Under the dark moon-lit sky, after scraping off the early morning January frost frozen atop cars and driveways, feet begin to file in through the garage door opening at Zions Bank Training Center. One after another, until the group begins to resemble somewhat of a team and the Real Salt Lake preseason officially begins.
Preseason is the least glamorous period in professional sports, as sweat-soaked gear, turf beads and labored breathing, symbolize the grind and toil of daily training without an end in sight.
Real Salt Lake’s preseason is no exception.
Since January 6 the men of Real Salt Lake have spent week after week training indoors in Herriman, relegated inside as the harsh Utah winters raged on outdoors.
The group spent the first few weeks gaining back fitness and making a return to the basics, the monotony of simple principles creating second-nature actions that will carry the team throughout the 34-game slog of the Major League Soccer season.
A Visit With the Champs
After three weeks of indoor training, with only their teammates to compete against, Real Salt Lake finally faced its first real opponent of the new year, heading to LAFC for a closed-door match.
Head Coach Pablo Mastroeni utilized two entirely separate lineups, starting the first half in the team’s preferred formation of 4-2-3-1. Veteran goalkeeper Tomas Gomas got the nod in between the pipes, while defenders Bode Hidalgo, Marcelo Silva, Erik Holt and Moses Mensah helped secure the first-half shutout. Midfielders Braian Ojeda and Moses Nyeman worked with Bertin Jacquesson, Damir Kreilach, Justin Meram and Anderson Julio to pester the defending MLS Cup Champions back line.
Jacquesson made quick work of finding the back of the net, linking up with Hidalgo to take the early 1-0 lead in the 10th minute.
But perhaps the most exciting part of the first half was the return of captain Damir Kreilach, who missed all but five games last season due to nerve damage in his back sustained against New York City FC on April 17, 2022.
With the 1-0 lead in hand Mastroeni inserted an entirely new second-half lineup with up-and-coming U-19 United States National Team goalkeeper Gavin Beavers getting his first taste of first-team minutes.
In his first match minutes as a first-team goalkeeper Beavers made saves against former MLS Golden Boot winner Carlos Vela.
Real Salt Lake doubled its lead when Mondi was taken inside the box, leaving Rubin to put away the penalty kick opportunity, giving the team the eventual 2-0 win to kick off the preseason.
Rivalries Are Born Here
After a brief stint back in Utah the team headed back on the road, this time to Tucson, Arizona, but before reaching their final destination the team made a pit stop in Phoenix, Arizona for a quick match against long-time rivals Sporting Kansas City.
Ironically, the decades-long rivalry between the two sides began in Arizona, during a preseason match. In 2011 the Claret-and-Cobalt were deadlocked 2-2 when Sporting Kansas City’s Roger Espinoza reportedly went in studs up on former RSL midfielder Javier Morales and the ensuing moments saw both benches clear, forcing the game to be called early. And from then on, the physical, gritty, aggressive rivalry was born.
While the 2023 rendition of the preseason match up lacked the clearing of benches, the grit and aggressiveness remained.
Despite suffering an early deficit courtesy of a goal from Kansas City captain Johnny Russell in the ninth minute, Real Salt Lake was quick to respond with Kreilach tapping a poor clearance inside the box to level the score.
Just before the first half whistle blew Oviedo found himself on a breakaway towards goal off a pass from Kreilach, cutting inside he launched a curler into the back of the net and gave RSL the 2-1 lead heading into halftime.
Sporting Kansas City was able to find the equalizer shortly after the break, and despite the team’s best efforts Real Salt Lake was unable to net the go-ahead goal and thus finished the match in a 2-2 draw.
The match provided glimpses of the “Kreilach Kid,” RSL fans have become accustomed to, the same midfielder who in 2021 recorded 16 goals and nine assists and was subsequently named a MLS All-Star.
Meanwhile, Oviedo seemed to effortlessly pick up right where he left off at the end of 2022. After joining Real Salt Lake late in the year Oviedo contributed two assists in four starts to finish the 2022 regular season campaign. With his goal against Kansas it appears that his offensive prowess may be carrying into this upcoming season.
Finally arriving in Tucson, Arizona, the team’s home for the next two weeks, RSL set its sights on some familiar foes in Sacramento Republic FC.
Led by former Real Monarchs head coach, Mark Briggs, Sacramento is now home for forward Douglas Martinez who donned the Real Salt Lake kit from 2019 to 2021.
