Kragthorpe: RSL's start OK, because finish is what counts
Becoming average once was a breakthrough for Real Salt Lake. When the team went 10-10-10 and made the Major League Soccer playoffs in 2008, that was an achievement for the franchise.
Now that RSL is playing at that level again, it represents regression. RSL is 5-5-2 entering Sunday's game against Chivas USA in Los Angeles, while still trying to find itself after a roster makeover.
"We're average right now, in the standings," said veteran defender Nat Borchers. "I don't think we're an average team, but we have average results. We need to ask more of ourselves, for sure."
That's a healthy outlook, and it's true. But here's the thing: The MLS season is so long that I'm finding it difficult to summon much outrage about Real's performance so far. In terms of the calendar, no sport invests as much time in its regular season as soccer, and then the playoffs suddenly are over.
RSL began the 2013 season in March, when baseball teams were just starting to play spring training games, and will conclude in late October, during Week 7 of the NFL schedule.
So amid some disappointing efforts, the 5-5-2 start is not disastrous. It's true that RSL is the only team that's lost to D.C. United, and there have been other letdowns, such as a 2-0 home loss to the Los Angeles Galaxy and RSL's giving up two late goals in a 3-2 defeat at Montreal last Saturday.
Yet after three years when the team went a combined 47-26-25 but failed to return to the MLS Cup final, I'm recognizing the diminished value of the regular season. When coach Jason Kreis says his team is playing better than its record suggests, that's more of a good thing than a sign of underachieving.
"I certainly don't think we've picked up any points that we didn't deserve," Kreis said. "And unfortunately, I feel that way a lot. Maybe that's just my bias."
Everybody knew this season would require some patience, with a rebuilding process that was launched in December when Will Johnson, Fabian Espindola and Jamison Olave were traded in necessary cost-cutting moves. They were significant contributors to a five-year run of playoff appearances and a bunch of regular-season victories. RSL management kept the team together to make one last run, which failed to meet expectations.
So here's Real, standing fourth in the Western Conference going into this weekend's play but having played at least one more game than just about everybody else.
Becoming cohesive remains difficult, with injuries creating series of makeshift lineups. Improved health should result in more consistency. RSL's offense has shown to be more capable this season, although that's not necessarily reflected in the net.
"We're creating a tremendous amount of chances in matches that we're just not finishing and I don't mean half-chances, I mean ones that are clear-cut chances, inside the box," Kreis said.
Kreis also said, "If you had told me before the season that we could start 5-5-2, I'm pretty sure I would have taken it."
Stopping short of commending RSL for that start, I'll label it acceptable. As this team has demonstrated in its failures of the past three years and again this season finishing really is what matters.
RSL at Chivas USA
O Sunday, 8:30 p.m.
TV • CW30 RSL's starts
Real Salt Lake's 12-game starts of the past five seasons, with final regular-season records:
Year Start Record
2009 3-6-3 11-12-7*
2010 7-3-2 15-4-11
2011 6-3-3 15-11-8
2012 7-3-2 17-11-6
*Won the MLS Cup, beating L.A. in penalty kicks