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(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Real Salt Lake midfielder Luke Mulholland (19) congratulate Jou Plata (8) after Plata's goal in the first period for Salt Lake, in MLS action, Real Salt Lake vs. The Colorado Rapids, at Rio Tinto Stadium, Saturday, May 17, 2014.
Gordon Monson: Weird and wonderful soccer is testing Real Salt Lake big time
First Published May 17 2014 10:22 pm • Last Updated May 18 2014 12:58 pm

Sandy

It’s part of a drill everybody’s aware of by now, a tribute and a pain, but it’s still straight-up weird to American sports fans, one of soccer’s great oddities to them: the traditional practice of excusing a team’s best players in the middle of its season for a nobler cause — a call to play for national teams.

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When the call comes, those guys are gonzo.

Doesn’t matter that Real Salt Lake is waist deep in trying to preserve an unbeaten streak here. Doesn’t matter that RSL faced the rival Colorado Rapids on Saturday night at Rio Tinto Stadium in a real game that counts in the real standings. Doesn’t matter that Alvaro Saborio is the club’s leading goal-scorer. Doesn’t matter that Kyle Beckerman is the team’s captain and the anchor of Real’s defensive midfield. Doesn’t matter that Nick Rimando is the club’s heart and soul in goal.

No. No. No.

Three dead men helped Real Salt Lake in its effort against the Rapids, a 2-1 win, as much as the three RSL greats did Saturday night. It was an effort that was good enough, despite the absence of the terrific trio.

That absence, of course, is not permanent, those players aren’t gone to the great beyond. Saborio is in Costa Rica, chasing down a place on his nation’s World Cup team. Rimando and Beckerman are in California, trying to grab Jurgen Klinsmann’s attention enough to make the USMNT’s roster. And if they do make it, which they will, they’ll miss six RSL regular-season games through the entirety of the World Cup experience.

Mark Cuban’s head would explode if basketball did its business the way soccer does. Imagine the Mavs without Dirk Nowitzki, or the Heat without LeBron James, the Thunder without Kevin Durant. Or think of the Packers without Aaron Rodgers, the Broncos without Peyton Manning, the Seahawks without Russell Wilson. How about the Red Sox without David Ortiz, the Dodgers without Zack Greinke, the Tigers without Miguel Cabrera?

"And think of them being gone for a couple of months," RSL general manager Garth Lagerwey said. "It’s a little strange."

That’s the American soccer comparative to what Real was missing against the Rapids, a visiting team that wasn’t impacted by national invitations. And RSL will have to get comfortable with the whole deal because the challenge won’t solve itself anytime soon.


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"We’re not at full strength," Lagerwey said, acknowledging the deficit is a bit deeper on account of the MLS summer season. "But we did see this coming."

Still, the GM’s right.

It is weird.

In soccer, a lot of folks think it’s wonderful.

Actually, it’s both. It’s wonderful, from the standpoint of great athletes giving their efforts for their country through one of sports great events - the World Cup. It’s an honor to be a part of it. These absences occur every year, though, not just once every four years, in varied circumstances. Last season, RSL managed to play .500 soccer without its key players - called for World Cup qualifiers and Gold Cup play — although it can be argued not having them with the club may have cost it home-field advantage in the MLS Cup final, via a heartbreaking regular-season loss against Sporting Kansas City.

If a team has good players, it’s simply not uncommon for them to be regularly called away. It’s wacky because the clubs are paying the salaries of players to … geez, I dunno, play for them. Prioritizing this way bolsters the importance of international play, but it lessens the significance of league play. It often bunches the standings.

That’s a fact.

But nobody around RSL was dogging anything that way.

It was all daffodils and petunias on Saturday night, as Real edged past the Rapids. First, on a goal in the 24th minute by Joao Plata, and then a second-half penalty kick popped home by Javier Morales. At the other end, sub Jeff Attinella was fairly strong in goal. From the time word came down that the Big Three had gotten their national calls, all of which were expected, Real coach Jeff Cassar had acted as though his side would barely notice its stars were missing.

He seemed firm in his belief their replacements - Attinella, Cole Grossman and Devon Sandoval — would fill in nicely. They did OK, this time out.

"But we have to get better," he said.

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