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RSL’s Mid-Season Report Card

MLS: Sporting Kansas City at Real Salt Lake Jeff Swinger-USA TODAY Sports

The MLS season is now more than half way over if you can believe it, and with that it’s time to check in on Real Salt Lake and their form over the first half of the year. If you want to do a quick refresher on how the team performed in the first quarter of the year you can do so here. Bear with me on this one, it is a little lengthier but I think it has some nuggets worth considering.

The regular season is 34 games long with 17 being played at home and 17 away. The official half way point for RSL was two games ago when they faced off at home against Sporting Kansas. Keep that in mind as we will not be taking into account the Columbus or San Jose games. They will be covered in our end of Q3 report later this year.

So how is RSL doing? Matt Doyle of gave a fair assessment this week that you can read here. I won’t cover much of what he said but this small excerpt will suffice:

“I couldn’t tell you a single thing they’re obviously bad at. I couldn’t tell you a single thing they’re obviously good at. What they could’ve done better: I mean, it feels like everything could – or even should – be five or 10 percent better than it is. When I watch RSL play the words “individualistic” and “malaise” are the ones that come to mind.”

MLS: Columbus Crew SC at Real Salt Lake Jeff Swinger-USA TODAY Sports

Real Salt Lake’s position in the MLS standings is the definition of mediocrity. The one thing that RSL has going for it has the easiest 2nd half of the season in the entire league with the exception of Portland. So we can optimistically hope that the worst is over.

Let’s get to it, here is how the first quarter of the year compared to the second, keeping in mind that given the number of games in the year, Q1 will have one less match than Q2.

RSL’s Q1 and Q2 performance

The Positives

Points Per Game: We see an uptick of 0.19 PPG from Q1 to Q2, this is good, but not great. While we appreciate the improvement and are viewing this as a positive it’s clearly not enough as RSL is currently below the playoff line. Home PPG is actually pretty solid compared to other clubs, however, away games continue to be an ad certamen and unless RSL can improve their 0.80 PPG on the road they will struggle to make the playoffs.

Goals For and Against: RSL scored 0.31 more goals in Q2 than Q1 while simultaneously reducing goals conceded by 0.19. It’s great to see both offense and defense improve simultaneously albeit at different rates. The most pronounced improvement is in the number of goals allowed at home. RSL was able to cut their goals conceded at home by nearly an entire goal a game (0.92). That probably speaks as much to how terrible home goals conceded was in Q1 as it does to improvements in Q2.

Home Goal Differential: After having a zero +/- goal differential at home in Q1, RSL was able to bring the fireworks to Rio Tinto and finish at a +5 for Q2. As a spectator it certainly felt more exciting watching the more recent home games where RSL dropped 3 on Toronto and 2 each on Atlanta and SKC.

The Negatives

I won’t belabor this section as I’ve already touched on some of the negatives above, but I would be remiss if I didn’t call attention to the number of goals that RSL is conceding in away matches. They averaged 2.20 goals against on the road in Q2, allowing 11 goals in 5 games on the road during that period. NYRB was the low point where RSL got drubbed 4-0. This is up from 1.80 goals against, we’re headed in the wrong direction there.

Park the bus, play 5 on the backline, do something. I hate ugly soccer, but I like winning more than I hate ugly soccer and if we have to grind away games to a halt to stop the bleeding and pick up points then so be it.

The Birds Eye View

Lastly, let’s take a quick look at the two quarters combined.

RSL’s mid-year statistics

If the numbers above remain constant despite the easier schedule, I will call it now that RSL will miss the playoffs. Trends can change quickly, I get that, but rather than play “what-if” I will just extrapolate the current numbers through the rest of the year for the sake of this discussion.

If trends continue RSL will finish with 46 points at its current PPG which won’t cut it for playoff contention. The team will also finish with 48 goals scored, down from the 55 goals scored in 2018. Last year also saw RSL concede 58 goals which was its second highest total of all time, RSL is trending to improve that but only slightly down to 56 goals conceded for a total goal differential of -8 for the year, good enough for the 3rd worse season in RSL history.

Shot Selection

One last number I want to look at is RSL’s shot selection with goals being down as much as they are. Let me caveat by saying that I think Sam Johnson has been a revelation for RSL, and if he weren’t on the team we would be in much worse shape than we are at the moment. So this isn’t on Sam.

MLS: Columbus Crew SC at Real Salt Lake Jeff Swinger-USA TODAY Sports

RSL averages 12 shots per game this year, of those 12 shots only 0.4 shots per game come from within the 6 yard box (3%), 5.9 come from the penalty area (49%), and 5.7 come from outside of the box (47.5%).

Rather than compare that to LAFC or a team far superior than RSL, I’ll compare that to San Jose who is neck and neck with Salt Lake in the standings. San Jose is averaging 15.6 shots a game with 1.1 shots inside the 6 yard box (7%), almost triple that of RSL in terms of raw numbers and double in terms of percentage of their shot selection. RSL struggles to penetrate deep into the final third and we still lack the arial threat of the past around the keeper. Shots in the penalty area and outside the box for SJ and RSL are nearly identical percentage-wise.

Of all of the goals scored by RSL this year, only 64% have come from the run of play compared to San Jose who has scored 77% from the run of play. RSL has only scored 2 goals from set pieces while San Jose has netted 7. It’s worth also mentioning that RSL has benefitted from 5 PK’s which makes up 20% of their total goals, while San Jose has none.

It’s probably unfair to only compare RSL to San Jose as it won’t give the full breadth of context that it probably deserves, but for sake of time and the fact that I am over 1000 words at this point we’ll call it good there. RSL creates less opportunities than their neighbors on the MLS table, and of the opportunities they do create, almost none come within the 6 yard box.

Here’s to continued improvement in the back half of the year and a hopeful playoff birth into MLS Cup. I’m not a mathematician so if you find errors, let me know or if you have other stats worth calling out in the comments feel free. Cheers!