With a new coach and GM in place, RSL is raising its expectations for 2020

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Real Salt Lake midfielder Albert Rusnak (11) gets past Houston Dynamo midfielder Darwin Ceren (24), in MLS action between Real Salt Lake and Houston Dynamo, at Rio Tinto Stadium, Sunday, Sept. 29, 2019.

Herriman • Real Salt Lake defied the expectations of many Major League Soccer prognosticators by finishing third in the Western Conference last season. It was the highest the club finished in several years, despite firing a head coach and parting ways with a general manager in the process.

But coming into the 2020 season with a new head coach and front office staff, much of the core roster intact, and a chip on their shoulders, Real might actually be expected to be as good, if not better, than last year.

And that’s exactly what coach Freddy Juarez believes, too. He said Saturday that wants the club to put itself into the position to host as many playoff games as possible, citing having to play on the road last year against the Seattle Sounders.

“I expect more from the guys, I expect more from myself, I expect more from the staff,” Juarez said before the club’s annual preseason fitness test, which marks the start of preseason camp. “I don’t want to be mediocre. The players don’t want to be mediocre. The club doesn’t want to be mediocre.”

RSL finished with 53 points in 2019, its highest regular-season total since 2014. It also was eliminated in the semifinals each of the last two seasons. The club wants to get over that semifinal hump. Midfielder and designated player Albert Rusnák said as much after the loss to Seattle.

“In order for us to be a better club and to actually win something, these are the games you have to go past,” Rusnák said at the time. “These are the games you have to find a way to win. So that’s probably the biggest learning point for all of us.”

Juarez said getting the club to that point won’t be easy. And the reality is it could take RSL time to find its stride in 2020. Nick Rimando retired last year and two of the three goalkeepers vying for his position don’t have much MLS experience.

Plus, the final roster isn’t set yet. Juarez said there are still a few moves on the horizon.

“Today, it’s a good roster,” Juarez said. “But we’re waiting on some pieces that’s gonna make it an even better roster.”

He also said he believes a deal will get done between RSL and veteran midfielder Kyle Beckerman, who, at 37 years old, would be entering his 14th year with the club. He smiled widely throughout his answer.

“You see my smile, then you can go off of that,” Juarez said.

The Salt Lake Tribune reported last week that Beckerman and the club have mutual interest in him returning to the field in 2020, and a new, or extended deal is apparently close at hand.

Joao Plata, however, will not return to the club next, Juarez said. He praised Plata’s offensive ability, but said the defense never really got to the level RSL needed.

I wish him nothing but the best,” Juarez said.

This upcoming season marks Juarez’s first as a full-time MLS head coach, a position for which he believes he is the right choice. And he already has some ideas about creating a distinctive style of play and putting more focus on set pieces.

When the team starts training sessions Monday, Juarez said the first nine or so days will be focused on attacking principles. That’s different from last preseason, when former coach Mike Petke said the team would focus on defense.

Rusnák said Saturday that it makes no difference what aspect of the game teams start with during preseason.

“I don’t believe in the stuff that if you do the defensive work first, then you’ll be better off defending the first couple of games,” Rusnák said. “There will be times where you have to defend, there’ll be times when you have to attack. The preseason is long enough for us to work on both sides of the game. So we’ll get that work done whether we do this one first or that one first.”

RSL allowed the third-fewest goals in MLS last year.