In the team’s third preseason match Mastroeni, once again, took the approach of mixing in newcomers to play alongside and learn from the veterans. Goalkeeper Zac MacMath made his return to the pitch after missing the start of preseason following a corrective surgery in late 2022. Additionally, for the first time this preseason Mastroeni chose to shift to more of a 4-4-2 formation, asking Diego Luna to drift more to the outside wings.
The team was able to take the early lead when first-year professional Delentz Pierre pounced on a rebound from Rubio Rubin’s prior free kick in the seventh minute. As the half progressed Rubin continued to see chances, but all four of his shots on target were wrapped up by Sacramento’s goalkeeper.
Former RSL forward Douglas Martinez secured Sacramento’s equalizer in the 84th minute after a bad giveaway in the midfield left the Honduran unmarked in front of goal.
While Real Salt Lake did not get the win, the fanbase as a whole should have reason to be thrilled for the future as newest U-22 Initiative winger Andrés Gómez made his debut. In just several moments on the pitch Gomez showed flashes of brilliance, as he created several opportunities and revealed his confidence and creativity on the ball.
On the Right Tracks
While preseason matches rarely matter, a clean sheet and an offensive routing certainly help to develop confidence heading into the start of a new season. If Real Salt Lake’s result against El Paso Locomotive is any indication the team should be flying high, after a 5-0 victory over the team from Texas.
With the start of season approaching, Head Coach Pablo Mastroeni went with one of his oldest rosters yet in the preseason with Gavin Beavers and Ilijah Paul as the only two uncapped members in the starting lineup.
The veteran squad came out heavy, showing its experience with the likes of Justin Meram, Damir Kreilach and Maikel Chang pushing the offense forward.
The team saw its first goal in the 19th minute when midfielder Braian Ojeda picked off a poor clearance, smashing home a screamer into the top corner. Just five minutes later Bryan Oviedo sent a long cross which whipped into the back of the goal with the help of some wind, giving him his second goal in as many games.
The second half lineup saw a complete line change, including Andrés Gómez on the wings.
In the 68th minute Diego Luna sprinted down the left flank, sprung by Moses Nyeman, sending a cross to find the left foot of Gómez who redirected the pass underneath the ‘keeper. Less than a minute later Gómez doubled up, recognizing a misplay from El Paso’s defense and punishing the poor passing by slipping in and slamming in his shot.
With two goals in two minutes under his belt Gómez returned the favor, providing an assist in the 81st minute to Bertin Jacquesson who launched his shot from the six-yard box.
And with shutouts on either side of the halftime break from Gavin Beavers and Tomas Gomez the team finished the day with a commanding 5-0 win.
The Final Countdown
With just one week until the official first game of the 2023 Major League Soccer season, Real Salt Lake faced Chicago Fire in the last match of the preseason, a final test before the real work begins.
Head Coach Pablo Mastroeni rolled out as close to a starting lineup as one could imagine he may roll out in the opening match next week against Vancouver Whitecaps. 2022 Iron Man Zac MacMath took his place in goal, with Andrew Brody, Justen Glad, Marcelo Silva and Bryan Oviedo manning the backline. Paraguayan midfielder Braian Ojeda paired up alongside German midfielder Jasper Löffelsend with captain Damir Kreilach back in front at the number 10 position. Finally, Maikel Chang and Jefferson Savarino ran the wings, with forward Anderson Julio as the forward up top.
It is worth mentioning that midfielder Pablo Ruiz was unable for selection and Colombia U-22 Initiative winger Andrés Gómez, who joined preseason late, is still gaining fitness and familiarity with the team. Additionally, Rubio Rubín, who has been competing with Julio for the starting forward position, will be unavailable the first week of the season due to a red card accumulated in the quarterfinal match of the 2022 Audi MLS Cup Playoffs against Austin FC.
The experienced squad easily handled Chicago with a comfortable 3-0 victory.
Ojeda got his second goal of the preseason in the 23rd minute when the midfielder parlayed a give-and-go to Maikel Chang who laid a pass off for the Paraguayan to smash into the back of the net.
Venezuela international Savarino would double the lead in the 40th minute when he toe-poked a spill from the goalkeeper off a shot from Löffelsend. Shortly thereafter Savarino found the third and final goal of the match with an assist from Kreilach.
The team would go on to disturb any attacking motions by the Fire and hold the clean sheet for the remainder of the second half, maintaining offensive and defensive motion heading into the start of the season.
Real Salt Lake officially starts its regular season campaign on Saturday, February 25 at 8:30 p.m. MT. Fans from all over the world can tune in to see the team take on Vancouver Whitecaps FC by utilizing the MLS Season Pass on Apple TV.