Real Salt Lake came into Wednesday’s game against Sporting Kansas City looking for a win. It didn’t matter that the team had mathematically already secured a spot in the next round of the MLS is Back Tournament. Salt Lake was thinking of moving up in the standings.
But RSL put itself in a tough position to do that less than a minute into the game, and ultimately fell 2-0 to SKC in the final game of the tournament’s group stage. It loss marked the first time in the tournament a team has scored on Salt Lake.
It was also the first time RSL lost a game in the entire 2020 season going back to its first two games in February and March before the COVID-19 pandemic put the season on hold.
RSL had been one of only two teams not to concede a goal in the tournament heading into Wednesday. But in just 51 seconds, that impressive statistic disappeared when the team couldn’t clear the ball out of the box on a set piece. That allowed forward Johnny Russell to get a good strike and beat RSL goalkeeper Zac MacMath, who had two shutouts to his name in the tournament before that moment.
That early goal changed the complexion of the game, particularly on the defensive end.
“When you’re chasing the game, it’s a lot different,” defender Aaron Herrera said. “You can’t sit back and defend. So giving them that early goal, they were sort of able to conserve their energy and sort of just sit back.”
SPORTING KC 2, RSL 0
• Real Salt Lake loses first game of MLS is Back Tournament and of the 2020 season
• RSL concedes a goal for the first time in the tournament
• RSL still guaranteed a spot in the Round of 16
RSL coach Freddy Juarez said on the ESPN broadcast during the first hydration break that there were “no words” for allowing a goal that early in the game and his team couldn’t clear the ball away despite multiple opportunities to do so.
“It definitely shouldn’t happen, especially on a set piece,” Juarez said.
After the game, Juarez took “total” responsibility for conceding the first goal, saying he didn’t have his players ready coming out of the locker room. He added, however, that he was pleased with the way RSL responded, a sentiment echoed by Herrera and defender Justen Glad.
“I thought we responded well after that and definitely started playing better once we woke up a little bit,” Glad said.
The game between RSL and SKC was played at 9 a.m. local time. MLS teams don’t normally play that early, but the heat and humidity of Orlando, Florida called for the league to attempt to avoid the times of day when the temperature would be its most untenable. The weather has still been an adjustment for teams, though, and it’s been a topic of much discussion.
But the weather wasn’t what the team talked about when it came to why it lost Wednesday. In fact, Juarez felt it was just a lack of finishing the chances RSL had in the final third. But while there were moments of good attacking sequences, Salt Lake mustered only one shot on goal and five total shots despite having nearly 60% of the possession. Kansas City finished with 10 shots, four on goal.
“I don’t think because we lost that we’re a bad team,” Juarez said. “One hundred percent wrong from that. We’re a good team. We’re a good team that didn’t win today.”
RSL will still get the opportunity to play more games in the tournament by virtue of being one of the four best third-place teams.