RSL triumphs over Vancouver as CCL nears; Johnson-Beckerman connection grows

RSL triumphs over Vancouver as CCL nears; Johnson-Beckerman connection grows

The best teams, they say, are the ones that win when they're not at their best, their strongest. This isn't because they're somehow better than the other sides due to some inherent skill or squad ability; it's much more complex than that. Or perhaps it's actually more simple than that: Good sides work hard.

They work hard on the ball; they work hard off the ball. This isn't any big surprise, but we have, at times this season, been a side that would have lost out to Vancouver last night. But when the going got tough, we were ready for anything coming at us.

On a different night, maybe we lose that one. Maybe Alvaro Saborio doesn't score a towering header (although it's sort of his modus operandi, isn't it?) and maybe Kyle Beckerman doesn't get an elbow to the face on a corner. Maybe Fabian Espindola doesn't burst forward on a run and force a red-card-worthy error from the goalkeeper.

But those things weren't events against the run of play, they weren't massive surprises from the way we performed. Were we perfect on the night? Hardly. A few of our reliable types weren't entirely there last night — although they all turned up when needed — and maybe that's because they're excited about Tuesday. I wouldn't blame them too much.

Vancouver, a side who only relatively recently has come into anything approaching form (expansion, expansion, blah blah blah), might not have been the most fearsome name to come into the Rio Tinto in recent weeks, but they were certainly one of the best.

Don't get me wrong: It's not as if we merely scraped through by skin of our teeth (a weird turn of phrase if I've ever heard [or used] one). We worked hard, and when we needed to be, we were as defensively solid as we've been in some time.

There were, of course, some standouts. Kwame Watson-Siriboe, for still being new to the side, looked generally solid despite having one or two moments of grief, towering above players for headers and making excellent last ditch tackles. It's a shame "Watson-Siriboe says no!" is too clunky to work for a chant. It's those '90s names, I'm telling you. Nat Borchers looked good, if perhaps a step off the pace (quad injury and all that, right?) Alvaro Saborio and Fabian Espindola continued their dangerous pairing, with the latter working incredibly hard and the former, while also working hard, finding the finishing touch once with his head and once from the spot. Javier and Kyle, too, did incredibly well to fill the midfield.

But for me, the strongest player on the day was Will Johnson. His passing wasn't immaculate (leave that to Javi and Kyle) but his tackling, his work and his pressure were second-to-none. When Kenny Mansally burst forward in attack, Will was there to make a saving tackle to prevent a breakaway. When we needed to apply late pressure in the attacking half, Will did it without fail. He hassled and harried as only he can. He cleared at vital moments. He tackled and broke up play expertly.

What's interesting is that in the last month or two, when he's been truly successful, Will has been less of a left-sided box-to-box player and instead more of a pivoting central midfielder, trading spots with Kyle Beckerman and serving as a link-up player. In fact, if I'm not mistaken, it represents a significant departure from last year's diamond midfield setup — in a big way.

Will's passing diagrams show a player who can be found around the midfield stripe most of the time — not just on the left side, but all over. The middle third is Will's ground, and while he's not the fulcrum like Kyle is, he's allowing Kyle to take over more possession-oriented play. Many times last season we saw Kyle dropping into an almost third central defender role when we were pressuring high up the pitch. It wasn't a bad look, but it didn't serve him well: He proved during Javi's absence that he can serve as a central playmaker, someone everything can go through. He's safe in the pass and he's incisive in his vision.

But Beckerman wouldn't be able to do that if he had to focus exclusively on break-up play. He's great at that, of course, but this new look allows him to get forward a little more in possession, to act as a foil to Javi's darting runs, to provide passing options. When he does that, Johnson drops deeper, covers, tackles and breaks up play. With someone like Ned Grabavoy on the (ostensibly, at least in a formation perspective) right side, we form an interesting midfield triumvirate, with two players more forward and one more back. The push-pull nature of it all is fascinating — and what's more, it works.

At any rate, we won, and that's the big thing right now. Onward to Tuesday!