Unique challenges await Seattle Sounders in first road trip of 2016

Brek Shea didn’t turn around before unloading the cross. The game was 93 minutes in, with just 51 seconds of scheduled added time left, and it was clear he wanted to pump it into the box as quickly as possible. And who could blame him? For the better part of the afternoon, Orlando City’s nightmare had been Real Salt Lake’s dream.

Last Sunday’s opener between Orlando City and Real Salt Lake in Florida had been a rugged affair for the home side nearly from the start. Seven minutes after Real Salt Lake’s Demar Phillips was sent off, Joao Plata converted a penalty to give the visitors a 1-0 lead. Plata scored again in the 66th. Meanwhile, Orlando City continued to beat its head against RSL’s brick wall before Shea’s cross in the 94th minute.

Whether he meant it or not, Shea’s cross hit Cyle Larin in stride. The former UConn striker caressed the cross into the upper right corner on one touch, cutting Real Salt Lake’s lead in half. Surely that was the end.

It was not.

Larin’s goal crossed the line at 93:10. At 94:15, Orlando City scored again. A minute later, the game was over. It took 65 seconds for Real Salt Lake to lose two points.

That’s certainly the easiest thing to take from Real Salt Lake’s opening weekend 2-2 draw at Orlando City. RSL’s stoppage-time collapse wasn’t exactly how you draw up a start to the season, and the back line, even on 10 men, will be scratching its head wondering what happened. They’ll have this week to figure it out.

But the bigger concern for Seattle when it visits the Claret and Cobalt this weekend isn’t the collapse, but the 90 minutes that led up to it. Real Salt Lake played down a man for nearly a half hour and still managed to remain dangerous cutting up Orlando City’s spine. How the Sounders deal will that threat, especially with what could be a makeshift back line on the road, will determine the outcome on Saturday (1 p.m. PT; Joetv/KIRO 97.3 FM/El Rey 1360 AM).

Namely whether Seattle can eek out its first win of the year.

As much as Real Salt Lake has been guided by Javier Morales since seemingly anyone can remember, Juan Manuel "Burrito" Martinez did a fair share of the heavy lifting Morales used to take on himself. As much as the Sounders’ defensive midfield will focus on the threat posed by Morales - as it should - it might find itself shifting an increasing amount of weight onto its burrito-sized puzzle.

Morales is still the pass-master here, but Burrito gradually swung in from his spot on the right wing on Sunday to support lone forward Yura Movsisyan. Burrito was hardly proficient; he completed just 64 percent of the 36 passes he attempted. That was partly because he’s ambitious, but don’t discount his central movement either.

Burrito routinely overlapped on Morales in the middle as the Real Salt Lake No. 10 dropped deeper to facilitate possession. That made Burrito a surrogate centralized playmaker, in effect giving Real Salt Lake a two-headed hydra occupying markers in the middle. This overloaded and at times confused Darwin Ceren, Orlando City’s sitting midfielder, ultimately to the point that he cleaned out Morales and earned an easy straight red card.

So you frequently saw actions like these. This is Burrito, who’s dropped into the hole behind Movsisyan just in time to catch a streaking Plata with a through ball inlaid into the hilt of the play.

That’s not to say that Burrito does this with every forward action, but it’s a unique wrinkle in Real Salt Lake’s attacking game plan that Osvaldo Alonso will need help with. Given that Alonso will spent much of his time trying to wrangle Morales, whoever starts next to him will have to help account for Burrito on his spicy overlaps.

And we haven’t even reached Real Salt Lake’s most dangerous threat yet.

Tyrone Mears’ quad might be the most interesting muscle in MLS on Saturday. The right back missed the season opener, and if the regular starter does play on Saturday in lieu of red-carded Oniel Fisher, as it looks like he will, he’ll have a direct matchup with Plata. The most dangerous man under 5-foot-5 in MLS history.

Plata’s low center of gravity means a lot of things, but mostly it means he’s a jitterbug with a ball at his feet. Combined with his innate technical ability, Plata’s stocky, muscular legs allow him to burst into space with rare abandon. Mears is no statue, but that one-on-one matchup will almost certainly be a point of emphasis on Saturday. With Burrito cutting in centrally and Morales operating there as well, Mears might be left on an island to handle Plata by himself a fair bit. Which means the balky quad will be of particular interest.

For his part, it would seem Movsisyan is still easing his way back into life in MLS. Whether the Russian Premier League is slower, or the cold makes all-out American-style soccer fitness less important, it was clear Movsisyan was slower to second balls and a bit sluggish getting to dangerous spots in the box. Since it’s unlikely a week will fix that, expect him to be a somewhat easier assignment than Oribe Peralta, Darwin Quintero and Dom Dwyer.

Late collapse or no, Real Salt Lake’s front line is formidable, and it presents one of the most unique challenges for a back line in MLS. For Seattle to escape the Wasatch Range with three points, they’ll have to neutralize it before it snaps its leash.

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