While Real Salt Lake played four games in Orlando, Florida for the MLS is Back Tournament, defender Nedum Onuoha spent time with his wife and three children back at home in Utah. His decision to opt out of the tournament was supported by his teammates and the organization.
But now that Major League Soccer prepares for what is ostensibly a third start to the 2020 season, Onuoha is back with his teammates, who have welcomed him with open arms.
“I’m personally happy that he’s going to be back,” midfielder Albert Rusnák said.
Nedum arrived to RSL in September of 2018. Since then, he’s started 34 of 36 games, including postseason. He’s become a staple for the team’s back line and a veteran leader on the team.
But without Onuoha during the tournament, coach Freddy Juarez’s center back rotation was reduced from four players to three. Justen Glad played a full 90 minutes in all four games, while Marcelo Silva played in three. Erik Holt started one game and played six minutes in another.
Because the first phase of the restart was so condensed, Juarez thinks it’s likely all of his center backs will see the field. Having Onuoha back in the fold, he said, gives him more flexibility with his roster, allowing him to play some guys less minutes.
RSL AT COLORADO RAPIDS
When • Saturday, 7 p.m. MT
TV • KMYU
But Onuoha doesn’t expect to just be given the starting position back once the season resumes Saturday against the Colorado Rapids.
“I work hard every single day,” Onuoha said. “Whether or not I’m selected, that doesn’t change. I obviously feel privileged to have started the majority of the games since I’ve been at the club. But it’s never an expectation.”
Juarez said he’s treating the situation as he would normally: the player who’s been performing well in training and games, and who is fit, will start. The dynamic breeds competition for playing between among players who occupy the same position on the field.
RSL prides itself on the current roster’s depth, which is why general manager Elliot Fall felt comfortable and confident in the center backs that traveled to Orlando for the tournament.
“We feel that we have center backs that are really competitive and extremely high level center backs in our league,” Fall told The Salt Lake Tribune.
Onuoha might get the start against the Rapids regardless. Silva picked up a red card against San Jose and will serve a one-game suspension Saturday. Fall said he wouldn’t be surprised to see Onuoha in the starting 11 given Silva’s absence, but stressed that it depended what transpired during training sessions.
“No player has their name written in pen on the starting 11 every week,” Fall said. “Everybody has to come earn it every single week.”
Perhaps Onuoha’s absence in Orlando had no bearing on the outcomes of the four games RSL played. After all, the team did record two shutouts — one of them a win over Colorado.
But Onuoha does bring a unique skill set to the table.
“He’s a leader,” Rusnák said. “He’s a defender that blocks so many shots and intercepts so many plays. He’s fast, he’s strong. He’s everything that you can ask for, in my opinion.”
Juarez said Onuoha brings “a calm presence” and is respected by the players because of his extensive experience. But he sets himself apart from the other center backs in an important way as well.
“If there was probably separation from any of the center backs,” Juarez said, “he’s very loud, vocal and clear in his communication.”
Midfielder Damir Kreilach may some summed it best when articulating what having Onuoha back with RSL means.
“He’s, let’s say, a key for us as a team,” Kreilach said.