Through two games, Real Salt Lake has shown it can defend. Wayne Rooney and D.C. United will be its biggest test yet.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Real Salt Lake defender Marcelo Silva (30) collides with Vancouver Whitecaps forward Fredy Montero (12), in MLS soccer action at Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy, Saturday, March 9, 2019.

Herriman • After the first two games of the 2018 season, Real Salt Lake’s defense left much to be desired. They allowed a total of six goals on 39 shots and came away winless.

But so far this season, RSL has flipped the script on the defensive end. It has yet to lose a game going into Saturday’s road match against D.C. United, and has allowed only one goal on 24 total shots. Last week’s win against Vancouver was the team’s first shutout since its 6-0 victory over the Colorado Rapids late August of last year.

The promising start, Corey Baird said, can be attributed to the team paying extra attention to the defensive side of the field early in the season, particularly away from the friendly confines of Rio Tinto Stadium.

“I definitely think our emphasis on that has definitely helped us a lot,” Baird said Tuesday after training. “It showed against Houston and we’re just looking to carry on, be as stingy as we can in the back and hopefully funnel in at least some more goals on the other team.”

It’s very early, but to the naked eye, RSL looks more proficient defending every part of the field. The combination of holding midfielders Kyle Beckerman and newcomer Everton Luiz has made it more difficult for opponents to freely operate centrally, and Nedum Onuoha has fortified the back line that includes Marcelo Silva, Brooks Lennon and Aaron Herrera.

The numbers bear this out as well. In 2018, including the playoffs, RSL finished last in the league in total crosses blocked (32), eighth in total blocked shots (113) and 11th in clearances (668). So far this season, Real sits at fourth in total crosses blocked (six), third in blocked shots (10) and eighth in clearances (44).

But Saturday against D.C. United could be RSL’s biggest defensive challenge of the young season. United has shut out its first two opponents, and their most dangerous players — Paul Arriola, Luciano Acosta and Premier League great Wayne Rooney — have combined for 14 of the team’s 24 total shots.

“We’re gonna have to play really tight defense,” Beckerman said. “We’re gonna have to be aware of Acosta at all times, Rooney at all times. And then they have some other dangerous players as well.”

Baird said RSL’s defensive strategy Saturday will be to clog up the midfield, where Acosta and Rooney often operate, and force D.C. United to wide areas of the field where RSL can trap. The team knows it has its work cut out for it.

“We have to be perfect with our communication to each other,” Aaron Herrera said. “There always has to be someone on them. Those guys, if they get a yard of space on them, they can punish you. Our communication has to be perfect, our shifting has to be perfect as a team and we have to be tied to them always.”

While Real has their work cut out for them against D.C. United, they have shown the defensive capability so far this season. Even keeper Nick Rimando has benefitted from the stifling play of those in front of him. He only has three saves and faced only four shots so far this season.

RSL coach Mike Petke said he wants to see his team carry over the organization, communication, tackles and blocks from the first two games to D.C. United. It was his idea to start with defensive concepts in the preseason in order to get better results on the road, and it will be no different on Saturday, he said.

“We’ve gonna have to be on point with our defending,” Petke said.


At Audi Field, Washington, D.C.

Kickoff » Saturday, 6 p.m. MDT


Radio » 700 AM

Records » RSL 1-0-1, D.C. United 1-0-1

Last meeting » RSL 3, D.C. United 2 (May 12, 2018)

About United » Luciano Acosta and Paul Arriola have each scored one goal. … They sit second in the Eastern Conference with four points. … Keeper Bill Hamid is second in the league in saves with eight. … Four different players have an assist.

About RSL » While they defeated D.C. in last year’s matchup, United only had 10 players at their disposal for much of the game. … Joao Plata has an ankle injury and is considered day-to-day. … They have lost six games to D.C. on the road. … Albert Runsák has scored both of the team’s goals. … Jefferson Savarino leads the team with nine shots. … Corey Baird was called up by the United States Men’s National Team, but will play Saturday.