On the 8th July, fans of the MLS can look forward to the MLS is Back tournament. All 26 teams will be taking part in a tournament to celebrate the return of top-flight football in the US. Group D is one of the most interesting groups in the six-group tournament. It is certainly the most balanced group in terms of quality.

Real Salt Lake, more than any other team in the group, will be looking to prove to their fans that they can go head-to-head with the sides deemed to be superior to them, on paper, in this group. They will be hoping to vastly improve on their poor winless run of form from pre-lockdown. Sporting Kansas City will be looking to pick up where they left off, by playing exciting attacking football once more. This time, however, they will not have the fans supporting them right until the end.

This article will be a tactical analysis and preview of Real Salt Lake and Sporting Kansas City, who will soon be battling it out against each other in Group D. It will be a breakdown of their team tactics as well as an analysis of their strengths and weaknesses, coming up to these rounds of matches.

Favoured Lineups:

MLS 2020: Real Salt Lake and Sporting KC - Tactical Preview tactics

This was the line-up that Juarez put out to face the Red Bulls in the second game this season. It functioned far better in the second game than the first, with noticeable changes, and is the best team that Juarez can field currently. Herrera played on the right-wing in the opening game against Orlando. However, he was much more influential at right back. Everton Luiz replaced Portillo from the first game and adds a lot more energy to the midfield. Damir Kreilach sitting behind Corey Baird is quite well balanced for Real Salt Lake as Kreilach is utilised as a target man with Baird running off of him.

MLS 2020: Real Salt Lake and Sporting KC - Tactical Preview tactics

Peter Vermes has a very straight-forward team selection ahead of him. In both games so far for Kansas City, they have fielded this exact side. They blitzed their opponents with a perfectly balanced line-up that balances pace and attacking precision, with experience and tactical intelligence. The only change might see ex-West Ham central defender, Winston Reid, back in action for the Wizards.

Real Salt Lake’s zonal defensive system:

Real Salt Lake set up in a 4-2-3-1, however, during the defensive phases, this shape changes slightly. The attacking midfielder, whether it be Rusnak or Kreilach, pushes up next to the centre-forward and makes it a 4-4-2 in their defensive block. These two players act as the first line of Real Salt Lake’s press.

In this defensive shape, RSL deploy a compact, medium 4-4-2 zonal block. They are happy to allow the opposition to have the ball in areas outside of their block. They don’t press relentlessly and tend to allow the opposition to circulate the ball around the backline. However, once the opposition plays the ball into the compact block, the ball-near players quickly look to force them back outside the block by closing down the ball carrier with numerical superiority.

MLS 2020: Real Salt Lake and Sporting KC - Tactical Preview tactics

In the footage above, you can see the narrow 4-4-2 zonal block that RSL deploys. As soon as the Orlando player plays the ball inside the zonal block, the ball-near central midfielder closes down the player quickly and has the centre-forward and winger close-by ready to press also, creating the numerical superiority, and hence he is forced to play the ball back outside of the block. The other central midfielder drops off creating a ‘staircase’ midfield. This is to cover the passing lanes and space left by the other central midfielder stepping out to press. Simeone deploys a very similar zonal 4-4-2 with Atletico Madrid.

Real Salt Lake has been lackluster in their attack so far in 2020. However, they have not lost either. Their defensive set-up has made it extremely difficult for their opposition to break them down by limiting the space inside the block for their opponents to play into. Nonetheless, Real Salt Lake can be broken down in certain situations. Throughout the first game against Orlando, they were cut open from through balls over the top of the defence. Their defensive pairing of Silva and Onuoha lack mobility and pace and struggle greatly when the ball is played into the area behind their defensive line.

MLS 2020: Real Salt Lake and Sporting KC - Tactical Preview tactics

The NY Red Bulls did their homework in the following match. Orlando had not quite been able to take advantage of the lack of pace from the central defenders. RSL sat much deeper in the match against Orlando, in comparison to how they set up against the Red Bulls. The Red Bulls allowed RSL to have possession of the ball, and counter-attack by playing long passes over the top of the centre-backs.

Real Salt Lake’s attacking strengths:

RSL’s best-attacking strength is their aerial superiority. This can either be from crosses from open play or else from set-pieces. In both games this season, Kreilach has been involved in the front line, whether it be as the attacking midfielder pushed up next to the centre-forward, or else as the main centre-forward himself. Juarez utilises him as a target man during open play, and in both games, he has been involved in 27 aerial duels already, winning 15 of them.

MLS 2020: Real Salt Lake and Sporting KC - Tactical Preview tactics

In this footage, Kreilach can be seen in the box acting as the target man. He is supplied by early crosses from the RSL fullback. The wingers tend to drift inside, into the half-spaces, which leaves space for the fullback to receive the ball with plenty of time. The fullbacks usually play early-inswinging crosses for the attackers to run on to. This early inswinger to Kreilach from the fullback led to a late equalizer against New York Red Bulls.

