On Sunday, Real Salt Lake meets Minnesota United in a matchup of the No. 2 and No. 3 team in the Western Conference standings at Allianz Field in St. Paul, Minnesota. It’s sure to have playoff-level intensity on the field as the two teams jockey for playoff positioning in the tightly-contested West.
“We want to defend our second-place position to the end of the season. Every game for us is a new challenge,” midfielder Damir Kreilach said after scoring the winning goal in a 1-0 victory over the San Jose Earthquakes on Wednesday. “Every game we try to get three points and now we just have to go to Minnesota and get three points too.”
It also marks the latest point that Real Salt Lake has been in second place or higher since finishing first in the Western Conference in 2013. The journey to this point has been an up-and-down one, but with a stellar home record and a few key road victories of late, RSL has proven to be among the league’s best over the course of the season – particularly since June 22 when the league returned from the Gold Cup break.
Currently boasting the third-best defense in MLS, Salt Lake has been particularly sharp defensively since that Gold Cup break, allowing a league-best 0.57 goals against average while posting seven shutouts in 14 matches.
“We’ve been good in the second half the last two years. I think a lot of it has to do with the experience of the younger guys. We’ve closed the gap on experience and there is consistency within the roster,” Interim Head Coach Freddy Juarez said. “Then it’s always been a good team. There are championships that have been won and championships they’ve been in. So I think it’s tradition.”
Nick Rimando is currently fourth in the league in shutouts and third with a 1.16 goals against average. He hasn’t done it alone, though, playing behind a backline that has primarily featured six different players – Aaron Herrera, Donny Toia and Brooks Lennon in the wide roles with Justen Glad, Nedum Onuoha and Marcelo Silva central. Of those six, four came from Real Salt Lake’s Academy system and two have been added since the summer of 2018, with Onuoha arriving late last season and Toia returning to RSL prior to the 2019 season.
In front of them, Everton Luiz has been a key addition to the team, leading the club and ranking 12th in MLS with 64 tackles despite missing five matches and being limited in two others due to injury. Alongside him, Kyle Beckerman has helped thwart opposing attacks while keeping the locker room focused during a road-heavy start to the season. The addition of Kelyn Rowe not only bolsters the midfield group, but his versatility also give Juarez options in a balanced attack as well.
RSL has four players with at least five goals and five players with at least four assists, ranking third and second in MLS in those two categories, respectively. Newcomer Sam Johnson shares the goal-scoring lead with Albert Rusnák, as the two have nine goals apiece, followed closely by seven goals from Jefferson Savarino and five goals from Kreilach. With additional goalscoring threats in Corey Baird, Sebastian Saucedo and Joao Plata, Juarez has been given choices to make with each match.
“Traditionally, RSL has been a family,” Juarez said. “There is humility in our locker room and guys are welcoming. That allows players to be themselves and quickly contribute.”
Now with five matches remaining on the schedule, home-field advantage is within reach as RSL vies to bring playoff soccer to Rio Tinto Stadium.