Freddy Juarez saw something in his Real Salt Lake team when they took the field for the first training session in Orlando on Monday that looked calmingly familiar. As RSL prepares for the opening match in the MLS Is Back Tournament, the players were beaming through the Florida heat and humidity as they strolled from the bus to Field 25.
A coach at the youth level in New Mexico before moving to the RSL Academy in Arizona in 2010, the current RSL Head Coach had seen his share of travel tournaments and knew that buzz in the air and first kick of the ball on uncharted grass.
“It reminded me of when you go to that first tournament and you finally leave town for a little bit,” Juarez smiled after putting his team through the paces of their first training session.
The excitement comes for many reasons. The team had been through months of progressions through different iterations of training sessions that included at-home workouts, individual training sessions at the Zions Bank Training Center, then small group sessions before getting the whole team involved last month. Breaking the “normal” routine to train in Florida was a small factor.
But having games just around the corner with rivalry matches against the Colorado Rapids and Sporting Kansas City sandwiching a matchup with a strong Minnesota United team brought a clear boost to RSL’s players and coaches.
“As soon as the group was announced, that was the turning point where things became real. Then you get here and take the tests and get into the room with all the medical staff, it really becomes real,” Juarez said. “You can see the excitement with the guys. It was good energy. The goal is to have that energy and that excitement every day.”
Another factor is tournament trophy and Champions League berth (not to mention prize money) on the line for the tournament champions.
While the tournament format mirrors that of a World Cup or Olympic tournament, it is quite unusual for domestic leagues to hold such competitions. The rare opportunity to play in that setting at the club level provides an added charge to the team.
“It’s probably the quickest time in the history of the league that you can win a trophy,” RSL captain Kyle Beckerman said. “That’s the excitement. Also, this window of opportunity to be one of the only leagues in front of the nation. You’ve got a trophy there, you’ve got a slot in Champions League. There’s quite a bit on the line. It’s just such a unique experience. We’re excited about that and the chance to win a championship.”
RSL kicks off the tournament on Sunday at 8:30 p.m. MT against the Rapids on ESPN.
On Tuesday, RSL is scheduled to have its third Covid-19 test in four days since arriving in Florida on Saturday night. Add in the two tests prior to departing Salt Lake City and the team will have taken five tests in a seven-day stretch.
While the test itself is pretty uniform – a nurse jabs, or carefully slides, a cotton swab into the subjects nose to collect samples for analysis – the severity of those tests can vary greatly.
The key, according to RSL goalkeeper Zac MacMath, is scouting the nurses.
“It really just depends on the nurse who is administering it,” he told media on Monday. “After the first few guys go, you can get a vibe on which nurse you want to go to.”
While MacMath’s method has done well for him – “It’s not too bad,” he said – others have not enjoyed the same fate when undergoing the testing.
“It goes back in there pretty deep and kind of waters your eyes a little bit,” he explained. “We’ve definitely got some players who are crying a little bit.”
RSL returns to the training field on Tuesday for the club’s second session, just one day before the tournament starts with Orlando City facing Inter Miami on Wednesday at 6 p.m. MT (ESPN).
After using Monday’s session to get acquainted with the new setting that the team will call home for the next few weeks, Juarez plans to ramp things up in Day 2.
“It was a light session just to get the legs underneath the guys and enjoy the atmosphere a little bit,” he said. “(Tuesday) is when we’ll get a more meaningful training session.”