Orlando, Fla. • Real Salt Lake knew it wouldn’t have its strongest starting 11 against Orlando City to begin the 2020 season. And it knew that would probably be the case for at least the first couple of games as it waited for some attacking players to return to full fitness after suffering injuries in the preseason.
But starting in the 60th minute of RSL’s 0-0 draw against the Lions, the team’s lineup started looking more like it should once its main players can provide big minutes. Forward Corey Baird entered in the 60th minute, Justin Meram came in 10 minutes later, and Giuseppe Rossi culminated the changes 10 minutes after that.
In all, RSL played the final 10 minutes with an attacking four of Rossi, Meram, Baird and midfielder Albert Rusnák. Once they all saw the field together, Salt Lake got in the attacking third of the field more and created more corner kicks.
Meram and Rossi in particular showed their attacking instincts, getting on the ball and pushing up looking to make a play.
“We have great potential,” Rossi said.
RSL 0, ORLANDO CITY 0
• Real Salt Lake ties in season opener second straight season
• Orlando City amasses 12 corner kicks to RSL’s five
• Giuseppe Rossi plays the final 10 minutes
RSL had some attacking opportunities late, but it was Orlando that dominated on that side of the ball. The Lions had nine shots and 12 corner kicks. Real escaped with the draw due to solid defense in the box.
Real’s only shot on target came from defender Aaron Herrera, who played on the right wing for much of the game. RSL gave up only two shots on goals to Orlando City.
From the moment Baird entered the game, RSL’s attack changed dramatically. Coach Freddy Juarez said the 2018 MLS Rookie of the Year showed his ability to “find the ball" and "scare the opponent.”
While Rossi only played 14 minutes (including stoppage time), he showed glimpses of how his ability can affect the team. In one sequence, he received a pass on the left side of the field and effortlessly flicked it backward to a teammate.
Juarez said Rossi’s limited minutes are “a give and take” in regard to being enough time to evaluate his potential impact. He added that he thinks Rossi will embrace his role, but there will likely be instances where he’ll need more playing time.
Juarez also said the pace of the game dictated Rossi playing less due to his current fitness level.
“If we have a little bit more control in the possession and we’re in more of an organized possession, then we can find him and that’s where he’s going to make a difference,” Juarez said. “I think you’ll see more of those moments as we continue to get everyone fitter and we get more comfortable with the style of play.”
It wasn’t surprising to see Baird, Meram and Rossi listed as reserves when the starting lineups were announced an hour before the game. Rossi and Meram had both been training and playing in preseason games. And while Baird had been dealing with an injury, he appeared to train fully Wednesday.
But in the next few weeks, those three players should be at the point where they can provide more minutes and maybe even make appearances in the starting 11.
Defender Justin Glad called Baird, Meram and Rossi “three intelligent, creative players who have quality on the ball.” He was encouraged by what they did as a group, even in limited minutes.
“When they’re combining and playing off each other, they create stuff — that’s what they do,” Glad said. “I thought they did well tonight, especially coming in and keeping the energy high.”
Although RSL wanted to get the full three points out of Saturday’s season opener, the overall performance in a road draw has to be a positive sign for a team that is still not at full strength. And it appears that Juarez has a good initial plan while waits for players to get healthy: Roll out odd lineups at first, defend like crazy, bring in potential game-changers.
“Overall, the switches that we made, I thought they added something to the game," Juarez said.