RSL just ended its most chaotic season — but still expected to make the playoffs

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) New Real Salt Lake coach Freddy Juarez at Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy on Tuesday Dec. 3, 2019.

Looking back on the 2020 Real Salt Lake season requires a telescope about as strong as the Hubble. That’s how the season feels when considering how much has transpired since last December, when Freddy Juarez was named as the club’s permanent coach and Elliot Fall its new general manager.

There was so much optimism then. The shadow of Mike Petke and Craig Waibel had dissipated. The club was coming off a 2019 season where it finished third in the Western Conference. The organization soon bolstered the roster by signing Aaron Herrera to a long-term extension and bringing in goalkeeper Zac MacMath and forwards Giuseppe Rossi and Justin Meram.

A Feb. 28 story in The Salt Lake Tribune attempted to answer five burning questions coming into RSL’s season. Included in it were best and worst case scenarios and a season prediction. It turned out that ultimately what transpired was the worst case scenario.

But no one could’ve guessed what 2020 had in store not just for RSL, but the entire world.

RSL didn’t make the playoffs this season after doing so in 2018 and 2019. They couldn’t even end their season on a high note at home because they faced difficult weather conditions and a more than formidable opponent in Sporting Kansas City, which had more to play for.

But it’s difficult to put that into context when considering how the coronavirus pandemic affected the season for all of Major League Soccer’s teams. And it becomes even more difficult when considering the fact that the RSL organization went through an inordinate amount of upheaval off the field.

“I think this year has been completely different and unprecedented and very challenging,” defender Justen Glad said recently. “And I thought, despite all that, we still kind of let ourselves down not making playoffs. I think we had the opportunity to and we just failed to perform in certain moments.”

After RSL drew its first two games of the season against Orlando and the New York Red Bulls, it seemed like the team was primed for a good year. An impassive result on the road followed by a game highlighted by effective set pieces indicated an upward trajectory in certain areas the team wanted to improve.

Then the coronavirus pandemic halted everything. Play was suspended until July, when the league traveled to Orlando for the MLS is Back Tournament bubble. RSL won only one of those games.

Once play resumed in home markets, Salt Lake continued its inconsistent play. Damir Kreilach was the only player scoring goals. RSL’s defense consistently conceded preventable goals to opponents. One game would see the team create a plethora of scoring chances, while the next game was bereft of them.

And in the middle of those struggles, owner Dell Loy Hansen decided to complain about a cause near and dear to the hearts of athletes across the United States. RSL and LAFC decided not to play a game, joining other sports leagues to protest the police shooting of Jacob Blake, a Black man living in Kenosha, Wis. Hansen took exception to that, and his comments the day after snowballed into multiple allegations of racist behavior.

Soon after that, Chief Business Officer Andy Carroll became embroiled in allegations of sexist behavior and almost solely contributing to a toxic work environment within RSL, with the help of Hansen. Both men are currently under investigation, and Hansen is in the process of selling the three professional soccer teams in Utah and the facilities in which they play.

The effect off-the-field drama had on how RSL players and coaches went about their jobs of playing soccer is difficult to quantify. Did the team lose because it had to deal with the pandemic and organizational turmoil simultaneously, or would it have lost anyway?

Juarez suggested it was the latter.

“I believe we’re a successful club and we’ve been successful in the past and we’ve been doing very, very well in the budget that we’ve had,” Juarez said. “In many ways, last year, I think [we] punched over our weight. In this year, it kind of came to a reality, and that’s the honest truth.”

Changes are on the horizon. Nedum Onuoha retired, Kyle Beckerman appears to be on his last legs, and the roster needs upgrades. New ownership will undoubtedly address all those issues, but when remains to be seen.

For the moment, RSL is grappling with a disappointing season that they thought would end differently.

“To be completely honest, I don’t think we’ve done enough to make the playoffs this year as a team,” Albert Rusnák said.