Kyle Beckerman used to wax poetic about his club’s underdog status. About how Real Salt Lake consistently punched above its weight. About how the organization needed to make do with its frugalness because it would never be a franchise with pockets as deep as the western Pacific Ocean.
RSL players and executives wore that underdog status almost like a badge of honor. But it appears that the badge’s shine has worn out for some.
As defender Aaron Herrera sat in his chair fielding questions during his exit interview, he offered pointed comments that made clear just how veteran players feel about constantly being overlooked.
“We’re tired of being the underdog team all the time,” Herrera said in his exit interview. “I think we’re tired of going to the playoffs and being the Cinderella team. We want to be a team like Austin, like LAFC that goes into the playoffs and they’re expected to win. We’re never expected to win. Guys that have been there a long time, we’re so sick of that.”
Many preseason predictions had RSL missing the playoffs in 2022. They qualified as the seventh seed in the Western Conference on the last day of the regular season and lost in penalties to Austin FC in the first round.
RSL has made the playoffs four times in the previous five seasons. Getting there in 2022 was a goal set by club, and one several players expressed pride in achieving despite season-ending injuries to Damir Kreilach and Bobby Wood.
In many instances, however, RSL is at the bottom half of the table and thus must start those playoff runs on the road, where they are historically much less successful. Herrera mentioned that in these comments as well.
“We’re sick of having the pressure not on us,” Herrera said. “It’s on the other team because they’re expected to win. We want to be the team that’s expected to win and we want to be the team that has home games in the playoffs. Having home games in the playoffs will increase our chances of winning, obviously. So that’s a team we want to be.”
General manager Elliot Fall, whose contract expires at the end of the year, suggested it’s possible for the club to elevate itself out of the “underdog” perception while also embracing the heart of that perception. He reminded that between 2009 and 2014, RSL won the MLS Cup, made the playoffs every year and competed well in the CONCACAF Champions League.
“We were a favorite regularly during those times, but we also had a chip on our shoulder and we also went into it with something to prove,” Fall said.
Fall also stressed that as much as RSL may want to rise to the on-field level of certain teams, one aspect of the organization is here to stay.
“One thing that’s not going to change: This is a smaller market than the L.A.s, the New Yorks, the Chicagos, the Seattles,” Fall said. “That’s just a reality.
“It doesn’t mean that we can’t bring in players that are every bit as good and can compete at the same level. But we’re not always going to have the same attention on us, which is going to inherently allow us to fly under the radar a little bit.”
Several players mentioned the team’s lack of scoring as something that needs to improve going forward. RSL scored just 43 for the entire season, which was the least of any Western Conference playoff team.
“We need to add more goals,” said forward Justin Meram, who scored three goals in 2022. “So we have to bring in just more attacking pieces, I’m sure.”
Defender Andrew Brody said RSL needs to find a way to get more creative in the attacking third, detailing that a big part of the team’s strategy was crossing balls into the box. He believes that, if the core players return, more risk-taking in that area could get the team over the hump.
“I think there were times where we could have taken a bit more risks in the final third, whether that’s trying to do little combinations in and around the box, little one-twos where you can kind of throw defenders off guard rather than just kind of putting balls in the box,” Brody said. “I think we could create more scoring opportunities not from direct crosses, maybe more from interplay more in the center channel of the field. I think that’s something we could improve on next year.”
Part of improving in the offseason for any team is an influx of talent. For RSL, that could be a third center back, one or two more dynamic wingers, or someone who can score at least 10 goals a game. Sergio Cordova led the team in goals this season with nine. Last year, Kreilach put away 15.
In Herrera’s mind, RSL would benefit from attacking players who eat, sleep and breathe scoring goals.
“I like attackers [who think] if you’re not scoring goals, you’re angry after the game. If you’re not scoring goals at training, you’re angry after training,” Herrera said. “I like guys that just care about scoring that much. The more competition we bring in, I think the more that’ll continue to happen.”
This offseason is the first under new owners David Blitzer and Ryan Smith. Changes to the roster are inevitable. And for once, there’s no off-field controversy clouding the franchise, which is a welcome development for the players.
“I think just for the group and the organization as a whole, it’s kind of just refreshing and it kind of gives everyone a peace of mind and clarity going into the offseason in what everyone needs to do in order for us to have a successful season next year,” defender Erik Holt said.
Herrera was injured and could not play against Austin. But he sat with a couple of people from RSL ownership and saw firsthand their passion for the club and for winning. That, plus the added stability within the organization, gives Herrera hope for the future.
“I think us as players, we’re confident that they’re going to make the right moves in the offseason and put us in the best position to be successful next year,” Herrera said.