The 2020 Major League Soccer season has felt like that childhood game Red Light, Green Light with all the stops and starts it’s had due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
But for now, it’s green light. Ten teams have already restarted their seasons in the last few days in what’s being called Phase 1, where teams will play six games in certain regions through Sept. 14. Canadian teams play only each other due to travel restrictions, while FC Dallas and Nashville SC will make up the three games they missed due to coronavirus outbreaks within their teams before the MLS is Back Tournament began.
Real Salt Lake starts its slate of six Saturday against the rival Colorado Rapids, who it beat once already in the first game of the tournament. But after a less than ideal finish in Orlando, Florida left it sitting ninth in the Western Conference, RSL knows it has get some wins under its belt — and soon.
“We definitely want the points,” coach Freddy Juarez said. “I’m not sitting here saying, ‘We’re sitting nice.’ That’s not the message. The guys know that’s not the message.”
Eighteen teams will qualify for the playoffs this season, an increase from 14 last season. These first six games won’t dictate who gets in or gets left out, but they’re important for RSL to stay in the hunt.
Juarez said he’s aiming for the full nine points available in the team’s three home games at Rio Tinto Stadium, which will allow “roughly 5,000” spectators. There will be no fans on hand at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park on Saturday in Colorado.
As for the road fixtures, Juarez wants ties or wins.
RSL AT COLORADO
When • Saturday, 7 p.m.
TV • KMYU
But the tournament game against the Rapids is the last time RSL actually won a game. It tied Minnesota in a game that saw no goals and lost the next two. So something has to change if Salt Lake is going to reach its Phase 1 goal.
One major topic of conversation lately has been goal scoring — or RSL’s lack of it. Through six games this season, Real have averaged just 0.83 goals per game.
The reasons for RSL’s scoring struggles have been aplenty: injured attackers, integrating new players, not enough runs into the box, incorporating new principles under a new coach. But for some players, goals aren’t the be-all-end-all.
“I think we became a team that’s trying to be hard to break down,” midfielder Albert Rusnák said. “I don’t think we’ve become a team that’s going for three, four goals a game.”
In Rusnák’s view, clean sheets are more indicative of RSL’s identity. When fielding questions about how the team can do better in the attack, he pointed out it had shutouts in two of the four Orlando games. But he did acknowledge that creating more scoring chances does make it easier to win games.
Juarez just wants to find a way to score more.
“I like to entertain,” Juarez said. “I love football. I love the team to be more dynamic. And that’s what I’ve been preaching since I’ve got here.”
At the same time, though, Juarez doesn’t want to completely abandon the defensive part of RSL’s game that helped it finish third in the West last season. He likes how the team has found success in its 4-4-2 block.
“I, as a coach, have to find the right balance of still keeping an identity in that part because the team likes that — I can’t just take it away from doing that,” Juarez said. “And then I have to find the right balance of creating opportunities as well.”
Juarez estimated that he drills attacking principles during practice on a 3-to-1 ratio compared to defending.
Defender Nedum Onuoha, who is back with the team after opting out of the tournament, said the team is going to commit to putting players in certain areas where they are more likely to score goals. He feels grasping those concepts has been a work in progress and that work is starting to show.
“I think once you understand where the majority of the goals are scored and how they’re scored, then I think it’s a lot easier just to show to people that this is how we should approach it,” Onuoha said. “And I think on a day to day, week to week basis, we are starting to finally understand the way that the game essentially is.”
The restart does have some players feeling a bit strange, considering it’s the third time play has been resumed after a break. Rusnák said the time between the tournament and Saturday’s game almost felt like “the third preseason.”
Teams still need to adhere to regular coronavirus testing and other protocols due to the ongoing nature of the pandemic, especially now that travel to other cities is involved. Road teams will travel by charter on game days and depart after the game in an effort to minimize potential exposure.
The past few months have been difficult for all teams, Juarez said, and the new measures will be yet another adjustment in a year full of them. But playing soccer is what RSL is looking forward to most.
“I see a team that just wants to play,” Juarez said. “The game is the only thing that we can go back and say, ‘That’s normal.’ So we’re ready for the games.”
RSL EXTENDS TV PARTNERSHIP WITH KUTV/KMYU
The longstanding partnership between Real Salt Lake and two local television stations will continue for at least the next three years.
RSL and KMYU/KUTV announced Friday an extension to its partnership through the 2022 season. The extension includes announcers David James and Brian Dunseth, who have been broadcast partners for several years.
“We have worked closely and collaboratively with the team at KMYU/KUTV over the past five years as true partners in promoting the game of soccer throughout Utah, and we look forward to the next three seasons,” RSL Chief Business Officer Andy Carroll said in a statement.
Games broadcast on the network will continue to feature a 30-minute pregame and 30-minute postgame show. Games broadcast nationally on Univision will also continue to feature on KMYU.
— Alex Vejar