For two consecutive weeks, we've been saddled with doubts about our defensive group after conceding stoppage-time winners against Sporting Kansas City and New York Red Bulls. That we have concerns is a good thing: The effort, while good enough in work rate, didn't produce results.
That concern revolves around the suitability not of any individual player — not at this point, at least — but about the viability of our outlay as a defensive unit. Now, let's be clear: It hasn't exactly been first-choice. Nobody's going to deny that.
We are on our third-choice goalkeeper (and he's not been too shabby), a reserve center back alongside an experienced one, and two second-choice fullbacks. We've been missing Chris Schuler (injury, but perhaps recovering?), Kwame Watson-Siriboe (season-ending injury), Carlos Salcedo (surgery, but recovering), Josh Saunders (season-ending injury), Tony Beltran (international duty) and, for a match, Chris Wingert (suspension). The trend is, shall we say, disturbing, but things are looking up.
Brandon McDonald has come in, Carlos Salcedo looks to be ready soon after his quite unexpected gall bladder surgery, Nick Rimando and Tony Beltran are both back from international duty (and off to the All-Star game) and Chris Wingert will surely not be suspended forever. (That, in a word, would be a disaster.) These are reasons for encouragement if any reason is. Those are wholly five players who could better the side, and only two of them are fighting for one spot.
This isn't to say that any of the players in right now (especially Nat Borchers, obviously enough, so we won't touch on him here) aren't good enough. But out of interest, let's take a look at four who, in varied ways, have struggled to get things going. All four have taken various levels of criticism for their performances, some of it justified and some of it less so. But one might rightly wonder if whether developing these players — or at least molding them to fit our setup — will have resulted from the rocky goings. Given we've missed more than a few players, it seems it was inevitable.
Jeff Attinella, while young, has had a surprisingly strong start to his RSL career after being called in when Josh Saunders took to injury. He has had a few shaky moments in the last two matches (including one that saw a ball pass through his hands and legs) but has had capable command of his area. He does need to improve in communication and in distribution, but as a young goalkeeper, those are things to be expected. But let it be known that he's done quite well for himself, and now Nick Rimando is certain to take the reins once again.
Aaron Maund, the young central defender who Toronto somehow thought was best as a defensive midfielder, has given plenty of room for encouragement. He's generally been a good defender, but it's those moments that he's not — those are the defining moments, aren't they? Set piece defense has hardly been his specialty. Now, he has been up against two of the best teams in MLS, so expecting him to respond perfectly is a stretch. He can and should improve, but he's also not to blame for our woes.
Abdoulie Mansally, playing on the left, is an interesting case. He's got plenty of MLS experience, but largely as a forward and not a defender. He's been, by and large, a good asset to have — he's an attacking full back, and that adds a lot to our tactical outlay. Indeed, he's been vital in a few goals scored in transition, but there's a sense that he's not an ideal defender by any stretch. He does get sucked into bad positions at times, and he needs to work on that. But there's plenty of room to be encouraged — and remember, he's only 24 years old. That's young for a defender, and it's not as if he's got much experience as a defender during his MLS time at any rate, having previously played as a striker and midfielder at New England Revolution. He's got time on his side.
Lovel Palmer, playing on the right, has been another interesting case. He comes to Real Salt Lake having previously played in MLS at Houston Dynamo and Portland Timbers, and at both clubs, he divided opinion. He's played more as a midfielder than a full back, but that hasn't stopped him from doing well on the flank. Defensively he can be suspect, and he's not the strongest on marking, but his combination play out wide is reminiscent of a hybridization of Tony Beltran and Chris Wingert. He gets forward well and combines ably. In a system such as ours, in which width is provided almost exclusively by the full backs, this is as important as anything. He needs to improve defensively, but he's doing well as a full back in our system.