Real Salt Lake has completed stage one of its adventures at the ESPN Wide World of Sports in Orlando. Now with the Knockout Round looming, the team prepares for the second stage with a Monday night (6:30 p.m. MT, FS1) matchup with the San Jose Earthquakes in the Round of 16.
RSL set out to win Group D and while a 1-1-1 record wasn’t enough to top the three other competitors, it was enough to advance comfortably into the Knockout Round, where the stakes change for the 16 remaining teams vying to win the MLS Is Back Tournament – and all of the trappings that come along with it.
While the end goal doesn’t change, the intensity of the focus is amplified in the tournament format.
“You want to win every game, so that doesn’t change. But now that you’re in a tournament situation, you know that it’s win or go home so that adds a little more of a psychological aspect,” RSL Head Coach Freddy Juarez said. “There is a little more meaning behind it. You have to win to advance.”
Throughout the course of the tournament’s opening rounds – and the months that led up to it – there was a bit of a feeling-out process for how to approach each training session as uncertainty loomed amidst a global pandemic.
For Real Salt Lake, the approach has been forward-thinking as the team built up to the Orlando tournament. That approach has been reflective from the top down as coaches delivered the message to players who eagerly anticipated the return to play. That was evident in RSL’s 2-0 victory in a dominating performance against the Colorado Rapids and a hard-fought scoreless draw with Minnesota United in the second match. While a 2-0 loss to Sporting Kansas City wasn’t the desired result nor performance in the Group Stage finale, it left the coaches with the impression that RSL is still headed in the right direction to find success in the Knockout Rounds.
“They know what they came for. We’re all a little disappointed with the result against Kansas City, but good teams learn how to respond for the next game and that’s what we’re looking forward to,” Juarez said. “The team mentality has been great. The competition from within the group has been amazing and that’s exactly what we’d expect from this group. There has been a lot of positives from the group and for us to have success we have to have an overall team commitment.”
The next step is what is sure to be an intense meeting with the San Jose Earthquakes on Monday. While the motivation of points in the league standings that was present in the Group Stage matches is gone, it has been replaced with the dangling carrot of a berth in CONCACAF Champions League, prize money and the pride that comes with lifting a trophy.
San Jose is sure to provide a viable foe.
A high-intensity team that raises the defensive pressure all over the field and looks to play at a fast tempo, San Jose went unbeaten at 2-0-1 in Group B to improve to 2-1-2 on the season. Though the Quakes outscored their opposition 6-3 in the Group Stage, it brings their season totals even to 10 goals scored and 10 goals conceded.
The mentality in facing San Jose’s style under Matias Almeyda is unlike most teams in MLS though.
“Anytime you play San Jose, it’s different than a lot of other teams. We got experience against them last year and they have a strong mentality,” Juarez said. “Duels become very important. They are very dynamic and vertical in their play and they don’t let you rest on the ball so for us the willingness to get forward is important, but also some composure at times.”