On a recent cold and snowy day, Real Salt Lake took its practice session indoors. As the players were warming and up getting ready, music was played in an effort to lift the spirits of the entire team.
It was a nonchalant action that in a vacuum means little, but also a microcosm of the type of vibe the team wants to foster as it starts the 2021 Major League Soccer season.
“I think that’s important because I thought last year there wasn’t so much of that and we lacked that last year,” coach Freddy Juarez said. “I think it’s important that we work to keep the positive vibes on the day-to-day basis and enjoy the day and not look so much forward to the future.”
The COVID-19 pandemic affected sports in unprecedented ways for most of 2020. Add on a losing season and all the revelations about ownership in the same time span, and it’s difficult to imagine anyone within the RSL organization having much fun last season.
After all, soccer is meant to be fun. Players get paid to play the game they’ve loved most of their lives. Coaches get paid to coach the game they love. Although stressful, the prospect of building a winning team can also have its joys and rewards for the front office.
But the pandemic made it virtually impossible to feel any of that joy. For a long time, players couldn’t train together or hang out. Zoom has become ubiquitous for team meetings and news conferences. Then there’s the constant testing for the coronavirus.
After more than a year of the aforementioned, however, RSL is looking forward to putting a positive stamp on 2021.
“The more guys can interact, the more we can build the camaraderie, the more we can build the team, the better,” RSL general manager Elliot Fall told The Salt Lake Tribune. “Obviously the pandemic is still a major issue and a major challenge and something we all have to be cognizant of, not just professionally but in our lives day to day.
“But the fact that we’re going to have a full schedule and we’re out on the training field, it does alleviate a lot of those issues. I think we’re all optimistic that this will be a more positive year than last year.”
RSL finished second-to-last in the Western Conference last season, a disappointing statistic for a team that advanced to the quarterfinals of the playoffs in each of the previous two seasons. In 2019, RSL was third in the West.
RSL has already started to turn last season’s results around, though. Newcomer Anderson Julio scored two goals in his MLS debut and the team beat Minnesota United on the road for the first time ever, keeping intact a lengthy unbeaten streak in season openers.
Since late August, much attention has been placed on when the organization will be bought by a new owner. Major League Soccer in January took over the sales process, and Commissioner Don Garber said recently that he hopes a new owner will step in by the end of the year.
RSL just finished its preseason slate where it won two games and lost one. But after having a bye week due to the odd number of MLS teams this year, the opener against Minnesota United on Saturday was the first meaningful game the team had played in nearly six months.
Defender Justen Glad said he and the rest of his teammates were “buzzing” to play, and mentioned the benefit of some venues — including Rio Tinto Stadium — this year allowing fans from the start.
“We for sure miss that environment and having them around,” Glad said.
Striker Rubio Rubin, who enters his first season as an MLS player, exuded obvious joy when he said he feels like he made the right decision for his career by joining RSL. He’s also itching get on the field.
“It’s definitely like you have the nerves just because you want to get the season going,” Rubin said. “But at the same time, it’s crazy to think that we’ve been away from the game for almost half a year — maybe longer for me, to be fair. I’m just excited to even get out there and just be able to touch grass and have some sort of fan base out there as well.”
Juarez said the phrase “positive vibes” is one of the team’s core principles. And after so much negativity surrounding the club since last summer, he wants the club to enjoy every day and maintain positivity.
“I think if you go in that direction, a lot of times the overall picture you get to it a little sooner as opposed to trying to skip moments and parts,” Juarez said. “Just go to the day-to-day and it turns out hopefully the way we want it to.”