Real Salt Lake is back everyone! After enjoying a little more than a week of the Utah Royals playing in the NWSL Challenge Cup, the MLS is Back tournament kicks off on Thursday, with RSL playing on Sunday. There are still a large amount of uncertainties going into the tournament because of COVID-19, but hopefully we will have even more soccer to watch in a few days!
COVID-19 aside, here are a couple of storylines that I think will be fun to watch as MLS and RSL return to action later this week.
One of the most interesting parts of the MLS is Back tournament for me so far was the draw. It was a little awkward at some points, and I’m totally open to conspiracies of how it was rigged, but what it did was it gave games a little more meaning by essentially making the group stage an extended Heineken Rivalry Week.
While RSL might not have beef with Minnesota (yet) we did get placed in a group with our two most historic rivals, SKC and Colorado. We’ve always had the Rocky Mountain Cup, and some pretty heated ones at that, with Colorado, and unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past eight years you probably remember the tense battles with SKC every season.
And if you think that these sorts of games won’t actually be rivalry games or lead to anything serious since there won’t be fans, think again.
Once upon a time, in a pre-season tournament of little importance, the RSL-SKC rivalry was born. Don’t sleep on the possible intensity of these games; anything can happen.
Center forward battle
For the past two years, Damir Kreilach has been our go-to center forward. It started off because of problems with our traditional center forwards, but he’s consistently played there since. This year, however, the center forward position has a lot more competition with a healthy Sam Johnson, Douglas Martinez, and Giuseppe Rossi.
The two games this year saw Kreilach starting both games at center forward, and then being moved back to center midfield in the second half. I think we will see more of that during the tournament, but probably not as an every game occurrence. I wouldn’t be surprised if there was consistent rotation between Kreilach, Johnson, Martinez, and Rossi, being sure to manage Rossi’s minutes because of his injury history.
I guess this could be part 2 of the Damir Kreilach positioning discussion. With Kyle Beckerman saying last week that he’ll “go until the wheels fall off” we can probably expect to see as many minutes out of him as his 38 year old legs can handle. But with arguably two of RSL’s best players being Kreilach and Everton Luiz, the defensive midfield pairings will be interesting to watch.
Over the course of last year, Everton made his case as nearly essential in central midfield and I’d expect to see him play every minute he can. My two biggest questions are 1) who pairs best with him, and 2) who replaces him because of rotation and fatigue?
For the first question, I’d point directly to Kreilach, but since it is likely that he will be at center forward for a decent amount of the tournament, the next best option for me is Beckerman. Our other center midfield options are: Nick Besler (who just got a contract extension), Luke Mulholland (who I don’t think we’ll see much of due to injury), Justin Portillo, and Pablo Ruiz.
When it comes to the second question of who replaces Everton when he can’t play, my safe guess would be Nick Besler. He has shown to be a solid defensive midfield option (it’s ok if he never plays center back again) and capable of covering space in the midfield, though not as effectively as Everton. As an outlier pick for this question, I’d go with Pablo Ruiz. He recently got back from a loan with FC Pingzau in Austria and was one of the best players in the league while he was there. Hopefully his days of being mismanaged are behind him and he can be a positive contributor going forward.
In case you forgot, Nick Rimando retired at the end of last season and for the first time in over ten years RSL does not have a fixed starting goalkeeper. Currently our options are the veteran Zac MacMath, former Monarchs keeper Andrew Putna, and homegrown David Ochoa. MacMath got the starts for both games this season with mixed responses, but I’d expect him to start most of the rest of the games RSL plays this year.
I wouldn’t be surprised though if there was some goalkeeper rotation every now and then during the tournament.
Our newest signing has only seen two minutes this season, but he could play a big role in this tournament for RSL. Ramirez, who is a Young Designated Player from Venezuela, wasn’t able to get to the US for preseason back in February, but now with several months in Utah under his belt and what has essentially been a second preseason of training, I would expect to see a lot of him during the tournament.
Five subs and short turnaround
I think the five subs rule is one of the most important aspects of the MLS is Back tournament. It will work just like we’ve seen in the Bundesliga, EPL, La Liga, and the NWSL Challenge Cup where each team can use a total of five substitutes in a game. The catch is that each team can only stop the game three times to sub, meaning teams will either be subbing at half time, making multiple substitutions at a time, or a combination of both. What this will do is allow more player rotation to keep legs fresh and reduce the chance of injuries. Since each team only has four days between each match, it would be safe to expect a higher level of player rotation than we are used to.
What I am most excited for is the opportunity that younger players will get. Players like Chris Garcia, Milan Iloski, Tate Schmitt, and Pablo Ruiz have a better chance of seeing field time during the tournament than they would have in a regular season setting, and depth players like Alvin Jones, Eric Holt, Maikel Chang, and Justin Portillo will have to step up more often. RSL has a history of giving younger players a chance on the big stage, so don’t be surprised when a name you’re not familiar with shows up in the starting XI.
What predictions do you have for the MLS is Back tournament? Which storyline are you most excited to follow? Which young player do you hope gets a shot in these games? Leave your comments down below and stay safe everyone!