Real Salt Lake’s playoff win over the Los Angeles Football Club last season was more than just a victory. It exemplified the evolution of a now-former coach. It gave the team’s young players much-needed experience in a hostile environment with a season on the line.
But perhaps what that win did most was provide a jumping-off point for RSL’s defense. Interim coach Freddy Juarez, an assistant for RSL last year, said Thursday that the team kept a consistent defensive structure against LAFC in that playoff, and the coaching staff wanted to continue that through this season.
“That ending of the playoff game last year carried on,” Juarez said. “Yeah, it wasn’t as consistent early on, but we didn’t derail from that. We still wanted to be good in a defensive shape because we knew we would get goals.”
RSL finished third in goals allowed this year, conceding just 41. Only LAFC and D.C. United allowed fewer, giving up 37 and 38, respectively. From an advanced statistics standpoint, however, RSL should have actually been a touch better at defending its goal this season. American Soccer Analysis predicted Real would allow just 38.8 goals in 2019.
Still, this year’s team made vast strides over last year’s. Salt Lake’s 58 goals allowed in 2018 placed it in the bottom half of Major League Soccer and was the worst mark of any playoff team that season.
The improved overall defense may have come at a cost, though. RSL didn’t score as many goals as it did in 2018 — 46 compared to 55 — but it’s not that RSL doesn’t have players who can score goals. Eleven different players put the ball in the back of the net at least once this season, and Albert Rusnák led the charge with 10 goals.
“We do have people on the team that can score goals,” defender Nedum Onuoha said. “But those people appreciate they have to work hard defensively as well because that’s the only way for us to have been successful.”
It’s those further up the field — Jefferson Savarino, Damir Kreilach, Sam Johnson and the like — who have stepped up defensively in the second half of the season. The emphasis on all 11 players defending has led to the team’s high marks on that side of the field, Onuoha said.
“We’ve not scored as many goals this year as we would’ve liked to have done,” Onuoha said. “But the fact that everyone’s defending well together for the majority of the season is why we finished third in the league [in goals conceded].”
Juarez thinks the players started to understand and believe that, perhaps, they didn’t have to be a high-octane team to win games. They have begun to trust that as long as they don’t give up two goals or more, they too can score less.
“I think the guys have gotten a little more comfortable in knowing that they don’t have to score three goals or two goals to win a game, that sometimes one will do,” Juarez said. “And I think that’s what we’ve improved on from the last two years.”
In its final 12 games of the season, RSL recorded five shutouts.
Defender Donny Toia, who came to RSL this season after spending the previous five years on other MLS teams, said he quickly noticed at the start of the season that the team’s defense was “scattered a little bit.” But throughout the year, Real got better and more compact defensively, he said.
Toia thinks that as long as RSL continues to build on what seems like a new identity, it can make some noise in the postseason. Real hosts the Portland Timbers in the first round of the Western Conference playoffs on Oct. 20 at 8 p.m. at Rio Tinto Stadium.
“It shows on the field,” Toia said. “If we can stay compact and defend as one team instead of just individuals, you get some big-time results.”