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(Kim Raff | The Salt Lake Tribune) Real Salt Lake's Jamison Olave reacts to missing a shot on goal during a the team's 3-0 victory over Portland earlier this month. The victory is the only one for RSL in the last month.
Monson: Real Salt Lake at worst, when they should be the best

Major League Soccer » Real must adjust to foes’ aggressiveness if turnaround is going to happen.

By Gordon Monson

| Tribune Columnist

First Published Jul 17 2012 03:32 pm • Last Updated Oct 30 2012 11:32 pm

As columns go, this is not a friendly.

It’s a rip job, actually.

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And Real Salt Lake has it coming.

You don’t bag on teams that suck. You bag on the guys who compile teams that suck. And RSL doesn’t suck.

All the more reason to hack away at them now.

RSL should be, if not the best team in Major League Soccer, one of the best. And right now, even though they still have one of the better records in the league at 11-7-3 and are tied for second in overall points (36), they are betraying themselves, playing as though they have confused themselves with Portland or Toronto.

RSL is 1-4-1 in their last six MLS games. Throw in a ridiculous loss at home to a minor league opponent in the U.S. Open Cup and a 5-0 beat-down against San Jose the other night on the road, and it’s hard to see this stretch as anything other than an embarrassment. San Jose would be Real’s main rival in the West, but head-to-head, RSL is lagging far behind, having lost to the ’Quakes three straight times. That means Salt Lake has yielded all the tiebreaks with San Jose in the playoffs, as well as home-field advantage.

After Tuesday’s training session, a practice that Jason Kreis extended for more than an extra half-hour, the coach squinted into the hot midday sun and said: "We need to be humble. We’re one of the hardest-working teams around. If we’re not, we will fail."

With the exception, then, of a strong outing against last-place Portland, the hard work around here has wavered.

Directly after Saturday night’s loss, Kreis said his team "lacked discipline" and "sleep-walked through the game," and he added, "San Jose is a much better team than us."

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Nobody was supposed to be much better than RSL this year, and those high expectations have haunted a team that apparently doesn’t handle being a favorite and front-runner with any kind of strength. Playing tough when you’re up against it, trying to prove everyone wrong, has its place. But mental toughness is defined in a great team that plays great, regardless of what other teams are doing, what people are saying.

Opponents have discovered a key to beating Real, and it starts with roughing up their quarterback, Javier Morales. The pretty-playing midfielder is the team’s best player, or, at least, was at one time. Now, opposing defenders are chopping away at him, slowing him by dinging him, sometimes from behind.

"I don’t care," Morales said. "I don’t want to cry. I don’t want to be that kind of player. If [other teams] foul me, I have to keep playing."

But that’s a bit of a concern, not just for Morales, but for the entire team. Since Morales absorbed a complete cheap shot against Chivas USA near the top of last season, which kept him out for an elongated period, he hasn’t consistently been the same player he had been. With every fresh opponent that continues to hit him, it conjures fragile memories.

That’s a theory, at least.

And other teams are buying into it, because they’re all going after him.

Cheap or not, it benefits them in two ways. It messes over Morales, and, then, when other key Real players, such as Kyle Beckerman, get angry and derailed and red-carded, opposing teams receive their double-barreled reward, with RSL forced to play a man down.

"We need more discipline when it comes to the referees," general manager Garth Lagerwey said. "The players and the coaches have addressed that."

When Beckerman was tossed against San Jose, it marked the 11th red card issued to Real Salt Lake in their last 55 games. Competing with 10 players in parts of 20 percent of games simply doesn’t work.

The tactics of other teams have flat-out gotten in RSL’s heads.

"It’s distracted us," said defender Nat Borchers. "We’ve got to be smarter about it. We have to be the ones who are pressing, who are more aggressive and physical in our play. We’ve gotten away from what we’re good at. We’re good at being aggressive. We’re talented, we’re the best team in the league with the ball, and because of that, we sometimes get away from the physical nature of the game. We have to want it more."

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