Two publicized, well-attended reserves matches have passes with some success, though it could be argued that lackluster performances will have disappointed some of those who paid to attend.
Cassar after draw with Phoenix FC "We wanted it to be a special night ... we had a good crowd out there and we wanted to put on a good performance." — Jeff Cassar
"We wanted it to be a special night, and we just didn't come out with the energy that this kind of game needed," Cassar said after Monday's match against Phoenix FC. "Because they wanted it. Those guys on the field all want our players' positions and jobs, and they played a little bit more hungry than we did. That's sad because we had a good crowd out there and we wanted to put on a good performance."
The two matches early this season call to mind Real Salt Lake's 2012 loss in the U.S. Open Cup to Minnesota Stars FC by a shocking 3-1 scoreline — a match the Real Salt Lake front office put some real money into playing at Rio Tinto Stadium, and a performance that disappointed RSL coach Jason Kreis.
"They just wanted to win more than we did, which is embarrassing," Kreis said after the May 29, 2012 match. "I think we owe a debt of gratitude and apology first and foremost to our ownership and to the management for pulling strings and working extremely hard to get the match here, and we owe an apology to our fans. That was a terrific crowd tonight for an Open Cup match, and we brought them down miserably."
The lackluster performance that day saw RSL crash out of a competition that many considered immensely winnable — something that could have seen RSL playing again in the CONCACAF Champions League in 2013.
The lackluster performances against Phoenix FC and Minnesota Stars share some common features, but the playing personnel in those matches differed substantially. The turnover between 2012 and 2013, particularly among players on the bench, is not inconsiderable.
As a result, we're forced to wonder what the commonalities are between those two matches and others, and whether there's a common factor at play here in the disappointments.
Both matches certainly saw squad depth utilized to no small extent. Both matches gained a certain level of importance by the work done to get the match to fans at Rio Tinto Stadium. But the statures of the two matches are considerably different: One was a competitive match in an important competition, and one was a somewhat-competitive match that mattered in Reserve League play for RSL and USL play for Phoenix FC. In any case, the impetus to win in the more recent of the two matchups was considerably reduced, though certainly present. What impetus remained was of a different sort.
But what is the common factor? Is it that Real Salt Lake struggles to become motivated for these sorts of matches? Is it that opponents play above their levels? Is squad depth at Real Salt Lake not all it's cracked up to be?
Motivation may be an issue, but finding the source of that is difficult. It's surely not lacking a crowd to motivate; in those matches, the fans were well-supportive. Is it the coaching staff relaxing a bit, and that playing down to the players? Motivation is clearly not an issue in 99 percent of the matches the club plays, so it's difficult to pinpoint this. But surely motivational factors should be examined, and the sources of those should be addressed.
It's certainly the case that RSL's opponents in these matches generally play above their station, and reasonably so. Jeff Cassar points it out in his post-match press engagement on Monday: "Those guys on the field all want our players' positions and jobs, and they played a little bit more hungry than we did." He's not wrong. Those players are out looking to make it to bigger, better teams, to make more money, to gain more notoriety. But should it not be the case that some of RSL's players should be looking to secure their long-term futures with the club through these matches, to break into the first team? It's a bit frustrating.
It's easy to wonder if these players aren't good enough, but the groups that played in these two distinct matches largely didn't ack in experience, in technical quality, or even in fitness to a large extent. Is it just a one-off, a bad night? Maybe. But when patterns emerge — and maybe that's premature — those questions need to be addressed.
One thing's certain: RSL must perform better against lower league teams, for one reason or another depending on the circumstances of the match. The coaching staff has repeatedly showed their cognizance of that fact.
But what exactly will it take to improve? That's the question.