How voluntary offseason workouts in Utah have helped RSL get a jump-start on the 2021 campaign

As many as 20 players participated in the unofficial training sessions, which they hope will lead to a better start — and finish — this season

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Real Salt Lake midfielder Albert Rusnák (11) gets past Houston Dynamo midfielder Darwin Ceren (24), in MLS action between Real Salt Lake and Houston Dynamo, at Rio Tinto Stadium, Sunday, Sept. 29, 2019. Rusnák was one of the driving forces behind as many as 20 RSL players working out together in Utah during the offseason.

The bitter winter weather didn’t allow Real Salt Lake players to work on their games or fitness very comfortably. So as some of them texted each other over the offseason to figure out a solution, they decided to head over to the training facility in Herriman.

Not only could they be indoors and warmer, they could also be together. Each member of the roster had an individualized training regimen that they could work on by themselves if they so chose.

A small group working out together gradually grew into nearly the majority of the team working on their fitness and doing ball work. Because many players stayed in Utah during the offseason and have trained together for months, it’s given RSL a head start on preseason, which officially started Monday after a week of voluntary work.

“The second week of preseason, this is one of the sharper groups that I’ve been on just because we’ve been here for so long and the majority of the guys have been here training,” forward Justin Meram said.

RSL begins its 2021 season April 24, a week later than the rest of Major League Soccer. Its home opener is May 1 against Sporting Kansas City. The club is trying to make amends for a 2020 that ended disastrously with an 11th-place finish in the Western Conference.

Coach Freddy Juarez said he got “nothing but goosebumps” when he started noticing his players in the gym or on the field running sessions themselves. He added that the coaching staff played no part in asking the players to start preparations for this season early.

In Juarez’s mind, the players chose to put in extra work together because they want to make up for how last season ended.

“Guys could do running on their own. Guys can be in gyms on their own. Guys could come one day, not another,” Juarez said. “These guys consistently came and played and ran and all of that with great energy. So I like to think and I feel that guys are just not happy with what we did and they want to do right.”

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

Juarez said the sessions were first organized by Albert Rusnák, Aaron Herrera, Justen Glad, Pablo Ruiz, Marcelo Silva and Corey Baird, who was traded to LAFC in January.

Goalkeeper Andrew Putna said Rusnák was the one of the first players who returned to market, and it seemed like others followed his lead.

“I think he set the tone,” Putna said.

Midfielder Damir Kreilach returned to Utah about four weeks ago, but was aware of his teammates’ sessions.

“It shows how they are excited and how we as a team are excited about 2021,” Kreilach said. “It is a good sign for the new year, for the new season, and that’s what keeps us together.”

Goalkeeper Zac MacMath returned to Salt Lake City after at the start of February after spending some time at home in Philadelphia. At that point, anywhere between 15-20 RSL players were participating in voluntary workouts.

“They were intense,” MacMath said. “You could tell guys were itching to get back.”

Midfielder Nick Besler, who joined the voluntary sessions in January, said he would like to think the early offseason work will help the team, but time will tell. Juarez has indicated that having so many players get together on their own so early in the offseason is uncommon, and he hopes it’s a good sign of things to come for RSL.

“I am so happy right now with the guys that I hope this is a building of something great for not just this year, but beyond,” Juarez said. “This is part of the culture.”