Real Salt Lake is about to embark on arguably its most difficult stretch of the 2020 regular season with the Orlando bubble tournament in the rearview and the acclimatization of COVID-19 protocols.
RSL has eight games left, five of which are on the road. And those eight games will be finished in just a month’s time.
All the while, the team sits just barely over the playoff line in the Western Conference, just three points ahead of the 12th place L.A. Galaxy. And, they’re missing midfielder Albert Rusnák for a long stretch of time and will most likely be without defender Nedum Onuoha for the second consecutive game Wednesday on the road against the Seattle Sounders.
“We’re going to challenge our group, we’re going to challenge ourselves, we’re going to be challenged,” coach Freddy Juarez said Tuesday via videoconference. “We may win some and we may lose some. But the idea is that we continue to collect some points somewhere to keep us contesting for playoffs.”
RSL is in eight place in the West with an upcoming stretch of games that include some of the top teams in the West, including the Sounders, Portland Timbers and Sporting Kansas City. While most of their remaining games are on the road, RSL has been able to earn some results this season. In fact, it may be on pace to surpass the number of draws it earned in the previous two seasons.
Last year, Salt Lake finished the season with four draws. In 2018, they had three draws. Already in the sputtering and abnormal 2020, RSL has three draws.
Forward Justin Meram said last week that the team’s mentality on the road this season is unlike what he’s seen for most of his career in Major League Soccer.
“I think we dig a little bit deeper knowing that we have to get something out of it,” Meram said. “It’s one of the few teams I’ve been on that has a better record or performed very well on the road. You don’t see that a lot in MLS.”
The logistics of traveling has been different or MLS teams due to the coronavirus pandemic. They leave on game day and return home shortly after the game ends. And in most venues, fans are not allowed in stadiums. Since returning from the Orlando tournament, RSL has not played in a road setting where the general public was allowed to attend (Some allowed friends and family.).
Players have mostly grown accustomed to the travel situation, but it still affects play. Defender Justen Glad, who missed the previous game due to a suspension, said playing on the road is more difficult this season partly because teams have to travel on game day.
RSL AT SEATTLE
At Century Link Field
When • Wednesday, 8 p.m MDT
TV • KMYU
Goalkeeper Andrew Putna thinks having no fans at road games can actually be a benefit.
“When you go on the road, I think having no fans probably helps,” Putna said last week. “We allow fans and it’s definitely harder for teams. But when you go on the road and the other team has no fans, it’s almost an even playing field.”
Juarez last week credited the team’s cumulative experience and maturity over the past several years as to why RSL has been able to fare better in road games this season. He added that the coaching staff has also learned how to approach those situations better.
On Tuesday, Juarez said having several veterans on the roster can help with the upcoming stretch of games from a mentality standpoint.
“You do need strong-mentality experienced veterans that have seen it all, you need a staff that’s not panicking, and you need also that your younger guys — the guys that have two or three years already — have seen it all as well that they also don’t go into panic mode and that they understand that it’s a game at a time,” Juarez said.
RSL may not be in panic mode, but time running out. And on some level, the team appears to know that.
“We need results bad,” defender Donny Toia said. “We’ve had some poor results, especially at home, and we need to be able to turn it around on the away trips and get some results there to keep us in contention for the playoff spot.”