Playing on a sports team is much like making a movie. People of different backgrounds and experience levels all come together to achieve a common goal: make something great.
Studio executives, directors, producers and actors all want to entertain and/or move audiences. They want a healthy return on their investment. And if they succeed, their rewards may also come in the form of a trophy — maybe a Golden Globe or even an Oscar.
Replace the movie awards with a Supporters’ Shield or MLS Cup, and the difference between a Major League Soccer team and a movie studio becomes negligible.
Every team’s landscape and outlook for the 2021 season is different. For Real Salt Lake, it’s not only about what transpires on the field, but off it as well. Here’s what to watch as RSL starts its 2021 campaign Saturday on the road against Minnesota United.
Watching movies last year didn’t feel the same due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The experience of a film at home on the couch in front of an HDTV — or in some cases, in bed on a smartphone — just doesn’t hold a candle to watching in a theater with an audience, where the shared experience alone can sometimes greatly affect the opinion of the movie-goer.
With no fans in stadiums for most of last year for the same reason, games felt like glorified training sessions. Even some MLS players admitted as much at times. Toward the end of 2020, some markets started welcoming fans back, including Salt Lake City.
To start 2021, RSL will cap fan capacity at 10,000, about double what Rio Tinto Stadium allowed at the end of last season. Defender Justen Glad said recently that playing in front of fans not just at home but in certain road stadiums as well is one of the aspects of the season the team is looking forward to the most.
RSL AT MINNESOTA UNITED
When • Saturday, 6 p.m. MT
TV • KMYU
But outside audiences are also keenly interested in what’s going in Salt Lake this season. The organization is still without an owner after Dell Loy Hansen decided to sell last August after multiple allegations of racist behavior and a toxic workplace culture came to light.
MLS took over the sales process in early January. Commissioner Don Garber said recently that the league has been “working hard with local investors,” and hopes to find a new owner by the end of the year.
But the club seems to be headed in the right direction under Interim President John Kimball. His addition alone led RSL legend Nick Rimando to seek involvement with the organization in some capacity, Rimando said. Rimando eventually took a job as goalkeeping coach with the RSL Academy and he’ll also serve as a club ambassador.
RSL wants to make the playoffs this year after a dismal finish in 2020. But many predictions have the team, at best, outside of the postseason picture and, at worst, at the bottom of the Western Conference.
While the club mainly wants to erase the memory of last year’s performance on the field, there’s at least some motivation coming from the lack of ownership.
“The ownership stuff, obviously it’s a little more of out of our control,” Glad said. “But it does add a little bit of pressure to perform [and] do well.”
Coach Freddy Juarez said on ESPN700 this week that the hope is Bobby Wood will arrive in Utah in the next couple of weeks. So until he arrives, the focus will be on the current cast attached to play their roles on RSL.
The core is back. Damir Kreilach, Albert Rusnák, Justen Glad and Aaron Herrera will all be expected, in some way, to lead the team this season to where it wants to go. Juarez said fans will find out who his captain is on game day, but Kreilach makes the most sense for that role.
But more attention will likely be placed on who the club will be introducing into its cast.
Forward Anderson Julio made his presence known during the three preseason games as a player with speed and playmaking chops. Striker Rubio Rubin also showed some promise, and Juarez said he will compete for a spot up the field with Wood and Douglas Martinez.
RSL’s back line could use some more depth at the center back and outside back positions. Right now, Glad, Marcelo Silva and Erik Holt are the only true center backs on the roster. Holt performed well over preseason, but is largely unproven when the games matter. Andrew Brody emerged as a viable backup to Herrera at right back, but on the other side, it seems like the only preferred option is Donny Toia.
The midfield seems like the most solid position on the field. The combination of Kreilach, Everton Luiz, Pablo Ruiz and Nick Besler brings experience and versatility.
In goal, many would argue that David Ochoa finally deserves a chance to prove himself as the starting goalkeeper. But the more experienced Zac MacMath and Andrew Putna loom. That position will be an intriguing storyline all season.
Juarez said he’s excited about the entire roster, and reiterated how pleased he was that much of the team gathered together during the offseason and got a head start on training.
“It’s been nothing but hard work and positive work and unity from the guys,” Juarez said.
A movie production needs several people to make sure everyone is doing their job and the final product looks good. On RSL, those roles are filled by the coaching staff.
Juarez is entering his second season as an MLS head coach. Last year was mired by the pandemic, so it’s difficult to fully evaluate his performance.
But Juarez is definitely looking to make his mark in 2021. He’s hired an entirely new coaching staff, and the flashiest of moves on that front came by getting former Colorado Rapids coach Pablo Mastroeni.
Juarez has said on a couple of occasions that Mastroeni has added some tweaks to the team’s defensive schemes that have already made a difference. During preseason, RSL conceded only one goal in three games.
It will be the regular season, however, during which Juarez is fully judged. The team had immense difficulty scoring last season, and the front office bringing in attacking player after attacking player indicates that goals are the priority in 2021. But how Juarez puts his players into positions to score more of them will be watched closely.
The MLS season will feature a full 34-game schedule this year. But the season also started late due to negotiations between the league and the players’ union on a new collective bargaining agreement.
That means depth and rotation — and how Juarez manages those things — will play a significant role this year. But the coach likes the roster’s overall depth this year. He singled out the forward and midfield positions as places where he has the luxury of having multiple players available.
“I think in the last few years, we’ve talked about depth and I know people said we’ve had the deepest roster and this and that,” Juarez said. “I think it was true to some extent. But I think you’re now starting to see true quality in depth. And that’s important. We’re not quite there yet, but you’re seeing in some spots that there really is that competition.”
RSL will succeed if …
The entire team reaches its potential individually and collectively. Anderson Julio, Rubio Rubin and Bobby Wood will need to score goals. Albert Rusnák will need to play at a level commensurate to his salary. The defenders and goalkeepers need to be impenetrable. All that will translate to a higher-than-expected finish.
RSL won’t succeed if …
It loses belief too soon. RSL is a team that historically has punched above its weight it its best seasons. The Western Conference is loaded, and there will be tough losses and growing pains along the way. This season is one where RSL has something to prove, and on many nights, it will have to do it with sheer will.
RSL will battle for a playoff spot, but ultimately fall short. Right now, the team hasn’t proven that it has a real difference-maker on its roster. Will it be Wood? Damir Kreilach? David Ochoa if he’s the starting goalkeeper? There are too many question marks for this team to think it will make the playoffs. But it will be interesting to watch it unfold.