This season has been a hot mess of expectations, anticipation and disappointment, leaving entering the 2nd half of the season with some embarrassing numbers. 17 points from 18 matches, worst in MLS and -20 goal differential, also worst in MLS are the two that are most telling. Now fans will have very different places they put the blame, but the harsh reality is that beyond the coaching change, beyond injuries, beyond players coming and going and national team callups, something changed in the middle of last season. RSL went from a team that appeared to have it all going their way just before labor day, to a group who simply looked like they stopped caring and for the most part that has been the theme of this season.
Now before you jump all over me, I know that the players and staff care, I know they are passionate about the game, I know they hate losing more than the fans do, I know all of that. I also know what it looks like both live and on TV, we get glimpses that give us hope like a good performance vs Minnesota (a not so good team) and then we get duds like the match against San Jose (also a not so good team). I am not sure what changes are needed, I will leave that up to the folks running the team, but I know what I see on the pitch and in the standings and neither of them are close to what the level of expectations has been for Real Salt Lake.
Enter our only national TV appearance of the year, a pre-holiday weekend kick off match against a team with several familiar faces. It will be hard to see Jason coaching Orlando, he was such a huge part of RSL becoming a success (yes that is his name and number on the building, and yes it belongs there). It is always hard to see a guy with so much passion and who plays with the intensity that Will Johnson does in anything but Claret and Cobalt. Then there are the ones with so much potential still Luis Gil and Donny Toia, guys for whom leaving RSL may have been the best thing for them.
Neither side is happy with where they are right now, Orlando got off to a 6-1-0 start to their season, but in their last 10 they have just a single win. RSL is close to setting a record for most losses in a season at Rio Tinto or since moving to Rio Tinto with 11 losses so far and 3 home losses. So which team can find a spark to get their season on track?
You can blame the coaching change, you can blame the injuries, you can blame whatever you want to blame but none of it will change the simple reality that RSL is on the rocks more than any time since 2007. Thirteen matches in with just three wins, two draws and eight losses, at home RSL is two – three – one. We lost 4 home matches during the entire 2015 and 2012 seasons the most of any season since moving to Rio Tinto in 2008 and now in just six matches we sit on the edge of tying that mark. I would say if RSL fans wanted to help their team out a flurry of paper snowflakes might help out given it seems the most likely trend we have is winning in snow this season.
Can RSL fins any sign of life on Saturday when the red hot Philadelphia Union come to town? The Union were winless in their first eight matches but now have four straight wins under their belts and look like a contender for the first time this year. Scoring woes continue to haunt RSL with just 11 goals scored in 13 matches while giving up 24, even at home RSL has a minus two goal differential with nine goals allowed and just seven scored. It is likely that RSL will get back Tony Beltran at least to the 18 man roster but with the suspension of Kyle Beckerman and continuing injuries to several players along with the U20 World Cup callups the roster will be thin once again.
Key to the Match:
Score – If you need any more explanation than that, well you simply haven’t been paying attention. Yura is mad at not starting, but hasn’t produced the way it was expected but to be fair his play comes from good service and the reality is there hasn’t been much of that this year. Plata is confusing, we know he has talent but his head and feet seem elsewhere since the middle of last season. That puts a ton of pressure on newcomers Davarino and Rusnak, both have shown the spark the team needs but we have to have a consistent effort on both sides of the ball to give the offense room to attack, nobody fears our offense so they can press as high as they want.
If you think RSL fans have been upset over their slow start to the season, you should see how the fans of defending MLS Cup champs Seattle are reacting. I mean hell it is as if they invented early season disappointment, oh wait that was last year before they made their big summer move and went on to win it all. If you only looked at the numbers you would think Seattle probably was off to a better start than RSL. I mean Seattle have scored 15 goals in 11 matches to RSL’s 11 in 12. They give up fewer goals just 19 allowed in 11 matches to 23 in 12 matches by RSL. Yet with just 10 points in 11 matches it is Seattle just below RSL in the table but honestly their 0.91 points per match and RSL’s 0.92 are both pathetic for teams that historically have been some of the best in the West over the last 8 seasons.
So what will happen when “lovable losers” meet off against “under-performing megastars”? Yeah that is a bit harsh but 9 vs 10 is rarely a highlight match in most leagues but the reality is this one could be exciting for a number of reasons.
Keys to the Match:
Scoring – Yup, I will keep beating this drum as long as needed the reality is that when you score an average of less than 1 goals per match and your average of allowing almost 2 goals per match you simply must score more. Now if you watched the midweek match (any chance it will snow in Seattle today, we play better when it snows) you know RSL is giving up a lot of early goals off defensive mistakes. RSL has allowed 6 goals in the first 15 minutes of matches so far this year and historically in MLS is you give up the first goal you most often lose. RSL is 2-5-0 in matches where they allow the first goal, Seattle is 2-0-1 when scoring first. So the biggest key to the match, score. Score first, score often but just score.
