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COLUMN: RSL seeking hangover cure

How cruel of the Timbers, kicking Real Salt Lake when they were down. Without a hint of compassion in their play, the Portlanders rubbed a handful of salt in an open emotional wound when they gave RSL their first loss of the young 2011 season last weekend.

Where’s the sympathy? How about all of that #MLS4RSL camaraderie? How about a letting up a little on the team that just lost out on a continental title and a trip to Japan for the Club World Cup?

Kidding, of course. If there one thing that’s certain in the aftermath of RSL’s Champions League disappointment, it’s that league opponents won’t be taking it easy on them. For all the equity RSL built up as Major League Soccer’s best team over the first month of the season, all it takes is one apparent chink in the armor for opponents to feel like they can have their shot at a favorite.

The loss in Portland wasn’t troubling as much as it was a wake-up call; if RSL doesn’t figure out how to put the loss to Monterrey behind them quickly, the league campaign could be impacted. When the season started, the Claret-and-Cobalt club had eyes on four trophies – every one for which they were in contention. It would be a pity if missing out on the first silverware available affects the chances of winning any of the others. It’s too early to be derailed.

It’s Jason Kreis’ job, perhaps the most important of his many duties, to right the ship should rough seas arise. He has to assess the team and determine where the stressors might be. Was Portland a fluke, nothing more than an emotionally drained team facing a hostile environment and a motivated Timbers side? Or was it something else; the first leak, that, if not mended quickly, could spawn others, perhaps more critical? Is there a crisis of confidence coming out of the CCL final, or was it a reasonable reaction to being so close and falling just short?

No goals. Maybe the loss in Portland would have been slightly more palatable had RSL found the net. That was the problem against Monterrey, of course, so there’s reason to find worry in the shutout loss to the Timbers. Álvaro Saborío is carrying an injury. Fabian Espíndola isn’t quite himself, leading to his omission from the travel squad to Portland. Paulo Jr., an exciting young player who provides RSL with depth many MLS teams can only dream of, has his own injury. The strike force is gassed, for lack of a better word, and it might be up to the team’s solid middle to get the goals. Make no mistake: they’re capable. It’s just a question of how much of the burden they can carry.

Defense has never been a problem. Rimando, Olave, Borchers and company aren’t suddenly going to turn into a sieve overnight. Even if the offense is struggling, giving up two goal over two games – one to a South American dynamo named Humberto Suazo (whom Javier Morales calls the best striker in CONMEBOL) and the other without reigning MLS Defender of the Year Olave in the lineup – shouldn’t worry anyone. If there’s a silver lining, that’s probably it. Just score a goal or two, and things will be fine.

And if there’s any team in MLS equipped to handle the fallout of the two 0-1 losses last week, it’s this RSL team. No matter what happened against Monterrey, magnified or not by the stumble against Portland, this is still one of Major League Soccer’s best teams. It shouldn’t take a gargantuan effort to turn things around. With teeth gritted and resolve steeled, the process of restarting the engines on the 2011 MLS campaign shouldn’t be all that difficult.

Certainly not against Chivas USA, and most definitely not at Rio Tinto Stadium.

In the psychological sense, the so-called “crisis” – which this isn’t by any reasonable measure but which approaches that level simply because RSL hadn’t lost at home in nearly two years, the same span since back-to-back goose eggs – is already over. It was a bad four days which probably felt like a month. Jason Kreis won’t dwell, why should his team?

Portland giving RSL its first loss of the season last week just means there’s a break between the Champions League portion of 2011 and the rest of the season. Everything from here on out is Act II, wherein RSL has the chance to regain their mojo and reestablish themselves as the obvious top team in the league. If this was a movie, there would be no doubt about it happening. The disappointment of losing to Monterrey at home would be the catalyst for a dominant run.

But since this is real life, there are no guarantees. MLS doesn’t have easy games, not even at home against inconsistent teams like Chivas USA. RSL should win. That fact might actually apply more pressure. That Chivas USA’s head coach is ex-RSL assistant Robin Fraser returning to Utah in a bit of a homecoming muddies the emotional waters. The pitfalls are there for another shocking loss when no one sees it coming.

If this game is just about Chivas though, and not about lingering angst from the Champions League or the performance in Portland, things will be fine. MLS4RSL is over and done. There’s a Supporters Shield and MLS Cup – and even a U.S. Open Cup – left to win. No one is going to take it easy on RSL’s pursuit.

 

Jason Davis founded Match Fit USA in December of 2008 (MatchFitUSA.com). Since, he has written for numerous outlets covering American soccer, including USSoccerPlayers.com and FourFourTwo.com. He also hosts The American Soccer Show, a weekly podcast discussing the biggest stories in the U.S. game.