Real Salt Lake has reached the midpoint of the 2021 MLS regular season with a 5-6-6 record, sitting in eighth place in the highly-competitive Western Conference.
The first half of the season has been speckled with many highlights - Rubio Rubin’s emergence as a goal-scoring threat, Damir Kreilach’s All-Star status and David Ochoa’s continued development as a top-tier MLS goalkeeper among them. And while the record may leave something to be desired, the elements are there for a successful run in the second half of the season to put RSL back in the playoffs after a one-year hiatus in a tumultuous 2020 campaign.
Head Coach Freddy Juarez sat down for a Q&A session, but first let’s look at some of the standout performances from the first half.
Real Salt Lake has scored 26 goals this season, good for third in the Western Conference and seventh in MLS while five of the six teams with more goals have also played more games. Kreilach has put in an All-Star performance through the first half with eight goals and five assists, ranking seventh in MLS and first among midfielders in goals. Additionally, Rubin has five goals and three assists and Albert Rusnák has four goals and four assists – all in the last 11 matches, while Bobby Wood and Jonathan Menendez have each added new dynamics to the attack with their late additions to the roster. Aaron Herrera ranks third in the league and first among defenders with six assists, adding a goal as the right back continues to get more involved in the attack.
The high output on the offensive side hasn’t come at the expense of the defense, as RSL ranks third in the West and sixth in MLS with 20 goals allowed. That comes with eight different players starting along the backline through the first 17 games and two different goalkeepers. Juarez has implemented some rotation within that group when necessary and players like Erik Holt, Andrew Brody and Ashtone Morgan have all stepped seamlessly into starting roles when called upon. As has Zac MacMath, who in four starts has a 1.25 goals against average.
Q: Overall, the record probably isn’t what you want it to be, but what have you liked from the first half of the year?
Juarez: The biggest thing I’ve liked is the commitment and energy from the guys. The culture is there, the training habits, the commitment to the game, the fight and staying in games. There has been a lot of growth from last year. Now how can we develop that extra one percent in the game to score the goal to win the game or tie the game, but also control those little situations where we have a little lapse and make the quality decision to continue into the right path of the game. There has been a lot of growth. We are definitely not satisfied where we are at. I feel with confidence that we could have had 25-28 points. That’s where we feel at the moment, but we have 17 games – that’s 51 points at hand. We have to push to get 30 points. There is growth and we have to have even more growth in the next 17 games.
Q: Other coaches in the league have said that this team plays a lot better than its record. What have you seen that supports that coming from people outside the organization?
Juarez: If I’m being honest, there are two games where we were really on the back foot – LAFC and FC Dallas. Everything else, you leave disappointed with games that we should have gotten more points from. Just this week, the Houston game, you leave disappointed. Galaxy was a 50-50 game – that’s a tie. Against Portland we did better than both of those games and we end up losing. The boys are on the right path. It’s hard to gauge growth just on wins and losses. I gauge it more first-hand on what it was from last year to this year. I strongly believe there is growth. We are competing in every game. Through 17 games, easily 14 games I feel should be a win or a tie. I think we deserve more than five wins. We are seeing growth in players. Albert is finding his rhythm – he is dynamic and aggressive. Damir is having an All-Star season. We are getting goals from Rubio and Bobby – it’s being shared. The team is showing that we can score in a variety of ways. We are taking goals at unfortunate times, but we are still stingy. I think we can solidify that and get even stingier – we need to. I’ve seen growth and it’s hard because everyone is so competitive and we want to win and we are judged by results. But I see growth in the team and I see a culture that we are building for the long-term success of this team.
Q: Looking at Joni and Toni and Bobby – they’ve had limited time to integrate with the team. How do you get them more integrated in the second half?
Juarez: More time with the team. We will have a week of training and the game against Portland was hard. Toni handled it well in a tough situation and now we will see a real competition. It pushes Glad and Marcelo and Erik. We have four good center backs. Toni is going to be a very good addition. I thought Joni was better against Portland than he was against the Galaxy. Bobby comes off the bench and quickly you see his physicality that he brings. He occupies defenders and he’s dangerous. We are on the right path. They are good guys that are going to fit in well with the group and it’s going to challenge everyone to be more competitive and not relax.
Q: What can it do for the team to have those three more integrated and competitive week-to-week?
Juarez: Week-to-week we’ve already seen it with Bobby and Rubio. It is two very good players that offer some different qualities and some similar qualities. It forces them to be at their best. At center back there is a competition. You always want to find that balance where there is competition and you always need to give your best because there is someone else vying for your spot, but at the same time what I think we did well as a front office is we found some good characters. They are competitors, but they support each other. Marcelo went and hugged Toni after the game. Bobby and Rubio do the same for each other. That is huge. It’s competitive, but at the end of the day, it’s always us. I’m a true believer in that.
Q: How have you seen Albert grow as a leader?
Juarez: It’s been tremendous. After every game, we can count on him to lead the locker room. There is still room to grow, just like all of us – including myself. He scores the goal and he’s aggressive – it was the third game in a week and he’s out there flying. It has not only been shown by his words, but his actions. He goes and scores a goal, he’s defending. I’m proud of him. He’s developing as a leader in front of our eyes. We have to still encourage him and Damir to put the team on their back. That’s sports. Your big dogs have got to play like big dogs. I thought he and Damir have been getting after it and doing that and we need that more.
Q: What are you most excited about for the second half of the season?
Juarez: I want to keep showing that there is growth and that we can now put it on the right side of the scoreboard. I feel like the way we played against Portland, from the first half we were dominant in possession, we were dominant in shots. How can we translate that to the home games? Getting at teams early. That’s what I’m most excited about – what the develop brings from the experiences we have so far and how can we integrate the new guys? I believe anything good, you have to have some struggle with. I think we are leading into something good and right now we are experiencing the ups and downs and we haven’t broken through yet. The mental strength has been unbelievable. We steadied the boat, but can we really get going where we want it to. We went through some turmoil last year and we started the year with the same team. We added Bobby and Rubio and Anderson and Joni and Toni … they all add something individually and show their qualities and the competition forces players to raise their games.