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SANDY — As Real Salt Lake forwards Alvaro Saborio and Devon Sandoval played through the first two seasons together, the duo was often interchangeable, fielded in the same position of strong, “center forward”-type strikers who hold the ball on a high line and allow the midfielders to get involved in the attack.
Both did the job well, and though Saborio settled into more of a starting role, Sandoval’s presence off the bench gave RSL key depth at the position from the Costa Rican international.
Then, a thought occurred to head coach Jeff Cassar and his technical staff: why not play them both at the same time?
RSL debuted the partnership of Saborio and Sandoval for the first time in 2015 last Wednesday against the L.A. Galaxy, and the results in two matches have revitalized the attack as the club ended a 510-minute scoreless spell with last Saturday’s 2-1 win at Chicago.
Salt Lake will look to continue its unbeaten streak Saturday at the Montreal Impact (0-3-2) at 2 p.m. MT.
Saborio scored a goal in the win over the Fire, but the biggest change the two target strikers have brought to the attack is allowing other players to find themselves in the middle of it.
“When defenders on the other team see Saborio and Devon up top, they (Saborio and Sandoval) are physical and fight all game,” midfielder Luke Mulholland said. “Midfielders know we can play a ball in to them and they can hold up the ball so we can get up the field.”
Sandoval, who tallied an assist at Chicago, has two shots on goal in his past two matches, both starts — and twice as many shots as he had in his four substitute appearances before that.
Saborio, meanwhile, dusted his seven-match scoreless spell against the Fire with a goal of his own. The 33-year-old forward has four shots, three of them on frame, in the past two games while playing alongside Sandoval.
The move has brought a new mindset to RSL’s entire squad, Cassar said.
“It was work ethic,” the second-year head coach added. “It’s about being able to play the ball forward, hold up the ball, and get more players involved. That was the train of thought behind it. It allows us to get up the field and play in the other team’s half.”
The resurgence in the attack also came as midfield maestro Javier Morales was forced out of the lineup after a concussion suffered against San Jose two weeks ago. That RSL (3-2-5) could muster offense in consecutive games — the group put up 12 shots against the Galaxy and were held to a 0-0 draw because of a goalkeeping clinic put on by L.A.’s Jaime Penedo — without one of its key players could provide needed momentum. Morales returned to training on Wednesday.
The Argentine midfielder is improving, but his status for Saturday’s match remains questionable.
“There is something to momentum in sports; I don’t know if there is goal momentum, because I don’t score that much,” defender Tony Beltran said humorously. “But I knew the goals were coming. We’ve got great forwards and great attackers. Sabo and those guys always find a way. Hopefully, it starts a great run for us.”
Cassar said the group’s success in a 4-4-2, although not a diamond midfield, doesn’t necessarily signal the end of his team’s experiments with the 4-3-3 of the first two months of the season. But Beltran, who feels “comfortable” in both regimes, said the new look can only be a benefit to RSL moving forward.
“Right now, we just understand this formation a little better, probably because we are used to playing with two guys up top and this is a mix of a diamond midfield and three forwards,” Beltran explained. “I’ve always said that we are at our best when our midfielders can combine within 15-20 yards. I think with that, the 4-4-2 helps.”
His coach agreed.
“There’s a process we are going through, and it’s a credit to the players to keep working and keep believing,” Cassar said. “Right now, we’re at a good place. I think we’re going to continue to get better and better.”