As Real Salt Lake crushed Toronto FC, 3-zip, on Saturday afternoon at Rio Tinto Stadium, one word kept emerging as the best to describe what was happening on the pitch for the home team. The same word that’s been most fitting for a couple of seasons now.
And there was another word.
On this particular occasion, RSL was on the more positive end of both of those words, so much so that worthwhile change and consistency stuck their collective nose just over the horizon. Was it Pinocchio’s elongation, just another fib?
Here’s the truth about Salt Lake’s soccer team: Real can be real good or real bad.
You’re never exactly sure before any game. It could go either way.
On Saturday, for the second consecutive game, darn near everything went real well.
When the game was finished, one of RSL’s young standouts suggested there was no reason his team couldn’t win the MLS Cup.
What emboldened him was this: RSL scored first on a sweet cross from Albert Rusnak to Damir Kreilach and then … Sebastian Saucedo, a youngster at 22, took matters onto his own feet, blasting a screamer from 30 yards out for a two-goal lead midway through the first half. It was about as beautiful a goal as you’ll see, like a Steph Curry bomb from mid-court. In the second half, Jefferson Savarino, another 22-year-old, broke free for still another goal.
Where were we? Oh, yeah …
Old standards, foremost among them Kyle Beckerman and Nick Rimando — only Rimando played in this game, getting one more shutout — are piece by piece being replaced by what the club hopes will be rocksteady new ones, mainstays of the here and now and of the future, such as Rusnak, Corey Baird and Saucedo. There are others, too.
On the whole, this team is a shout and a yell from the title team RSL fielded 10 years ago. Its players are different. Its coaches are different. Its owner is different. Its attack is different. Its success is different.
If the team is still the star, that star floats a galaxy away.
But sometimes it floats nearer and nearer the desired space. RSL, now 5-6-1, completely dominated Toronto FC, a side that came into Rio Tinto with a record of 5-4-2, having gone 2-2 on the road thus far. Real may have benefited from a tired opponent, Toronto having played five games in 15 days, including a scoreless draw against DC United, in which it fired off 36 empty shots, just a few days earlier.
With the talent RSL currently has, so much of it shining in Saturday’s sun, even with some of it in still-embryonic form, this iteration can be formidable. The difference, though, between a great team and a mediocre one is being formidable day after day after day.
And RSL does not have the talent and seasoning for that. They need more speed, more strength, more precision, more growth, more … everything.
But, as was on display here, Real is edging forward, trying to develop its players while winning enough games to qualify for the playoffs, again, as it did last season.
It’s just that too often in the early going, this group hasn’t blown anybody away. Not until now. It is teetering on the back edge of qualifying position for a postseason that is yet a long way off. Which is to say, there’s time to allow this whole thing to get better, to make it better. There’s the chance it also could get worse, relative to the opposition.
The club is attempting to build its talent, in part from within its academy, from within its training structure, as well as from scouring various options for additional help. It has not spent the same money as some of the top teams in MLS for preeminent skill players. Whispers around the team are that it can’t and won’t.
Mike Petke is an intense, competent coach, a strong motivator attempting to steer the wheel, push in the clutch and find the right gear at the right time without too much swerving and grinding. And while he seems to embrace the challenge, it is a challenge, nonetheless.
In the aftermath of Saturday’s impressive win, asked about the state of his team, Petke said: “It’s always good and bad. Well, bad’s probably not the right word. It’s always good and things we need to work on. … There were moments when I saw it and moments when I didn’t. It’s making progress … I’m hoping that we keep going on a trajectory that … forget about wins and losses, that we’re improving play.”
When Saucedo was asked the same question, he listed some weaknesses that require addressing, but finished on a most hopeful note.
“We knocked out LAFC last year, and [Toronto] two years ago were champs,” he said. “ … So why can’t we do it? Why can’t we be Western Conference champions? Why can’t we be MLS Cup champions?”
Those were more statements than questions. He paused, then concluded.
“We have it in us.”