RSL’s defense has taken a ‘step in the right direction’ since U.S. Open Cup victory over Vegas

Real Salt Lake has recorded two consecutive shutouts since beating the Las Vegas Lights FC in the third round of Open Cup play last month.

(David J. Phillip | AP) Real Salt Lake's Justen Glad, right, head the ball past Houston Dynamo's Corey Baird during the first half of an MLS soccer match Saturday, May 6, 2023, in Houston.

It wasn’t that long ago that Real Salt Lake was getting beat to a pulp, lowlighted by back-to-back 4-0 losses to St. Louis and Columbus. Two wins in the next three games followed, but only the one against San Jose was particularly impressive due to its currently held playoff spot.

Then Real’s first U.S. Open Cup game happened. They needed 120 minutes to do it, but they came away with a 3-1 victory over the Las Vegas Lights FC, a team that competes in the USL Championship.

Since that Open Cup victory, RSL has regained its defensive footing in a big way. It recorded two consecutive shutouts in scoreless draws against the Seattle Sounders and Houston Dynamo.

These performances are just in time, too, as the team prepares to play the Portland Timbers in the Open Cup Round of 32 on the road Wednesday.

“A step in the right direction,” defender Justen Glad said about RSL’s recent performances on defense.

Real Salt Lake at Portland Timbers

U.S. Open Cup round of 32

When: Wednesday, 8 p.m.

Where: Providence Park

Watch: B/R App

Portland currently sits in ninth place in the Western Conference, while RSL is 11th. Wednesday’s game won’t affect those seedings at all. But with the way RSL coach Pablo Mastroeni has approached the Open Cup this year, there is still plenty to play for.

“Pablo made it very clear that we’re trying to win the Open Cup,” rookie midfielder Emeka Eneli said. “No matter what lineup we put out, it’s going to be very strong and we’re going to go to win the competition.”

Against the Lights last month, RSL started the likes of Damir Kreilach, Pablo Ruiz and Justen Glad — all players who are regular starters during the MLS season. But, others who shared the field with those staples included goalkeeper Gavin Beavers, defender Erik Holt and midfielder Diego Luna, all of whom don’t get nearly as much playing time.

RSL has been bitten by the injury bug all season, but is starting to get healthier. Mastroeni said midfiedler Pablo Ruiz is back. So the team could have more of its regular players available for Wednesday against Portland.

In recent years, RSL as an organization has been trying to find ways to win as many trophies as it possibly can. The Open Cup provides that opportunity, even as their quest for an MLS title continues to be elusive.

The team’s recent play on defense can certainly aide the Claret and Cobalt against the Timbers, who are averaging 1.4 goals per game so far this season. Mastroeni credited the entire squad for how it’s defending of late, and said it has generally translated into the other end.

“Most of our goals have come from good defending shape, breaking in transition, finding [Jefferson Savarino], finding Rubio [Rubin], finding Andres [Gomez], ” Mastroeni said.

Glad said RSL has gone through a shift in defensive mentality lately. For instance, instead of allowing a defender to stay higher up the field to have a better chance at scoring, now it’s a point of emphasis that every defender is back to make sure no goals are allowed.

Glad added that as a team, they’ve been locked in to playing hard for the entire 90 minutes.

“A lot of it comes down to getting back to that mentality that we had at the end of last year,” Glad said.

Last year, RSL put together enough solid performances to make the playoffs on the final day of the regular season.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated RSL had beaten FC Dallas earlier in the season. They beat San Jose.