RSL’s second-half surge has the team in its best position in years

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Real Salt Lake coach Freddie Juarez pushes his team as Real Salt Lake hosts Los Angeles FC at Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy on Saturday, Aug. 17, 2019.

Herriman • It’s a common refrain among people associated with the club: Real Salt Lake is a second-half team. In the last 11 games, RSL has only lost twice, and one of those was to Western Conference juggernaut Los Angeles FC.

The same thing has played out in recent years. During an 11-game stretch in 2018 from July 4 through Sept. 1, Real won six games, drew three and lost two. In 2017, RSL went 7-3-2 between July 4 and Sept. 23.

Salt Lake missed the playoffs in 2017, and needed an improbable Houston win over the L.A. Galaxy last season to keep its playoff berth.

RSL finds itself in a much better position this time around. The team is second in the West with seven games to go in the regular season.

So what’s been different about the second half of 2019 versus previous seasons? That something RSL players and interim coach Freddy Juarez couldn’t quite put their fingers on.

Juarez said initially that this year’s second half has been “very similar” to those in the past and that “the guys are just believing.” But then he mentioned getting positive results out of road games against FC Dallas and Sporting Kansas City and intimated that those types of games make it easier to go into other hostile environments — like this weekend against Portland.

"In the last month or so, we’ve been decent on the road,” Juarez said. “With that same mentality, it doesn’t ever guarantee a result, but it gets us closer to a result than in the past when we’ve gone and exposed ourselves and taken three goals, four goals.”

Midfielder Albert Rusnák said that with exception of a “slight dip” around April and May, this year’s RSL team has been the most “balanced.” Rusnák said one possible reason could be that there wasn’t much roster turnover in the offseason.

“Why we’ve been more balanced, I don’t know, but it’s about time,” Rusnák said. “If you want to do something, you can’t just go on a run with winning, and then go on a run with losing five straight. You’ll never get anywhere.”

Defender Justen Glad said he likes the team’s style of play in recent weeks and he far prefers fighting for second place, rather than fighting for a playoff spots.

“It feels good being in that position,” Glad said.

Real may be in second place, but only six points separate them and the Timbers, who are in eighth place with 37. Juarez said he understands how fragile it is. On the other hand, the interim coach believes staying in that spot is attainable.

“We’re taking it a point at a time,” Juarez said. “If we can win, we stay. I don’t think we’ll catch LAFC, but that second place is definitely something that we can get to.”