Maybe it was simply the return of injured midfielder Andy Williams that helped Real Salt Lake veritably erupt with two goals in a draw against San Jose over the weekend. But coach John Ellinger liked the look of his new 4-5-1 formation, too.
So he's keeping it.
RSL will use the formation again when it plays fellow expansion team CD Chivas USA at the Home Depot Center on Saturday night, and might even get more production against a winless team that has allowed a league-worst 12 goals.
"It just seemed to work pretty good for us," Ellinger said. "It just kind of plays to our strength."
Veteran Jason Kreis was the only forward on the field for RSL in the new formation, and Ellinger said that gave him "the freedom to make the runs he thought were appropriate at the time. He didn't have to worry about going off of somebody else, or filling this space or that space."
It certainly showed.
Kreis scored twice to equal RSL's offensive output of its first four games combined, as well as boost his own Major League Soccer scoring record to 94 career goals. Meanwhile, the five midfielders seemed to find a better rhythm possessing the ball and setting up scoring chances.
"You could tell after we settled in, we definitely had more numbers going forward," right midfielder Tiger Fitzpatrick said. "We were able to possess the ball a great deal. In the first half, we did a really good job of keeping possession, getting some chances, being able to build out of the back, going to the middle and then getting the ball wide. It definitely gave me a lot more space to be a little bit more creative."
That's because while some regard the 4-5-1 as a more defensive formation, Ellinger said the RSL version is more of an attacking scheme because of the way he deploys Williams and teammate Clint Mathis as attacking midfielders, with Fitzpatrick and Chris Brown out wide - all with the freedom to go forward - and Brian Kamler as the holding midfielder.
"It just adds a little more for other teams to think about," Williams said. "Our job is, as soon as we get it, crash the box, get forward. Make it difficult for the other team, and I think we did that."
Back in action
Defender Eddie Pope will return to the lineup against CD Chivas, after missing the San Jose match while serving a red-card suspension.
That means defender Matt Behncke will return to the bench, though Ellinger said he's not sure yet whether Nelson Akwari will earn his second straight start along the back line or Marlon Rojas will earn his way back into the lineup after being benched following a poor performance in a loss at FC Dallas.
Taking it easy
Defender Rusty Pierce did not work out much on Tuesday, after getting hit in the quadriceps in the tie with San Jose over the weekend.
"Just a case of not taking any chances," Ellinger said.
Green grass of home
Finally, RSL doesn't have to travel just to practice on a grass field.
Starting today, the team will work out three times this week at the University of Utah soccer field, after being forced to search for other grass venues as far away as Provo because the Utes had feared having their field torn up at a time that it's usually recuperating from a college season full of games and practices.
But Ellinger said Utah coach Rich Manning agreed to let RSL use the field "five or six" times over the next month or so. After that, RSL presumably will be able to use the grass field that will be installed at Rice-Eccles Stadium for the World Cup qualifying match between the United States and Costa Rica on June 4, then transplanted elsewhere.
"I understand where he's coming from," Ellinger said. "It's just hard to explain it to these guys sometimes."
After its game at Chivas USA this weekend, RSL plays just one road game (on grass) in the next five weeks - at the Columbus Crew on May 21.