For just the third time in the teams history RSL has let a coach go, and while many saw the writing on the wall this off season when former NYRB head coach Mike Petke was hired to coach the Monarchs, it became official last week. So on Saturday Petke’s RSL will take the pitch for the first time against Western Conference foes the Vancouver Whitecaps, and for RSL a win is much needed.
RSL is still fighting the injury bug as 7 potential starter are listed as either out or questionable, David Horst is out and Jordan Allen, Justen Glad, Tony Beltran, Aaron Maund and Sunny are all listed as questionable. So while the backline will be a hodgepodge again, the likely return of Chris Schuler is a welcomed one after what was a debacle last week at Minnesota. The Whitecaps haven’t gotten off to a great start either but their 1-2-1 record at least has a win, they did drop a midweek CCL match that could have put them in the finals so there could be some fatigue and mental letdown but RSL hasn’t shown the mental toughness to punish opponents who may be down yet.
Keys to the Match:
Mental Toughness – For the first time all year RSL got off to a great start against MN last week with a early 1-0 lead but then gave up 4 goals all on plays created by mistakes from RSL players. That lack of focus, lack of mental toughness is something we noticed creeping in last year and has to be one of the top priorities of Mike Petke. Yes I know the injury to Maund created some chaos for RSL but losing a player should never lead to the kind of meltdown we saw last week. This is the match were if you wear the Claret and Cobalt you need to step up not only to impress your new boss, but to deliver the kind of play that your fans not only desire but deserve.
So this is the match where some folks had marked as their panic mark for RSL, but clearly that came earlier for DLH who dropped Jeff Cassar a couple weeks ago and now with Mike Petke coming in on Monday, so can RSL head into their new era on a up note? There will be no opponent that RSL will be as heavily favored against this season than MN United (0-3-1 with 18 goals allowed) but for a team that has only scored a single goal in their first four matches, can the RSL offense be the “animals released from their cage” that Mike Petke believes they are?
While it is easy to joke about the Loons (best nickname in MLS) have given up a ton of goals, the reality is they have scored more than most teams as well with 6 goals scored in their first 4 matches, so can the RSL defense which has been their saving grace (if there has been one so far this season) in only allowing 4 goals in their first 4 matches slow down the Loons? This matchup is really an interesting one as an expansion team will be looking to provide their fans with something more exciting than snowballs at their first ever match taking on a team desperate to regain their glory days that seem further and further removed daily.
Keys to the Match:
Score – this hasn’t changed and won’t change until RSL can actually step up and score some goals and no better chance will come their way than this match against the team that leaks goals at record shattering pace. Rusnak will be back, Beckerman will be back and it is hard to say which of the injured RSL players may make their return to the bench or starting lineup. At home a couple weeks ago the offense looked dangerous, on the road last week a lot less so. If you can’t score against the Loons you may have some real issues to deal with.
So for the first time in Rio Tinto history, RSL opened the MLS season at home and while that first match rust was clearly evident there were also signs of potential. The highlight was the PK save by Nick Rimando against Giovinco, but other than that the 0-0 draw played out a lot like one would expect a 0-0 draw, not a whole lot of excitement.
The question is heading on the road for week two can RSL find a way to create more chances and score goals? It has been since August of last year that RSL won a MLS match, so getting things back into the positive column would be good. If this were a match against the Fire of the last few years one could feel really good even when playing on the road but the reality is that Chicago may be the most improved team in MLS. The additions of Dax McCarty and Juninho immediately make them better, add in DP forward Nemanja Nikolic and an ever improving David Accam and all of a sudden you have a team that is a lot more dangerous than in the past.
The last time RSL lost to Chicago was back in 2011, and overall these two have beaten the other 6 times with 7 draws, so this is a fairly balanced competition, 2017 should be seasons that both teams look to improve their overall performance.
Keys to the Match:
With RSL the issue will be consistency across 90 minutes, late last year and even on opening day they came out and looked very flat for the first 10-15 minutes if not longer and the reality is you can’t do that against Chicago, as TFC who’s starters gave up 3 early goals to Chicago in the final match of their respective preseasons. So my first key is to simply start solid, this will be the home opener for the Fire who have excited fans when they are a bad team and this year are very excited about their team. Getting past the first 15 minutes without giving up too many chances will be critical, the weather will be iffy so playing in control will be important.
For only the second time in club history and first time at Rio Tinto, RSL will open the season at home as they take on Toronto FC on Saturday afternoon. Facing teams from the East are often fairly easy affairs at home, I mean RSL is 7-1-0 vs TFC in Utah and 7-0-0 at Rio Tinto. RSL holds a +11 goal differential at home vs the defending Eastern Conference Champs, but we have to remember RSL hasn’t won a match in 7 months while TFC is coming off the shortest break in MLS history between MLS Cup and opening day.
