Real Salt Lake drew a group for the MLS is Back Tournament featuring teams that had all won both of their regular-season games before the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered sports throughout the world. And seeing as how RSL hadn’t won a game yet, it was natural to think it could have a hard time winning a game in the opening round, much less getting out of the group.
Instead, RSL flummoxed the Colorado Rapids to the tune of a 2-0 win Sunday. There was little sign of rust other than a couple players reporting cramps due to the intense Florida humidity.
No one with RSL was surprised that they came out with a dominating performance despite not playing a competitive soccer game in four months. And perhaps the reason for that is simply the fact they no longer had to compete against each other.
“I know we were all sort of getting a little tired of each other and a little frustrated with just playing the same guys every day,” defender Aaron Herrera said. “So it was nice to have a different opponent.”
But the weeks of intrasquad training sessions and scrimmages were by design. Coach Freddy Juarez said the players who aren’t chosen to start mimic the team’s opposition for an upcoming game so the starting 11 can be as ready as possible come game time.
Juarez pointed to the professionalism of the nonstarters and said typically those players can choose to either sulk about their role or embrace it. Not only have his reserves embraced those roles, they’ve thrived in them and it’s benefiting the team.
“Everyone is lively, everyone is pushing, everyone knows they can contribute to the team one way or another,” Juarez said.
RSL will need to carry that collective mentality into Friday when it faces a Minnesota United team that beat Sporting Kansas City 2-1 on Sunday. And while the tournament’s format doesn’t allow as much preparation and rest between opponents compared to a regular season, the team feels it can carry over some momentum from its win over the Rapids.
Juarez said he saw qualities in his team that could be used regardless of opponent.
“I see a strong mentality from the group that was willing to do anything, sacrifice anything in whatever role they were in,” Juarez said. “I saw a group that was fearless. … You saw a team that could endure some hard times and do the dirty work. And then you saw guys that embraced the role coming in. When you add all of that, you can’t forget that. If you want momentum, you have to carry that on.”
Captain Kyle Beckerman credited the coaching staff for how the team came out against Colorado. Juarez has said previously that he changed some training times in Utah so that they’d be conducted in the middle of the afternoon, when it was hottest. He also held regular tactical meetings via videoconference during the shutdown, making sure he used the hiatus to RSL’s advantage.
“The work that Freddy and the staff put us through, after the fact, really got us prepared for that first game,” Beckerman said. “We’re hoping to continue [and] take that confidence and momentum into the next game.”
If RSL picks up another three points against Minnesota, it is guaranteed a spot in the next round of the tournament. Beckerman said winning that game would be ideal, but added that they wouldn’t stop there.
“We know it’s going to be a tough game,” Beckerman said. “Minnesota is playing really well and has a lot of confidence. So we’re going to go out, give it our all, give it our best shot and hopefully we can win and get into the next round. But whatever happens, we’re still going to try to win the third game as well.”
Juarez, ever the incremental planner, of course has his sights set only on Minnesota. But he knows that what his team showed Sunday — like the oodles of energy several of his players told him they hadn’t seen in a long time — will carry it further than that.
“It’s important to start off right, we did,” Juarez said. “We can’t just live off of that. We have to continue momentum and continue to get better throughout the tournament. I think we will.”
MLS IS BACK
RSL VS. MINNESOTA UNITED
When • Friday, 8:30 p.m. MDT
TV • ESPN2/Deportes