There is something about the return to normalcy that brings about feelings of nostalgia, especially when it seems there is no end in sight. For months Real Salt Lake and the soccer community operated within that space of unknown, and despite playing in the MLS is Back tournament this past month, the question of when a standard game week would return nagged at the back of everyone’s mind.
But come Saturday all those questions will be put to rest as the team crosses the state border to the East to face its Rocky Mountain Cup foes, Colorado Rapids. Outside of the matches played in Orlando for the MLS is Back tournament it will have been 168 days since Real Salt Lake took to the pitch, and while the first three matches of the tournament counted towards the regular season the unique circumstances and tight turnaround in between matches made it feel like isolated incidents. Head Coach Freddy Juarez and his team are looking forward to the daily grind of the regular season and achieving some stability in their everyday.
“We’re excited,” Juarez said. “It’s nice to start it off with Colorado, it adds a little bit of extra energy. It’s going to be exciting to get this Rocky Mountain game going and then even more excited to have some balance after that.”
On top of returning to a more traditional regular season schedule, the club is faced with having to play only Western Conference opponents. In the past the cross-conference combination allowed the club to go up against foes from the Eastern Conference as well, giving them the ability to add to their overall point total without impacting the playoff position quite as much.
In addition to facing Colorado, RSL will be tasked with playing MLS is Back champions Portland Timbers, as well as Los Angeles FC, Minnesota United and Seattle Sounders, all of which in their own right have seen success in recent years.
“Every game is a six-point game,” forward Damir Kreilach said. “But, it could also have good influence on us players, pushing us to give more on the field so that we can get a better seed for playoff positioning.”
This past Friday the team returned to their home training facility, Zion’s Bank Real Academy, where they continued to focus on making tweaks from the tournament, specifically in the final third. Despite creating a multitude of chances the team only found the back of the net four times in four games, including two against Saturday’s opponent from Colorado.
As a result, training has seen a shift in focus towards attack-minded drills, utilizing the time to make sure that the offensive players are firing on all cylinders and feel supported by their defensive teammates. In particular the team has looked at how best to press the backline, creating open slots for players to slip in and have more chances at goal.
“We were not threatening the backline as much, nor did we give the option to really get in behind,” Juarez reflected. “In the Colorado game it was something we were very good at and as the tournament went on that level began to drop. It’s all about having that option, anytime we have possession we have to be willing to threaten the backline with multiple players. And we’ve been really working on it.”
On Saturday the team will have the chance to see if that work paid off as they step back into some semblance of normalcy, working to earn three points in the team’s quest to qualify for the playoffs.