How much stock should one put in the preseason?
It didn’t go exactly the way Real Salt Lake wanted after recoding two losses and a draw. Add to that the fact that RSL doesn’t seem to be operating at full tilt — or even medium tilt. It gave up seven goals and scored only two against its three preseason opponents, one of which plays in the lower-rung United Soccer League. Coach Freddy Juarez acknowledged after the loss to the Phoenix Rising that several of his players — namely newcomer Justin Meram and midfielder Damir Kreilach — aren’t yet at full fitness. And there has been smorgasbord of preseason injuries among the club’s attacking players.
Juarez also said he hasn’t put his strongest group together yet and that he is still “expecting a couple of pieces.”
Add it all up, and things remain a tad unsettled as RSL prepares for Saturday’s MLS season opener at Orlando City. That doesn’t seem ideal for a team that expects to finish in the top four of the Western Conference, but we’ll know a lot more after the ball goes up at 4 p.m. MST at Exploria Stadium.
Once the team is fully healthy and fit, that’s when the pressure will start to mount in terms of what the 2020 version of RSL can actually become. So before the 34-game grind of the MLS regular season starts, it’s time to answer some burning questions and make some predictions.
1. Is Juarez an MLS coach?
This might be the biggest question of the season for RSL. In his time as either Mike Petke’s quick replacement or interim head coach, he proved that he can fill in on a short-term basis and get results.
The team’s impressive postseason run last year was probably a big reason Juarez landed the permanent job. But filling in is much different than a job where all the blame falls on the main guy if the team loses.
The good news is Juarez is admired up and down the roster. He’s worked with many of the younger players through his time with the RSL Academy, and even newer players are in awe about his soccer knowledge.
RSL AT ORLANDO CITY
When • Saturday, 4 p.m. MST
TV • KMYU
But how will Juarez react if the team is struggling and disgruntled fans are calling for his job? How will he handle a player who gripes about playing time and becomes an issue in the locker room?
There’s no doubt about how much Juarez knows and continues to learn about soccer. But this 2020 season will be a different kind of test, and everyone will be watching and evaluating his performance.
2. Who needs to step up?
Albert Rusnák. He’s a designated player who by far is the highest paid player on the team, and he is entering Year 4 with RSL. Although he scored 10 goals (five penalties) and added five assists in 2019, he at times felt underutilized in the offense.
Rusnák making more of an impact is partly on him and partly on the coaching staff. He needs to be put in positions where he can be most effective. Playing as an attacking midfielder theoretically should already do that, but there were several times last season where passes would either go over or around him in the attack.
Juarez wants to utilize more off-ball movement, more patterns of play in the attack and more playing out of the back this season. Those tactics will likely involve Rusnák, who is arguably the most talented player on RSL’s roster.
He doesn’t have to score 20 goals or create every chance, but it should feel like he’s involved in the most dangerous goal-scoring opportunities.
3. Where will the goals come from?
RSL lost a potent chunk of its attack when Jefferson Savarino and Sebastian Saucedo moved on during the offseason. Those two, in particular, had the ability to create chances out of nothing. If what Meram and Giuseppe Rossi showed in their brief stints playing together is any indication of what’s to come, perhaps that issue is at least partly solved. But it remains to be proven in games that matter.
Sam Johnson is rehabbing from offseason knee surgery, Corey Baird didn’t play a single minute during the preseason due to injury, and Kreilach, as mentioned, isn’t fit yet. Those are three players who are generally relied upon to put the ball in the back of the net. For now, at least to start the season, they’re question marks.
Juarez has put an emphasis on scoring more goals in 2020. He started preseason with attacking principles and brought in Matt Glaeser to focus on set pieces. Those changes make sense after RSL scored the second-least amount of goals in the West last year.
Will Rossi or Meram be the de facto scorers? Will RSL do it by committee like recent years? However it happens, the team simply has to score more. What that looks like will be a running theme this season.
4. How will the back line fare without Rimando?
Nick Rimando’s retirement left a gaping hole at a position that hasn’t been vacant in more than a decade. But the players in front of him — his protectors, so to speak — aren’t changing. And that’s good.
Aaron Herrera, Justin Glad, Donny Toia, Nedum Onuoha and Marcelo Silva have a good amount of experience playing together in different combinations. Silva and Onuoha were the center back pairing Juarez chose during the preseason, but most likely because Herrera had to fill in for injured attackers, which moved Glad into his position.
But the core is intact, and the relationship and continuity among those players should only get stronger and more natural with another season together. And if Juarez decides to play five in the back at times, or three, or four, his choices will be the same — those five guys.
Additionally, the organization brought in a pair of veterans in Ashtone Morgan and Alvin Jones to add depth to the back line. So if injuries happen, RSL is covered in a way it wasn’t last season.
And that leads us to ...
5. Who starts at goalkeeper?
This might already be wrapped up. Zac MacMath started every preseason game, and went the full 90 minutes in two of the three. It looks like the job is his.
Yet, he did give up seven goals in two games. So maybe RSL’s coaching staff will take that into account heading into the game against Orlando. Juarez was noncommittal Wednesday about whether MacMath would start against Orlando. But even so, it feels like he will be the main one in goal.
Theoretically, however, there are three players who could earn that starting job. Juarez has been adamant that it’s a three-keeper race that includes USL champion David Ochoa and veteran Andrew Putna, who started a few games in place of Rimando last year.
Juarez said all three players had good preseasons. But it seems overall experience has won out.
There might be too much newness and not enough scoring for RSL to safely get back to where it was last season, when it finished third in the West. Juarez is in his first MLS job as head coach. Meram and Rossi are not only new, but in their 30s. There will likely be an adjustment period with whomever wins the starting spot at goalkeeper. And it remains to be seen how formidable this team will be in the attack after not showing much in preseason.
Add it all together and it looks like RSL will have to fight for a playoff spot, much like 2017 and 2018. Salt Lake should ultimately make the playoffs, but barely. That would likely mean opening the postseason on the road, and that will make getting out of the first round more difficult.
Best case scenario: Top three in the West. RSL will need everything to break right for that to happen, but it’s not crazy. If the injuries to their attacking players are minor, and their new players integrate seamlessly, this is still a talented team with one of the best home-field advantages in MLS.
Worst case scenario: Missing the playoffs. What if Justin Meram, Zac MacMath and other newcomers don’t make the impact they’re expected to? What if key injuries at the wrong time rear their ugly head? And what if the goal-scoring struggles continue? None of this is out of the realm of possibility.
Bottom line: RSL needs to make the playoffs. Anything else will be a disappoint for a club that prides itself on development and punching above its weight. With so many changes up and down the organization, this is the season to prove that. It will also be a challenge.