No team in the league has faced a tougher gauntlet to open 2010 than the defending champs. So it comes as little surprise that Real Salt Lake fans are less than concerned after a disappointing but particularly nasty stretch in which the club faced the last two unbeaten teams in MLS – Los Angeles and Columbus – in successive weeks.
Steve McAfee is the head of RSL’s top supporters group – the Loyalists – and also the man with his finger cautiously aimed away from the panic button. He takes to the Soap Box this week to share his thoughts on RSL’s start and whether or not the club’s front office is willing to make any moves to keep the crown.
MLSsoccer.com: You’ve got one win in your first five games. Is it time to panic?
SM: I don’t think we’re in panic mode, but obviously we’re a little concerned. Any time you get four points in five games, you have to wonder a little bit. But there are some reasons to have hope if you break it down, and one of them really is the teams we’ve had to play. LA is unbeatable so far, Columbus has played well and even San Jose is looking pretty good. At least for me personally, I get some level of hope from the fact that of our three losses, in two of those losses we didn’t allow a single shot on goal. We’ve had three PKs awarded against us, and you can argue those any way you want. But zero shots on goal, if we can do that over a period of time, we’re going to get some points.
MLSsoccer.com: What did you make of RSL’s loss to Columbus last weekend?
SM: We fell flat in the second half a little bit and Columbus stepped it up, and they looked very good. And of course, we had some injuries. We call ourselves a deep team, but I don’t know that we really are. A lot of that depth is extremely young, and in experienced. But over the period of a few years with the philosophy of (head coach Jason Kreis and general manager Garth Lagerwey) of keeping the main core of guys together, I think the team’s going to get more and more solid.
MLSsoccer.com: What was the feeling among the fans coming back this spring?
SM: I think among the core group of fans, it was quite good. There was so much talk about our record last year, but if you break it down by halves, we were a good team and we finished quite strongly. Coming back with most of the same guys, there was a lot optimism. I was a little discouraged that we didn’t seem to want to go after any kind of upgrade in the offseason…
MLSsoccer.com: Other teams were making moves, you guys weren’t.
SM: Right, and some teams made some fantastic moves and were very aggressive about getting some talent. In the end we got the striker, Alvaro Saborio. And he looks pretty good so far, he should be working in his way in here pretty quick if he’s going to do it.
MLSsoccer.com: Should the team have been more aggressive?
SM: There is so much talk – and a lot of it is rumors – that there will be some big moves made in the next transfer window. And the talk around here is that we’re not going to be a part of that. Again, we’re a little concerned. But on the other hand, I think Jason and Greg have done a great job of assessing talent and putting it together, so it’s tough to be too critical. We just won a championship. All in all, they’ve done well over the last few years.
MLSsoccer.com: Garth Lagerwey has gone on record saying that the increased DP slots are perhaps in place more for the big-market teams, and that the team likely won’t use them. Do you think RSL will ever get a big-name international player?
SM: I think that’s short-sided. That may have been our stance up to this point, and it might be our stance over the next year or so. But what happens in a few years, when you can have three DPs and buy up to five? At some point, to stay competitive, we’re going to have to play the game. And if we don’t want to play that game, we’re going to fizzle into obscurity. And I really don’t think that’s going to happen.
MLSsoccer.com: There have been so many international exhibitions announced for this summer, trying to appeal to different city’s fan bases. What team appeals to the fan base in Salt Lake City?
SM: Really, for the fans in Salt Lake, I don’t know. We’re a unique market here with the prevailing religion, and a lot of the young kids go all over the world for a few years, and most of them come back soccer fans. But they’re fans of many different teams and different leagues, but I don’t think it’s tied to any one market. With Landon Donovan playing over there, I think Everton would be a great draw here in Salt Lake and probably anywhere in the U.S. I know I’d love to see them.
MLSsoccer.com: You guys have Toronto FC this weekend at home. Is that a sure-fire win?
SM: I feel that way, but I hope the players don’t. You always get a little nervous that the guys get overconfident, but Toronto hasn’t looked to great this year. And again, we’re finally at home again, and we play well at home. I think we’ll still be missing Javier Morales this weekend, and we don’t have another central midfielder who can do what he does. We certainly play a little differently without him, but we have a lot of talented players. Is it a must-win, will people crumble if we don’t win? People might start to. But they shouldn’t. We’re still a good team.