“When most won’t, we will.”
The mantra adopted by Real Salt Lake Head Coach Freddy Juarez gives shape to the team as it approaches the 2020 season – his first year in charge of the team from the start of the season after taking over as Interim Head Coach last August.
RSL brings back a large majority of the team that finished the season third in the Western Conference and advanced in the MLS Cup Playoffs for the second consecutive year. Within the 2019 season, much of Juarez’s newly-instituted mantra manifested itself on the field. RSL had the best defense in MLS after the June break for the CONCACAF Gold Cup and finished the season with the third-best defensive mark in the league despite a few lopsided results early in the season.
To Juarez, that success wasn’t just about having talented players or players willing to work hard to defend. It was about the team coming together and uniting under one flag to take on all comers, even when the deck felt stacked against them at times.
“The strength of this team is the collective. It’s all about the team. No one is bigger than anyone else. We have to work at that every single day. That includes everybody – the players, the coaches, the backroom staff … everybody is shooting for one goal,” Juarez said this week. “When you have the whole club going in one direction and backing up the project, the players see that and join the process. You will have players shine out of the team, but it’s because the collective allows a stage for them to show their skills. The base is the collective and that allows the difference-makers to shine.”
It wasn’t just the main core of players who showed the traits of the coach’s mentality though. Bolstered by five RSL players in the starting lineup, the Real Monarchs finished as the fourth seed in the Western Conference and climbed to the USL Championship title. Those five key players lifted the talent level on the field, but also bought in to the team-first mentality of the organization.
Having that approach at all levels of the club is helpful, but it only works if it starts at the top with the first team.
Setting the standard for the rest of the organization to follow, RSL has a roster stocked with hard-working players, many of whom have had to grind their way into starting roles at one club or another before landing with Real Salt Lake. Others have lived the grind from their teenage years with the RSL Academy and worked their way into important positions at the MLS level.
And while hard work is at the core of what RSL aims to accomplish under Juarez, he bristles at the notion of RSL being a blue-collar team.
“We are blue collar, but we also have the skill. We are silk and steel,” he explained. “When we don’t have the ball, we have to be blue collar and work as a collective. When we do have the ball, we want to show that we can play good football as well. That’s not an easy task, but that’s what we’re training for every day.”
It is a new year, but with so many players returning, it isn’t as difficult to recapture that mentality from a year ago that brought so much success to the club.
Back are key veteran leaders Kyle Beckerman, Damir Kreilach and Nedum Onuoha. If anyone embodies the mantra, it is that trio. Add in 2019 RSL MVP Everton Luiz and the RSL Academy products that are becoming the important pieces that propel the team forward – Justen Glad, Aaron Herrera, Corey Baird and others – and it is evident why Juarez chose those words to represent his team.
It is players like Albert Rusnák that bring the silk to the field, but even the playmakers have the same workmanlike approach. That becomes clear in moments like the one in Houston when he willed the team to victory with two stoppage-time goals in 2018. Or when he dislocated a finger and sprung back up to battle in a road match in 2019.
There are new faces too – from MLS veterans in goalkeeper Zac MacMath, defender Ashtone Morgan and forward Justin Meram through Homegrown forwards Milan Iloski and Chris Garcia – that were all brought in because they fit the mold while also bringing new dynamics to the team.
“I think the guys know what the potential is of the team. Bringing back nine of 11 starters and guys who played a lot of minutes is important to the continuity of the group,” Juarez said. “At the same time, the players you bring in, you want them to bring a spark and add competition so it doesn’t stay stagnant. Every year, every team thinks it’s their year. We’re no different. When everyone is here and we’re healthy and fit, we need to make sure that we’re improved from last year.”
Despite a long list of successes in 2019 and a young core of players that has returned for 2020, RSL still approaches the new year with an underdog’s mentality.
“We know that we will get overlooked. People don’t see the potential in what we are doing. So we have to do everything a little bit different than everyone else,” Juarez said. “We put our heads down and work and enjoy what we do and try to get results from that.”
When most won’t, Real Salt Lake will.