Gordon Monson: Real Salt Lake is giving Utah what it craves — a winner

If you haven’t jumped on the soccer bandwagon, now might be the time.

(Bethany Baker | The Salt Lake Tribune) Real Salt Lake forward Cristian Arango (9) and Real Salt Lake forward Carlos AndrŽs G—mez (11) celebrate a goal as RSL hosts the St. Louis City during an MLS soccer match in Sandy on Saturday, March 30, 2024.

Two big ifs here, if you give a flying if.

First, if you as a matter of routine don’t pay much attention to Major League Soccer in general and Real Salt Lake in particular, and you, like most sports fans, rabid, lukewarm or unconvinced, are drawn to winners, it’s time to do what many of you don’t do — give RSL a hard look, maybe go to a couple of their games, read a freaking column about them because … damn, they’re good, potentially great.

And finding great on the local sports scene these days … well, let’s say it this way: It don’t come easy. It hasn’t been much of a habit for RSL, either. That MLS Cup-winning team from 2009 seems like forever ago.

Second, if there’s ever or never been a curse on Real Salt Lake, other than periods of competitive mediocrity that wasn’t anybody’s fault but their own, nobody’s trying to cast one now by jumping too soon, by talking about a no-hitter in the seventh inning, by ruining everything because … damn, they’re good, potentially great.

There are reasons beyond just that to go ahead and chop it up right now, just 13 games in, to pay close attention to these guys sooner rather than later, and the hardcores already are fully aware. They don’t want to miss a thing. But to the casuals or the heretofore completely disinterested, you’ve got to start somewhere, or you will miss a lot of things, so read on and see what you think of the season’s reasons for dialing in.

Did we mention that RSL’s record is 7-2-4? Or that the lads have a nine-game MLS unbeaten run going? Or that they sit atop the Western Conference? Or that ownership has spent $17 million in transfer fees on players since January of 2023, an amount that tripled any financial commitment the team has made in the past over a similar time period? Before we get too crazy here, a question does remain: Will ownership be willing next offseason to grab one or two more significant players to make what we’re discussing here a tomahawk dunk? We’ll see.

One other thing: RSL did lose a game not long ago, a game they deserved to lose because they foolishly or haphazardly or arrogantly fielded a substandard lineup for that outing against a lower-division team, New Mexico United, in a tournament known as the Open Cup. Which is to say, in the middle of an ascent, RSL still suffers moments of ineptitude.

Back to valid reasons to pay attention:

Pablo Mastroeni

He’s RSL’s coach, a unique man and an unusual coach who you will like even more as you get to know him better. Watch the way he carries himself. Watch the way he gets his players to put a cap on their egos, mostly because he, unlike many head coaches or managers, puts a cap on his own. Mastroeni is a former World Cup player for the United States who knows from experience that, regardless of the spikes of talent he has on his team, there’s no avenue for it to reach lofty potential or to win, especially in clutch moments, without coming together and doing it together, fighting together.

That’s the main pillar of his culture, a tight locker room, although there’s more, a certain emerging je ne sais quoi quality to this bunch. And again, it starts with Mastroeni via his kind of direct humility. He’s not a control freak. He often lets the players make decisions, gives them opportunity to influence what the team does. He views himself as a teacher who attempts to connect with a diverse group that has 11 different countries represented, has players from varying backgrounds, players who are high-priced on the one foot and players trying to make a positive reputation for themselves on the other.

While Real had shown signs of improvement last season, this past offseason, Mastroeni was mandated to hire new assistant coaches, to unload the old staff, some of whom were longtime friends, and get more qualified replacements. He contemplated quitting. But ultimately he surrendered to management, and agreed to alter the model for his side, changing tactics and the team’s formation. Now, RSL uses a much more possession-based, attacking, artistic style. The formations alternate between a 4-2-3-1 and 3-2-4-1. Thus far, it’s worked, as RSL holds the ball, sends pressure up the field, and sports the second-best defense in the league.

Chicho Arango

The striker from Colombia is the biggest star Real’s ever had. Bigger than Beckerman, bigger than Rimando. Prior to arriving here, he had a lot of success with LAFC, winning an MLS Cup with them. He subsequently bolted from there to Mexico. Then, RSL paid $6 million to buy him from his Mexican team and paid him $2 million in salary, the most Real has ever handed a player. He’s been worth it. Arango has 19 goals and 11 assists since landing in Sandy less than a year ago. He looks menacing on the field, what with the Aztec-warrior haircut and the tattoos. And he plays the way he looks — with a strong attitude.

His teammates say he’s an ultra-hard worker who keeps younger players on the field at practice. He’s been awarded the captain’s armband and with that, he’s either scored or assisted on 18 of the 22 goals Real has totaled this season. He’s even rivaled the great Lionel Messi in overall production.

Actualized development

What this means is that, unless ownership and management mess this thing up, the present and the future are bright. Kick a ball in almost any direction in RSL’s team room and you’ll drill a young star. Diego Luna is a dynamic 20-year-old playmaker. Fidel Barajas is a promising attacking midfielder who came to the club in January as a 17-year-old. There’s Andres Gomez and Gavin Beavers, a 19-year-old goalkeeper, among others.

An academy that bears fruit

One thing that’s compelling about the beautiful game is the propensity — or at least the effort made by pro teams — to grow their own talent from within. Some players on some clubs are used as moneymakers, commodities to be sold to other teams. Either way, the endeavor seems to be on the upswing for Real. Justen Glad, Andrew Brody, Bode Hidalgo, Zavier Gozo, Tommy Silva are products of Salt Lake’s system.

Emeka Eneli

He gets the outfit’s Cal Ripken award for endurance. He’s the only dude on the team to have played every minute of every game this season — at one of the game’s most demanding positions. He’s a Nigerian who played college soccer at Cornell, which means he’s got brains and plays like a dog. Eneli commands the center of the pitch at the defensive midfield spot.

Cool role players

These are the characters who might be best appreciated by those who study the game, but who contribute in significant ways, nonetheless. Braian Ojeda, Matt Crooks, Alex Katranis.

Home-field insanity

The old Rio Tinto Stadium, back in the best days, was a fortress. Teams hated coming to play in Sandy, Utah, in large part because they often got not just beat there, but because the fan energy in the place exacerbated the pain of defeat. The altitude also helped them not at all. Thin air hurt them a whole lot less when the team lacked talent.

Last season, RSL had their worst home record since 2006. Now that Real has acquired, grown and organized a group of formidable players, the unfortunately-named America First Field has returned as a formidable stadium to visit. RSL is 4-1-1 at home heading into Saturday’s match. And just as importantly for fans — rabid, lukewarm and unconvinced — the building stirs a figurative-kick-the-other-guys-in-the-head environment that seems to please the home crowd no end, making it a fine, fun place to take in a soccer game. Most certainly, the crazies in the stands, as well as the guys on the field, love it. You might, too.

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