This has the potential to be a thrilling match as both clubs showed last year that the traditional score first and win rule in MLS doesn’t apply to them, there is no safe lead against either of these sides. This TFC side will look very similar to the one that played for MLS Cup in December, but for RSL there will be some very glaring differences from last year. No Javier Morales, no Burrito Martinez, no Olave and while those players are gone it is likely RSL will also be without some regular starters from last year due to injuries and callups as I expect Kyle Beckerman, Aaron Maund will no start (or likely play) due to injury, Justen Glad will be with the U-20s (along with Sebastian Saucedo, Brooks Lennon and Danilo Acosta). So it will be interesting to see what the starting XI and bench looks like on Saturday afternoon.
Keys to the Match:
There are a few keys to beating TFC, first of which is make someone other than Sebasitian Giovinco beat you. You start the match with Luke Mulholland man marking him everywhere, when Luke gets a yellow card, you swap out Sunny on Gio, and if he gets a yellow you bring in Omar Holness to man mark him. You don’t let him get behind you but you also have to no commit fouls in stupid places and let him beat you on a set piece. Last year Giovinco accounted for 32 (15 goals, 17 assists) of TFC’s 51 goals, so over 60 percent of their offense comes from one guy. So to stop TFC, stop Gio.
So the RSL season is about to begin so let’s take a quick look at what has transpired between the end of the 2016 season and now, and how much hype those things bring to the 2017 season.
I am going to use a scale of -10 to +10 to rate the major events of the off season and what I believe their impact will be on the 2017 season
- Javier Morales leaves – I doubt we will ever know what really happened at the end of the 2016 season, but clearly the departure of Javier Morales will impact RSL going forward both on and off the field. I took about a week after the 3-1 playoff loss at LA for this one to hit and its about as negative as hype can get, gotta go with a -10 on this one.
- Jeff Cassar staying – RSL fans were up in arms over Javi’s departure and a end of the 2016 season that saw RSL win just 4 of their final 19 matches and no wins in Sept or Oct. So the news in early Nov of Jeff’s contract being extended for 2017 wasn’t exactly received with positive hype, this one gets a -5
- Burrito is gone – Another case that we may never really know what happened but between a nagging injury, issues at home, and who knows what else Juan Manuel Martinez was dealing with but clearly he had checked out by mid season and by the end of the season it was clear things had gone very wrong. His release was a not a surprise but it sure wasn’t what any of us wanted, but clearly what he wanted. His creative abilities on the field will be missed, I give this one a -7 on the Hype Meter. Read more
So when Craig Waibel said there were a few players RSL was looking at this winter transfer window, you knew there would be some speculation, how could their not be? But in the last 24 hours things have been kinda funny, kinda exciting, but not very rewarding as everything seems to still be in that rumor stage. Given the drama of several handshake deals falling thru last year, I will get excited when paperwork is signed and official announcements made.
Still, let’s talk about things a little bit. First up, Landon oh Landon, how would the RSL family react if the rumor of Landon to RSL were more than just a rumor (I really, really doubt it even should qualify as a rumor). So it all started with a report that Landon was in Salt Lake City, so that must mean he is signing with RSL right? Oh could he be one of thousands who come here each winter week to get some time on the slopes? Could he just be visiting friends? Could he be here for some completely unrelated reason? Yup and to be honest as much as I respect Landon, this isn’t a player that builds RSL for the future. I said it on Twitter, if this were a move for a team that just needed one piece to go from close to Champions, then great and wonderful he is a guy who can make a difference for any team.
That isn’t the case in my book, I was reminded that most of our starters and roster are coming back from the 2016 season and I remain unconvinced is some cases if that is a good thing or not. I believe it is time for RSL to start rebuilding, not a complete but clearly we need a faster, more dynamic team on both sides of the ball. The heart and passion showed early in the season was replaced by a team that looked confused and disinterested at the end of the season. The stat that still haunts me is how often we failed to win when we scored first, and countered by how often we were able early in the year to fight back after giving up the first goal and get a result. So I would say thanks but no thanks to a Landon to RSL deal at this point, because I want us to start building for the next 3-4 years and beyond, not just do enough to make the playoffs and get a few contracts extended another year.
Now the very exciting rumor that may hold some actual weight is Albert Rusnak, a 22 yr old attacking midfielder from Slovakia, who currently plays in the Netherlands for FC Groningen. You can check out one of the many highlight clips here. Craig dropped hints at the town hall a couple weeks ago about a young attacking mid playing in the Netherlands and today rumors started flying around about Albert. You can check out his current player profile page here