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The Salt: Shift the narrative from “the doubters,” RSL overcame 2021

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Let’s recognize that there were real struggles for RSL.

Lucas Muller | RSL Soapbox

Hi, all. It’s been a truly long season, and I’m glad we’re at the end of it. These transitional seasons — no owner, constant speculation, coach quitting, and so much more — are so full of ups and downs, and that’s frankly a bit exhausting.

But here we are, and Real Salt Lake has somehow made the playoffs this year. It took a very-last-second effort from Damir Kreilach, who capitalized on an overhead shot-turned-pass from Justin Meram.

It’s been a while since I’ve written The Salt, so ahead of our match on Tuesday, I’m just going to talk at you for a bit.

Tuesday. Tuesday?

After a season of Wednesday, Saturday, and Sunday games, Tuesday is just a hard day to wrap my head around for a match. I mean, I get it — they’re trying to space out playoff matches. But it’s sure weird, and I don’t like it. Couldn’t we play our game on Saturday or Sunday, like everyone else? Then, we’d have a week until the next match. Instead — if we get through — we’d have one five days away. I dunno.

Did anyone believe in RSL?

There’s been a lot of public talk by the club and its representatives — largely social media — that largely amounts to dunking on all written media for thinking there would be struggles. And let me tell you, there were struggles. Scraping into the playoffs on a miracle goal doesn’t mean those struggles weren’t real. I find it a bit weird that the conversation turned so, so quickly to “nobody believed in us.” (Besides, isn’t there a popular understanding that most MLS-centric writers — a fair chunk of whom are paid by the league and its subsidiaries — don’t really pay attention to Real Salt Lake?)

In addition, I’d love to point back at my 2021 season preview, which was highlighted by the club as one of the doubters. I’ll include the full analytical segment of that below.

Reasons to be worried: Where do we start? Real Salt Lake was bad last year, and if we got better, it’s really only marginally. We’re currently in the process of being sold, but that’s taking an awfully long time. We have just three rostered center backs. There’s just loads of risk that we’re having to deal with, and it’s really frustrating. We might be very bad this year, but hopefully we’ll be better with less meddling from a bad owner.

Why Real Salt Lake are worth watching: There’s a huge amount of untapped potential here. Albert Rusnak could be a 10-goal, 10-assist player, even if he wasn’t last year; Pablo Ruiz has been a revelation in the midfield; Rubio Rubin might prove a hugely underrated signing; and Bobby Wood could find form again. The narratives around so many players could prove a level of excitement we haven’t felt in years, and there’s a real chance the team feels untethered from ownership. This could be the year things start to look up again.

Anyway, it’s sure weird to be dunked on from a half-complete perspective.

A better narrative: RSL overcame struggles

But more meaningfully than that, I would love for the narrative to focus more on what the players overcame. That’s such a better sports story.

  • Damir Kreilach overcame aging and had his best-ever season at an age when players statistically are having worse and worse seasons.
  • Albert Rusnak overcame being dropped by his national team for EURO 2020 after an intensely rough start to the season, and in doing so, he had one of the best seasons on paper than an RSL player has had — ever.
  • David Ochoa overcame a very weird start to the season in which he taunted opposing supporters, was a huge talking point nationally, and jumped from playing for the U.S. to playing for Mexico. That’s a lot of chaos, and he’s a much better player now than he was 12 months ago.
  • Andrew Brody overcame a toe injury just when he was starting to get good, and he returned to at least some of that form.
  • Rubio Rubin overcame an entire career that was tilting downward, and now he’s one of our most important players.
  • The whole defense overcame a really very weird 3-5-2 played by Pablo Mastroeni that put them under intense pressure every time the ball was turned over.
  • Pablo Mastroeni overcame the 3-5-2 and finally reverted the formation to one that, you know, made sense.
  • The whole club overcame the chaos of 2020.
  • And finally (in this expanded list,) the players overcame their coach literally taking a lower position at another club mid-season, when Freddy Juarez moved to Seattle as an assistant coach in what is largely seen as completely unprecedented.

That’s compelling stuff. There are so many stories here and I’ve touched on just a few. Justin Meram and Iraq’s national team coach? Aaron Herrera and his incredible assist outlay?Anderson Julio and a 2020 spent not playing soccer in Mexico, then getting dropped here?

Tell those stories. They’re the stories we’ll tell for a generation.

So why not shame the doubters?

See, here’s the thing. From any rational perspective, there was plenty of reason for analysis both inside and outside the Real Salt Lake sphere to focus on the risk. Roster upheaval? Check. Ownership upheaval? Check. Coaching upheaval? An eventual check. Risky signings that could pay off? Check. (Why do you think we were able to sign Rubio Rubin?)

I actually think all the doubt was, by and large, right. I don’t think we were ever likely to be a last-place team — that’s a very special sort of team, and we were never going to be that. Our roster was still constructed in a thoughtful way, and that lends itself to escaping last place. It’s really that simple.

Anyway, let’s all embrace the doubt and celebrate that the eventual outcome was wrong.

Is it all for naught if RSL loses to Seattle on Tuesday?

Yeah, probably. That’s the way it works. If we scrape into the playoffs but can’t manage to do anything while we’re there, what’s the point? That’s what we get for playing in a league with playoffs, I guess.

In all seriousness, this was a long, trying season. Let’s acknowledge it. Let’s celebrate it. And let’s enjoy the playoffs when they get here on Tuesday. Everything that came before is dust. Or something like that, I don’t know.