Real Salt Lake is about to restart its 2020 season against the Colorado Rapids on Sunday after four months of navigating a COVID-19 pandemic that suspended the Major League Soccer season and forced the entire league into minimal opportunities to train until relatively recently.
Such a long layoff is bound to have effects on the field, and in some ways, already has. The MLS is Back Tournament kicked off Wednesday at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex near Orlando, Fla., and the first four games had teams feeling each other out for large portions of them and not scoring much.
RSL expects similar results from its own team, at least at first.
“I’m sure there’s going to be moments where it’s not as pretty as we’d like,” defender Justen Glad said Friday in a video teleconference call. “But I do think that the level will be solid.”
Midfielder Albert Rusnák watched the first three games of the tournament and noticed a pattern: both teams trying like heck to not concede a goal, then turning it on late in the game and trying to take advantage of the their opponent’s fatigue due to the monthslong layoff and the humidity of central Florida.
It’s a pattern he feels will continue throughout the tournament.
“As the game goes on and starts to become more open, then I feel like most of the goals will be scored in the second half,” Rusnák said.
MLS IS BACK
RSL VS. COLORADO RAPIDS
When • Sunday, 8:30 p.m. MDT
TV • ESPN
RSL scored only once in the two games it played before the MLS season was shut down. That’s partly because some of its attackers were either injured or very recently returning from injury. The Rapids, meanwhile, scored twice in each of their two games.
But it’s a whole different situation now. Every team in the league had the opportunity to get healthy and study themselves tactically, and will all presumably have firm ideas on how they want to play. In RSL’s case, every player is healthy and available with the exception of defender Nedum Onuoha, who opted not to participate in the tournament — with the full support of the club.
The intriguing part is sussing out which team can hit the ground running after not playing for four months. The tournament’s format, coupled with the fact that the first three games of the group stage count toward the regular season standings, means there’s little time to waste on easing into the tournament.
That’s why every game matters — especially to RSL, which is in a group with three teams that all boasted 2-0-0 records before the hiatus. And that’s why RSL is focusing so much on this game against Colorado.
“I think the first game is very important and it’s going to dictate how you need to play the remaining of the games in the group.”
Midfielder Kyle Beckerman said earlier this week that the idea of a World Cup-style tournament was fun and he was looking forward to it. The reason for those feelings, he said, is what’s at stake.
“It’s probably the quickest time ever in the history of the league where you can win a trophy in about a month or so, month and a half,” Beckerman said. “So I think that’s kind of more the excitement.”
The winner of the MLS is Back Tournament gets the trophy and the an automatic bid to the CONCACAF Champions League. And while coach Freddy Juarez acknowledged those carrots are dangling in the horizon, he wants RSL to focus on the immediate future.
“For us, it’s to try to get as many points as we can to go up in the standings of the table,” Juarez said. “And then if we get out of the group, then we start taking that a little bit differently. But that’s later. Right now, it’s Colorado.”