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Monson: Real Salt Lake at worst, when they should be the best

Published July 17, 2012 11:25 pm

Major League Soccer • Real must adjust to foes' aggressiveness if turnaround is going to happen.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

As columns go, this is not a friendly.

It's a rip job, actually.

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."

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."

Defense has been an area of concern because in Real's last four losses, they've given up at least two goals.

"You have to stand up for each other in a way that's constructive," Lagerwey said. "You have to react by showing enough discipline to beat the other team. What any of us thinks about the officiating doesn't matter."

Ned Grabavoy said much of the above has led to inconsistency, a surprise failing since, in Real's best times, consistency had been a team strength: "Things haven't been going our way — bounces and calls, and that affects us mentally. Then, you see mistakes. It does no good to panic. That makes it worse. But the ceiling for this team is high. Are we at that ceiling right now? No. But there's enough talent and leadership here to turn it around."

RSL got talented reinforcements when Lagerwey acquired three new players following the substandard showing in the Open Cup game, but injuries haven't helped RSL. Truth is, the club hasn't fielded its top 11 players in any single game since May of last year. But injuries plague every team.

Real needs to deal with that and, as Morales said, "move on."

Their core is older now, many of the veterans at or around 30 years old. There is some younger talent in the pipeline, but, if RSL is going to capitalize on their gifted roster, if they're going to advance again in CONCACAF play and earn another MLS Cup, they'll have to do it sooner, not later.

"This is a difficult patch," Kreis said. "I prefer to take it game by game."

At this point, RSL has to take it minute by minute — and quit betraying themselves with stupid decisions and sloppy play. Both are beneath what should be the best team in American soccer.

GORDON MONSON hosts "The Big Show" weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 1280 and 960 AM The Zone. Twitter: @GordonMonson.