Soccer: League-leading Real Salt Lake faces dearth of games in next month
Three times already, Real Salt Lake has played three games in just eight days, a demanding gantlet that challenges minds, bodies and spirits. No other team in Major League Soccer has played more games altogether so far, either, and a couple have played as many as five fewer.
But that disparity ends now, with RSL barely taking the field over the next month.
Between now and June 16, the team that just won impressively on the road against the Seattle Sounders to move into first place overall plays only one league game, against FC Dallas at Rio Tinto Stadium on May 26. Miss that one, and fans are liable to forget what these guys look like.
"It doesn't make sense," midfielder Will Johnson said. "But neither do a lot of things."
Chalk it up to the league's unbalanced 34-game schedule with 19 teams, the variety of outside tournaments in which some of those teams play, the availability of certain stadiums at certain times and the preferences of the teams themselves, all eager to lock down home games on locally important dates Â Pioneer Day, anyone? or avoid others.
It's a logistical nightmare for the league, especially when you throw in its effort to more closely align with the international schedule for the first time, by scheduling almost no games on the weekends of June 2 or June 9. Those "FIFA dates" are reserved by soccer's worldwide governing body for international friendlies or qualifying tournaments.
"It's just goofy," RSL general manager Garth Lagerwey said, "with 19 teams and with CONCACAF [Champions League, starting in July] and now the season's starting in March. There's different teams in different climates and different tournaments. It's going to look goofy like this, I think, for the foreseeable future."
But while it feels weird to players who have grown accustomed to frequently preparing for games every few days, there is a bright side to the scheduling madness for RSL.
With no league games on the FIFA dates, the team won't have to play without some of its top players if they're called away to national-team duty. In the past, RSL simply had to play without forward Alvaro Saborio or midfielder Kyle Beckerman if they were called away for a weekend in which RSL had a league game.
The team also will have plenty of time to allow injured players to recover before finally resuming its league schedule at Chivas USA.
Coach Jason Kreis said the time off could serve as a "mini-preseason" for injured midfielder Javier Morales, for example, and anybody with a nagging hamstring or troublesome knee is bound to get a lot of rest.
"I'm sure we'll focus on getting a little rest and getting a couple guys healthy who are banged up," said defender Chris Wingert, before coming out of the Seattle game with a hamstring injury.
Of course, it's not as if RSL won't take the field at all over those four weeks.
It's scheduled to play in the annual U.S. Open Cup tournament on May 29, and could play another shortly thereafter, if it wins the first. It also has scheduled a practice game against Brigham Young University in Provo on Saturday, just to stay sharp and probably give some of the younger players a run.
But none of that directly impacts the team's pursuit of the Supporters Shield regular-season title, something RSL has yet to win.
"It's frustrating, obviously," Johnson said. "The game's really not meant to be played every few days. â¦ But these things are scheduled for a reason. There's a lot of money in the game, by scheduling more games in Europe and even a little bit over here, too. So as a player, you just see what's on the schedule and get on with it."