that has scored a higher percentage of its goals from set pieces this season in MLS is Houston, which has recorded nearly half of its 21 goals from such plays.
Real Salt Lake's danger man on set pieces, whether it be providing service into the box or attempting free kicks directly onto goal, is midfielder Javier Morales. The 35-year-old Argentinian trails only Chicago Fire's Shaun Maloney in key passes, where he averages 3.1 per match. Morales has tallied three goals and four assists this season, with all three of those goals coming via lethal free kicks.
His first free kick goal came against Philadelphia Union back in March from the edge of the box. A slight deflection provides a bit of assistance, but the velocity on this ball would have made it a challenge to stop regardless.
Morales struck once more in April against San Jose, this time in amazing fashion. After his initial effort goes into the wall, Morales unleashes a stunning half-volley off the cross bar into the upper right hand side of the goal. Unstoppable.
Finally, against Vancouver in May, Morales curls an absolutely beautiful ball into the right side of the net from distance. The whip on this effort is something to behold, and it's another un-savable shot.
If Morales unleashes one of these types of strikes at Rio Tinto Stadium tonight against Orlando, the Lions will have to tip their cap and move on. Goalkeeper Tally Hall will be left to deal with any ball played directly at goal that gets past the wall, but the OCSC defense can control the result on plays where the ball is played into the area rather than at the net.
The Lions use a man-marking approach to defending set pieces, putting fullback Rafael Ramos low on a post and bringing the forward players back to defend, while using Kaká as an outlet.
City has allowed five goals on set pieces in league play this season, but only two of those have come since the return of Hall in mid-May. One of those came on June 20 at Montréal Impact, when Donny Toia turned in a stellar headed effort that left Hall pretty much helpless. While the redirect from Toia was great, the defense from Brek Shea and Darwin Cerén still left much to be desired, as our Brent Petkus broke down here.
The other was due less to any kind of spectacular effort from the opposition – in this case Chicago – but more to poor defensive execution against a short corner kick.
After David Accam's short corner to Harry Shipp, the ball was played outside the top of the 18-yard box to Razvan Cocis, who immediately played a one-time pass back to Accam, who was streaking into the right side of the box after Eric Avila lost track of him. With Accam in space, the Orlando defense was drawn to the right side, leaving space for Kennedy Igboananike to make a direct run at the back side of goal. When Accam's low cross skipped underneath the outstretched arm of Hall, it was an easy tap in for Iggy.
These are the types of plays where better awareness and organization could have prevented the Lions from being sliced up and exposed. All it took was four passes to undress the defense and take a 1-0 lead.
Real showed just how dangerous it can be with this type of pre-rehearsed set play on June 27 against Columbus Crew SC, using a series of one-touch passes from Luke Mulholland to Kyle Beckerman to Joao Plata to set up an easy finish at the far post for Olmes García, and making Columbus look silly in the process.
While RSL is near the bottom of the league in overall scoring, the club has proven to be proficient from set pieces, and City will need to be on point in these situations tonight. While Orlando has been largely solid in these situations since the return of Hall between the posts, it only takes a brief lapse to be exposed.