Real Salt Lake has made a number of costly mistakes in this recent run of games — and aside from the win over New York City FC, it's been the biggest problem plaguing the team.
Three red cards this season headline it: Two of those belong to Jamison Olave, and one didn't really change the game. So there's clearly more than that at play.
What we've seen are moments that have defied good reason. Over the last five games, RSL give up two penalties (in the 2-1 win over Chicago Fire and the 1-0 loss to LA Galaxy), fall 4-1 to Montreal Impact, and hand Vancouver Whitecaps a win through a moment of indecision.
Part of that is undoubtedly because we've lost a fair amount of the security and experience that helped our back line. Nat Borchers, while not the fastest, strongest-tackling center back in the world, was not particularly error-prone; the same can be said for Chris Wingert at left back, too.
They've been replaced by higher-risk players. Abdoulie Mansally is a high-risk, high-reward full back, as is Demar Phillips — both will push into the attack, which always leaves an opportunity for the team to be exposed on the counter. That's a risk we have accepted, and it's one you see sides around the world accept. There is no serious qualm with this.
Borchers has been replaced by Jamison Olave, who sometimes shuts off a little, but is a fantastically aggressive center back. But when he's off, he's off, and when a center back's off, you've probably given up a goal. The risk is that he'll be off more than he's on, and the reward is that the team could give up fewer chances by playing more aggressively. We haven't seen that yet.
Carlos Salcedo has been replaced by Elias Vasquez, and what we've seen is remarkably similar to the problems seen in Salcedo's two years at the club. Both Salcedo and Vasquez are strong, smart center backs, but their relative inexperience meant that chances were given up that shouldn't have been. That's something you have to accept sometimes with backup center backs: Typically, you can either have young, high-potential players, or you can have older, slower players as backups. Anything between those lines is usually either mediocre or unhappy at not playing, and there's not necessarily a whole lot of variation between.
So we've seen that cost RSL a few times already, but the hope is that it won't continue costing RSL significantly. Young players should be able to learn from their mistakes, and if they don't, it's eventually time to cut ties — RSL is clearly not at that point yet. Vasquez is a player with immense potential, and he's shown that.
There are ways to approach the left back conundrum — it's a problem others have solved, and it usually starts with quality possession in the midfield not being disrupted by cheap giveaways. And there, too, are ways to solve for a risk-taking center back, and it's usually by having a more conservative center back to manage the play and communicate more effectively.
Those are all things Real Salt Lake can handle. The question, really, then — will they, and when?
It's not too late to turn the ship around, of course. RSL is still only three points out of a playoff spot, and it's only just now June. With a match against Colorado Rapids on Sunday, it won't really get easier — Kyle Beckerman and Nick Rimando will both be off with the U.S. Men's National Team — but with concentration and hard work, the team could start turning things in their favor.
They'll have to if they want to succeed this season. CONCACAF Champions League is coming up, and that's sort of the time when you really have to start showing how well you can play. Anything else is simply not good enough.