Real Salt Lake has been in the throes of preseason for nearly a month now. It will have its first competition Saturday in a game exclusively for up to 5,000 season ticket holders.
And on Tuesday, the club found out how its full 34-game schedule will shake out before it was released to the world Wednesday. The league had already released home openers for each team earlier this month.
Here are some takeaways on RSL’s 2021 schedule.
Lots of home games to start
RSL will get seven of its first 10 games at Rio Tinto Stadium to start the season. That is in stark contrast to 2019, when the team played just three of its first nine games at home. RSL would have started half its games in 2020 at home, but the coronavirus pandemic derailed those plans.
“It seems almost like for the first time in a while that we have a lot of games here at the beginning of the year, which is a good thing I think,” coach Freddy Juarez said. “So we’re excited with that.”
One of the biggest issues for RSL last season was it performed poorly at its home stadium it often refers to as “a fortress.” But that fortress was more easily penetrable last year as Salt Lake went just 3-4-3.
Juarez said there’s a desire for the team to get back to its winning ways at home and wants to see some fight from his players on that front during Saturday’s game.
“We weren’t happy [with] the way we played at home,” Juarez said. “The fans are used to seeing a certain aggression, a certain energy. The RioT has always provided that for us.”
RSL may get more than 17 home games
Every MLS team gets the same amount of home games every season. But the pandemic has made it so Canadian teams have to spend at least some of the regular season playing home games somewhere in the United States due to travel restrictions between the countries.
To that end, the Vancouver Whitecaps will be spending some of its their season in Salt Lake City, with RSL as their hosts. They’ll play home games at Rio Tinto Stadium and practice at America First Field, both of which are located in Sandy.
RSL and Vancouver play three times this season. And until something changes with the pandemic vis a vis travel restrictions, all three of those games will be at Rio Tinto — regardless of whether it says “home” or “away” on the schedule. So it’s possible RSL has 19 home games rather than 17.
“We don’t know how long Vancouver is planning to be here,” Juarez said. “But if it happens to be that they’re here and we host them for the whole season and we get to have those games here at home, it’s awesome. That’d be great.”
Juarez did offer the caveat that Vancouver had to deal with not playing in Canada last season. So it might not actually be an advantage for RSL, at least in his eyes.
Bigger emphasis in regional play
With COVID-19 still spreading around the world, MLS mapped out its schedule so each conference largely only plays teams within that conference for all 34 games. The league is also bringing back the practice that travel will be solely on charter flights.
For RSL, that means it will only play two games against Eastern Conference teams: May 15 against Nashville and Oct. 23 at the Chicago Fire. Additionally, Salt Lake will play teams in its own conferences three times in most instances.
That could be a good thing or a bad thing. On the positive side, RSL will have one more shot at a team for tiebreak purposes when it comes to playoff positioning. And with the Western Conference table being so tight in recent years, any extra game against a conference opponent is welcome.
But it also means that if RSL somehow makes it all the way to the MLS Cup final, it won’t have any game experience unless the opponent is Chicago or Nashville. The team is not expected to make that kind of playoff run and neither are Chicago or Nashville, but crazy things happen in MLS often enough.
• The league is taking a break during the June FIFA window, but 14 teams play during the September window. It appears that RSL is one of those 14 because it has six games scheduled that month.
• The top seven teams in each conference will qualify for the playoffs in 2021, marking a return to pre-pandemic playoff qualification rules. In 2020, the top 10 qualified in the East and the top eight qualified in the West. It does not appear as if points per game will be taken into account this season.
RSL 2021 SCHEDULE
April 24 at Minnesota United, 6 p.m.
May 1 vs. Sporting Kansas City, noon
May 7 vs. San Jose Earthquakes, 7:30 p.m.
May 15 vs. Nashville SC, 7:30 p.m.
May 22 at FC Dallas, 6 p.m.
May 29 vs. Minnesota United, 7:30 p.m.
June 18 vs. Vancouver Whitecaps, 8 p.m.
June 23 at Seattle Sounders, 8 p.m.
June 26 vs. Houston Dynamo, 6 p.m.
July 3 vs. LAFC, 8 p.m.
July 7 at Vancouver Whitecaps, 8 p.m.
July 17 at LAFC, 8:30 p.m.
July 21 vs. LA Galaxy, 8 p.m.
July 24 vs. Colorado Rapids, 8 p.m.
July 31 at Houston Dynamo, 6:30 p.m.
Aug. 4 at LA Galaxy, 8:30 p.m.
Aug. 7 at Portland Timbers, 8:30 p.m.
Aug. 14 vs. Austin FC, 8 p.m.
Aug. 18 vs. Houston Dynamo, 8 p.m.
Aug. 21 at Colorado Rapids, 7 p.m.
Aug. 28 at Vancouver Whitecaps, 8 p.m.
Sept. 4 vs. FC Dallas, 6 p.m.
Sept. 12 at LAFC, 8:30 p.m.
Sept. 15 at San Jose Earthquakes, 8:30 p.m.
Sept. 18 vs. Seattle Sounders, 7:30 p.m.
Sept. 25 at Portland Timbers, 8:30 p.m.
Sept. 29 vs. LA Galaxy, 7:30 p.m.
Oct. 2 at Austin FC, 1:30 p.m.
Oct. 16 vs. Colorado Rapids, 7:30 p.m.
Oct. 23 at Chicago Fire, 6 p.m.
Oct. 27 at FC Dallas, 6 p.m.
Oct. 30 vs. San Jose Earthquakes, 6:30 p.m.
Nov. 3 vs. Portland Timbers, 7:30 p.m.
Nov. 7 at Sporting Kansas City, 4 p.m.