Real Salt Lake trotted out a host of new players, concepts and coaches in its three preseason games in Arizona, where the team went 2-1 and lifted the Visit Tucson Sun Cup trophy.
Expectations are low for RSL in the 2021 season, which begins on the road against Minnesota United on April 24 — a week after the rest of the league. Most mlssoccer.com writers have the team finishing 13th in the Western Conference, which would be last. FiveThirtyEight, however, gives RSL a 41% of at least making the playoffs.
A preseason trophy juxtaposed with dire preseason predictions feels like a situation in which the truth might lie somewhere in the middle. RSL general manager Elliot Fall said he likes the upgrades to the roster and sounded confident in the team’s potential. But he also acknowledged it’s easy to say that before the regular season has started.
“Once the ball gets rolled out and it’s real games and real stakes, then we’ll see what happens,” Fall told The Salt Lake Tribune.
After a tumultuous and disappointing 2020 season, RSL wants to reach the postseason again and prove it can be a good team. Here are three lessons from the preseason that could give hints into how RSL will fare.
1. Anderson Julio is a force, Rubio Rubin finding his way
RSL’s new Ecuadorian winger Anderson Julio showed not only his breakneck speed, but also his devil-may-care attitude toward scoring goals. He slid in an attempt to finish. When he had the ball in the attacking third, many times it seemed like his first thought was to shoot.
While Julio plays on the wing and isn’t necessarily a striker, that mentality should give RSL another scoring threat. He scored once in the team’s first preseason game and had several opportunities throughout the three games.
“One of our major goals in the offseason was to get more dynamic going forward,” Fall said. “Anderson certainly accomplishes that with his pace and his ability on the wings.”
The club in March picked up Julio on loan for this season from Liga MX side San Luis. A person with knowledge of the situation told The Tribune that RSL has a purchase option on his loan.
As for striker Rubio Rubin, who RSL signed in early January, he didn’t score a goal in three preseason games after finishing one during an exhibition against Sacramento Republic of the USL. At times, the former San Diego Loyal and USMNT member he wasn’t involved much in the attack.
But Fall was pleased with Rubio’s performance and said he did a “really, really good job” throughout the preseason.
“We’re really excited about what he brings to the table,” Fall said of Rubin.
2. Direct play might be a staple in the attack
RSL’s distribution in possession consisted of a healthy amount of long passes to a streaking Julio or Rubin. It’s a tactic the team used less in 2020, but showed up at times.
In the preseason, however, the frequency with which RSL employed that tactic was notable. RSL coach Freddy Juarez has said frequently that he wants his players to look for the best options going forward and do so quickly. If that’s not on, he wants possession with the purpose of being dangerous going forward.
Launching long balls seems to fit within the first part of that strategy, and RSL might actually have the personnel this season to be effective with it. Julio is a speedster. Rubin was also on the receiving end of some of those long passes and controlled the ball well while also proving he can run with anyone.
And once Bobby Wood joins the fold — he might arrive to Salt Lake City earlier than expected after his club in Germany recently terminated his contract — RSL will have yet another target up the field for those long passes.
“I think what we’re most excited about is that we feel like we’re more dynamic,” Fall said. “We feel like we have more options going forward. We feel like we’re going to have an ability to be dangerous in multiple ways this year, whereas last year it felt a little stagnant. It obviously didn’t click.”
3. Sneaky back line depth
RSL has yet to replace Nedum Onuoha, the center back who not only played well in his time with the team before returning, but also became one of the team’s most influential leaders in the locker room. He had a good playing relationship with Justen Glad, who most games started alongside the English veteran.
Whether RSL nabs a new center back remains to be seen. But from a defensive standpoint, the team’s current lot of players showed out during the preseason.
Glad and Aaron Herrera started one of the three preseason games. That meant newcomer Andrew Brody and Erik Holt — both relatively young and inexperienced MLS players — started the other two and got plenty of minutes.
As it turned out, Brody and Holt more than held their own.
“I think they both showed that they can compete at this level and compete for minutes and challenge for minutes,” Fall said.
RSL gave up just one goal in three games, and it did that with a different goalkeeper in each game (Zac MacMath against Colorado, Andrew Putna against Phoenix Rising and David Ochoa against the L.A. Galaxy).
Brody stood out particularly because he assisted on a goal and also drew a penalty kick in one game and brought a tireless work rate overall. Fall said Holt showed during the preseason that he’s matured as a decision-maker.
If Brody and Holt continue to play well, it’s plausible that they see more time when the games really matter. And that would be adding two players on defense that were already in the organization.
RSL AT MINNESOTA UNITED
When • Saturday, April 24, 6 p.m.
TV • KMYU