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The Salt: Who is Real Salt Lake, anyway?

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Are we really just good and bad in equal measure?

Lucas Muller | RSL Soapbox

There’s one major thing I’ve struggled with over the last five years of Real Salt Lake is figuring out our identity.

Having undergone multiple significant changes in the last five years, this is hard to nail down. Let’s take a stab at it, though. We might have to go year-by-year on this.

2014: Cassar’s first year

RSL was coming off the back of a very, very good year that was nearly magical — twice. We’d just lost our long-tenured coach, Jason Kreis, but Garth Lagerwey still served as general manager. It was pretty easy to pinpoint our identity, and that’s because we’d purposely tried to keep things stable. We finished with the fourth-best points total in the league. We tended to perform with style.

2015–2016: “Bend, don’t break”

Jeff Cassar’s time with Real Salt Lake was marked by a common phrase: “Bend, don’t break.” It became a philosophical approach for the club, but frankly, the club broke more than they bent. We scraped into the playoffs in 2016, but 2015 saw us with a 1.21 points-per-game total.

2017: Petke’s first year

Mike Petke’s first year at the club was, I think, not great. But it was also incomplete, and he didn’t get a preseason with the team. But also, it was better than 2015, so really, it wasn’t too bad, I guess? We were blown out with a bit too much regularity, but you know, you can excuse that.

2018: The Year of the Blowout — and the playoffs

So here’s a weird thing. Our best points-per-game total post-2014? Yeah, it’s 2018. You know what else is weird? We had more blowouts that year than any other year. (You’ll see more of that below.)

But we were also scary good sometimes. It was, frankly, a little troubling and hard to follow.

2019: TBD

So, I don’t actually know who we are. We’ve shown ourselves to be extremely effective in the attack and competent in the defense — but not always.

Comparing the years

Let’s first take a look at the points-per-game totals over the years.

  • 2014: 1.65 ppg
  • 2015: 1.21 ppg
  • 2016: 1.35 ppg
  • 2017: 1.32 ppg
  • 2018: 1.44 ppg
  • 2019 (incomplete): 1.27 ppg

Losses by a big margin

So I’ve defined a ‘big margin’ here by three goals or more. Let’s take a look.

  • 2015 (3): April 25 @ New England (4-0), May 16 @ Montreal (4-1), Aug. 8 @ Vancouver (4-0)
  • 2016 (1): April 23 @ LA Galaxy (5-2)
  • 2017 (5): April 29 @ Sporting Kansas City (3-0), May 6 vs. FC Dallas (3-0), May 13 @ New England (4-0), May 31 @ Houston (5-1), June 3 @ FC Dallas (6-2)
  • 2018 (6): March 10 vs. LAFC (5-1), April 11 @ NYCFC (4-0), May 19 @ Philadelphia (4-1), June 9 @ LA Galaxy (3-0), Oct. 6 vs. Portland (4-1), Oct. 21 @ Portland (3-0)
  • 2019 (Incomplete, 2): March 16 @ D.C. United (5-0), June 1 @ New York Red Bulls (4-0)

You know what stands out here? 2018. I can sympathize with the 2017 numbers, because frankly, mid-season changes are rough on a team. 2018, I have a harder time. That’s spread throughout the year.

2019 hasn’t seen too many — while it won’t be our best year, we have reason to be somewhat optimistic.

Part of me suspects that Petke would respond to this by talking about there being little difference between losing 2-0 and 5-0, and from a points perspective, he’s right. But I’d dispute part of that: Something different happens to players and fans when a game is lost by an insurmountable goal count. It’s deflating.

When that happens at home, it’s even worse. That happened twice last year, but let’s not harp on that. Mistakes were made.

Wins by a big margin

I’d be remiss to not talk about our big wins, especially because I think this says something distinct about our identity.

  • 2015: Sept. 19 vs. LA Galaxy (3-0)
  • 2016: None
  • 2017 (5): April 8 vs. Vancouver (3-0), July 4 @ LA Galaxy (6-2), July 19 @ Portland (4-1), Aug. 23 vs. San Jose (4-0), Aug. 26 vs. Colorado (4-1)
  • 2018 (4): April 21 vs. Colorado (3-0), Aug. 25 @ Colorado (6-0), Sept. 1 vs LA Galaxy (6-2), Oct. 18 vs. New England (4-1)
  • 2019 (Incomplete, 2): April 19 vs. FC Cincinnati (3-0), May 18 vs. Toronto FC (3-0)

Under Petke, RSL has had some very good matches. Winning 12 to 15 percent of your matches by three-goal margins or better is something we shouldn’t ignore. In fact, I think this actually gives us a pretty clear path for defining who Real Salt Lake is.

So, who are we, anyway?

We’re mercurial.

We run very hot and very cold.

At our best, we can beat the best.

At our worst, we’re beat by the worst.

We might look at our points totals and see two very similar records between Cassar and Petke. There’s something to be said there. But we also have higher highs than we’d had, and, generally speaking, lower lows.

Nearly 30 percent of our matches in both 2017 and 2018 were decided by three-goal margins or better. In fact, Atlanta United had five three-goal-or-better victories in 2018 — only one more than us.

That gives us some reason to think we’re good. Unusually good, even.

But we also have reason to think that we’re kind of terrible, too. And that might just be who we’re going to be. A terrible, delightful team that can’t maintain any true sense of consistency.

Off-topic

So I’m off on vacation for a bit, so you go enjoy yourself.

I’ve been re-watching Parks and Rec, which remains one of the greatest things to be seen on a television. It’s probably even better than RSL’s 2016 season.

I’ve got nothing else. What about you?