It might seem a bit premature to say a team with the fourth-best record in Major League Soccer is in crisis mode — but Real Salt Lake might just be there. RSL has reached a pivotal point in their season, with an ill-time slump jeopardizing what once was a promising campaign.
Salt Lake entered August in position to challenge San Jose for the best record in MLS, and was expected to enjoy an easy run through the group stage of the CONCACAF Champions League.
Things haven’t worked out that way.
RSL lost to Costa Rican side Herediano in the Champions League opener on July 31, and followed that up with a three-match skid in MLS. That same loss to Herediano also turned Tuesday night’s group match against Panamanian side Tauro FC into a must-win.
“I think we are in a very precarious position right now because we put a ton of emphasis on this game,” RSL head coach Jason Kreis told the Deseret News. “So now, we’re at a precipice of what we do from here because this could be a real emotional heartbreaker for us.
“We have to stay together and we’ve got to continue forward and we got to continue to believe and Tuesday night, if we play this way, then we’ll get the result and then maybe roll from there.”
What has gone wrong for Real Salt Lake? The team’s most recent loss, to a surging FC Dallas side, is easiest to explain: Kreis was forced to rest three players who had played for their national teams last week as Kyle Beckerman, Alvaro Saborio and Will Johnson all went the distance for their countries. But RSL’s swoons to Colorado and Vancouver are tougher to justify.
Salt Lake’s offense has been stagnant in the past month, managing just two goals in the past four matches in all competitions. One of those goals came off a late set-piece header by defender Nat Borchers. Alvaro Saborio and Fabian Espindola started the season well, — and Saborio enjoyed a good run until recently — but the tandem has not been consistent.
The key for Real Salt Lake will be getting playmaker Javier Morales going. Morales broke down Herediano’s defense with his passing last time out, only to see chances wasted by the men in front of him. If Morales can create, it will be up to Saborio and Espindola to punish a Tauro defense that should have trouble dealing with their combination of size and speed.
The RSL defense has also had its issues: Jamison Olave is out for the game (hamstring) and back-up centerback Chris Schuler is a long-term casualty. RSL will need Kwame Watson-Siriboe to provide a physical presence and help contain a Tauro FC attack that features forward Edwin Aguilar and Colombian midfielders Carlos Salazar and Carlos Pareja.
US national team fans will remember Aguilar as part of the Panama Gold Cup team that beat the US in the 2011 Gold Cup, but he looked sharp in Panama’s 2-0 friendly loss to Portugal last week. Aguilar has carried the Tauro attack in the opening weeks of the new season, having scored in four of the team’s five matches. It will be up to Nat Borchers to try and contain the elusive forward; if he can, RSL may be able to revive their Champions League chances.
If RSL can’t contain Aguilar, the team’s hopes of another deep run into the Champions League will take a potentially fatal blow.
“It’s really all or nothing right now with the Champions League,” Borchers said about Tuesday’s match. “We’ve got to come out strong.”