They are also aerially dominant at set-pieces. RSL are a very physical side and they use this to their advantage, especially with corners and free kicks. Against Red Bull, they had a combined total of 12 free-kicks and corners, having a shot from exactly 9 of these set-pieces, which are exceptional numbers.

MLS 2020: Real Salt Lake and Sporting KC - Tactical Preview tactics

This is how Real Salt Lake typically line-up from set-pieces. They pile four or five of their tallest players in a line and deliver an inswinging cross so that the opposition goalkeeper cannot come to claim it. Against NY Red Bull, they had a 100% shot rate from their corners. In these six corners, they had one cleared off the line, as well as hit the post.

Throughout the MLS is back tournament, they will be facing some tough attacking sides. Juarez will be making sure that utilise this attacking prowess to the best of their ability. If they are to compete with some difficult teams, such as Sporting KC, they must use this aerial advantage to gain an edge over their opponents. As well as this, they must make sure that their zonal block is well-drilled and does not allow their opponents to play through it, and they must limit the spaces in behind so that the central defenders are not caught out for pace.

Sporting KC’s rapid attacking transitions:

Sporting Kansas City set up in a 4-3-3/4-1-4-1 formation in both of their games this season. In these two matches, they easily dispatched of their opposition, scoring seven goals and conceding only one. They are extremely flexible in how they can play football. They are excellent in all four phases of attack, starting with playing out from the back. However, they are also excellent in both their defensive and offensive transitions.

Sporting KC head coach, Peter Vermes, has his side very well-drilled in all 3 of these key aspects of football. They are very efficient at counter-pressing the opposition. Counter-pressing essentially means that they attempt to press quickly when they lose the ball to prevent the opposition from counter-attacking. This is a very common tactical trend in football and is used most notably by the Premier League champions, Liverpool.

MLS 2020: Real Salt Lake and Sporting KC - Tactical Preview tactics

In this footage, Sporting KC has just lost the ball. Usually, certain teams, such as Real Salt Lake, quickly drop back into their defensive shape. However, with KC, as soon as the opposition won the ball and looked to counter-attack, they pressed the ball carrier quickly, pushed up their backline in co-ordination with the press, and with numerical superiority, smothered the ball-carrier to win it back. From here, they have runners who make intelligent runs in behind the opposition backline, looking for a through ball. They had a combined total of 173 ball recoveries in both of their games this season. 63 of those were in the opposition’s half of the field.

Sporting KC in possession:

In the first two phases of attack, Sporting KC are also very efficient. In these phases, Ilie Sanchez drops either in between the centre-halves or else to the side of them. One of the other central midfielders, generally Espinoza takes up Sanchez’s role as the pivot in midfield. He drops into the area between the opposition forward line and midfield. Gadi Kinda pushes into the area behind the midfield line, in order to be a passing option to bring Kansas into the third phase of the attack.

MLS 2020: Real Salt Lake and Sporting KC - Tactical Preview tactics

Vermes likes his fullbacks, Graham Zusi and Luis Martins to push high and wide. This means that there is no need for the wingers to occupy the same position on the flank. Instead, they shift into the half-spaces and act as inside-forwards. Here, they are both very dangerous due to their ability to run at defenders, as well as their experience playing in centre-forward. Once the opposition shift their defensive block to the ball-side, the Sporting KC have a fullback on the far side free in case they needed to switch the play.

There is a lot of emphasis placed by Vermes on playing the ball forward quickly. Sporting KC rarely spend time circulating the ball between the backline. He wants his side to constantly put their opponents on the backfoot. The passes tend to be quite risky, as they usually attempt passes which split one of the opposition defensive lines. Over their two games so far in 2020, they have played a total of 327 forward passes. They have also completed 127 accurate passes into the final third.

MLS 2020: Real Salt Lake and Sporting KC - Tactical Preview tactics


Peter Verme’s Sporting KC will have a point to prove going into the MLS is Back tournament. They have failed to win a trophy for 3 seasons now, and they must prove to fans and pundits alike that they are not just easy on the eye, but that they can battle it out with some of the toughest teams currently in the MLS. Their rapid offensive transitions, as well as their ability to quickly play the ball into the final third, helps them attack on all fronts. They are easily one of the most exciting sides in the MLS this year. However, they will be looking to add some more silverware to their cabinet.

Real Salt Lake have a similar point to prove, that they can handle the better teams in the tournament. The jury is still out in relation to their ability going forward. They have shown clear signs of defensive discipline so far in 2020 but have failed to be efficient in attack. Juarez will be hoping that he can rectify this problem for this tournament.

Either way, this analysis of the tactics of both teams portrays why both teams will be exciting to watch in a very much balanced group, and what could possibly be the most exciting group of the tournament.