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Three Points: RSL is not a playoff team, Erik Holt is a defensive liability, and the injury policy needs a change

Los Angeles FC forward Latif Blessing, left, and Real Salt Lake forward Justin Meram go for the ball during the first half of an MLS soccer match Sunday, Oct. 4, 2020, in Sandy, Utah. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

Here are three observations from Real Salt Lake’s 3-1 loss to LAFC from beat writer Alex Vejar.

1. RSL is not a playoff team

This might sound harsh, but if RSL qualifies for the postseason, it won’t be because of stellar play.

Sunday’s performance against LAFC solidified this line of thinking. A week’s rest, hardly any rotation in the lineup, commendable showings in the past three games. But none of that held over against LAFC. It made Salt Lake’s 3-0 win over them on Sept. 9 feel more like a fluke.

But it’s not just about LAFC. It’s the whole season. There’s eight games left, but only a month to play them. RSL has the luxury of being one of the few markets with fans allowed to attend and yet it has lost four at Rio Tinto Stadium, tied for the most home losses of any Western Conference team currently above the playoff line (Sporting Kansas City also has four).

Salt Lake has been wildly inconsistent. It’s only one of five Major League Soccer teams not to have a two game winning streak, and that accounts for pre- and post-hiatus. The other four are DC United, LAFC, Inter Miami and Nashville SC.

If RSL can’t start winning at home — winning, not drawing — and picking up at least a couple of wins in the five upcoming road matches, it’s very difficult to see them making the postseason.

And it isn’t getting any easier. RSL is about to play five games in the next 15 days. It’s a brutal stretch that will test the fitness and mental strength of a team that has been up and down. And when talent is lacking on a team like that, wins are that much harder to come by.

2. Erik Holt is a defensive liability

RSL was without two of their best center backs in Justen Glad and Nedum Onuoha on Sunday. Glad was serving a suspension and Onuoha was not medically cleared to play. So naturally, coach Freddy Juarez had to search his bench to pair someone with Marcelo Silva.

Juarez turned to Erik Holt, and that didn’t go so well. Let me explain. When Holt plays, RSL is minus-nine in goal differential, per Charles Barnard, who has kept unofficial RSL stats for six years. That means the team has conceded nine more goals that it has scored. That’s bad.

Furthermore, RSL concedes a goal every 29 minutes on average when Holt plays. When he doesn’t, the team gives up a goal every 75 minutes. Also bad.

But wait, there’s more. RSL has not won in the eight games Holt has started since beginning his career with the first team. The only positive result was a scoreless draw against New England on Sept. 21, 2019.

To be fair, Holt has played only 11 total games. He’s young and very inexperienced. The counterargument here is that more MLS games are good for him in the long run.

The problem with that argument, though, is that the numbers have consistently said that if Holt is on the field, RSL will lose.

And Juarez does have an alternative. Fans may not like it, but Nick Besler was on the game day roster Sunday and has played the center back position in the past when RSL really needed it.

They needed it Sunday, but logically went with Holt because he naturally plays that position. Unfortunately for Salt Lake, he hasn’t yet proven he can make a positive impact.

3. A note about current MLS injury policy

Sometime in the past few weeks, MLS decided that it was going to stop allowing teams to be specific about player injuries. Before then, if a player showed up on the injury report, it would say what was ailing that player in parentheses. Example: Carlos Vela (MCL).

But now, all that shows up in those reports is a list of players “not medically cleared to play.” The presumed reason is to shield any player from speculation that they may have contracted COVID-19. That makes sense on its face.

Here’s the issue: MLS is required to say if a player or staff member tested positive for the coronavirus. No specifics, of course, but they still have to release that information. Look at the Colorado Rapids and how many cases have hit them recently. There’s been no reading of tea leaves when it comes to who has been on their injury reports and whether those same players could be the ones in quarantine.

This came up again before the RSL game on Sunday. Onuoha was not on the injury report released by the team on Friday, but he didn’t show up on the game day roster. When asked, the team said he wasn’t medically cleared.

Defender Aaron Herrera mentioned Onuoha’s status in passing after the game when answering a question about whether Glad and Onuoha’s absence affected the team’s defense. “They’ll be back next game,” he said.

So does that mean Onuoha will be available to play next week? Herrera could have just had a slip of the tongue there, but he sounded sure. Does that mean Onuoha’s injury — if that’s what it is — isn’t serious? Is Juarez just managing his load? Is it a situation like Giuseppe Rossi’s where he hasn’t been medically cleared for multiple games?

See the problem? “Not medically cleared” doesn’t mean anything. How are fans supposed to get an idea of when their favorite players are coming back? How are reporters supposed to inform them? How are we to avoid rampant speculation?

The situation just causes more problems that it solves. So in the words of Joey Tribbiani when he was on that weird milk carton spout commercial: “There’s gotta be a better way.”

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