The clubs anthem goes “If you believe then just stand up on your feet”. It’s sung every game in every stadium by every RSL fan. It’s identifiable to every MLS fan and sends the message of who we are and what we are about. But if I asked most if not all fans today if they believe in RSL as a whole, I think we would hear a slightly more dated quote from then.
“I want to believe.”
To tell this story from the start, we need to go a few years back. In 2013, Real Salt Lake gave us the movie-esqe story of a team who, rather than being built around international superstars or future hall of fame talents, was a collection of brothers whose willingness to give everything for each other got them to the most important game in the MLS calendar. The final act in this motion picture, the 1-1 draw with bitter rivals SKC followed by an epic penalty shootout loss capped of what most regard as the most dramatic final MLS had seen at that point.
The cyclical nature of MLS roster building meant that the break up of that team was inevitable. I wonder at times if the team themselves knew this could be their last time together as a whole like this, spurring on the magnificent individual performances from everyone. After one more season, salary caps, expansion drafts and international slots saw players like Ned Grabavoy, Chris Wingert and Nat Borchers leave the club for pastures new. Losing three of the biggest names the club have ever had in one season could really be seen as the beginning of the free fall in form for Real Salt Lake. Since 2015 the club has finished 16th, 9th, 14th, 12th, 6th and 23rd in the overall long table. Performances on the field have been uninspiring and investment in players has been underwhelming in this new age of MLS, with any player who has had the ability to be built around being sold or traded before they can have the right pieces put around them.
Off the field, the team resembles that scene in The Simpsons where sideshow Bob steps on several rakes. Mike Petke and his firing, the treatment of legends like Javier Morales and Andy Williams has had and the club owner showing himself to care more about coins than the wellbeing of his staff have drawn more attention for the club than almost any signing we’ve made since 2014. Indeed, the club’s owner and his true colours make me doubt the ethos of “The Team is The Star”. Was the team the star because we had a process of recruiting some of the best players in the league and consistently coaching them to get the best out of them in a specific tactical plan or were they The Star because they loved each other so much they made that much out of so little? Was “The Team is The Star” a catchy way to cover up the lack of investment due to the club getting lucky with the number of individual performances?
The first thing to really break through all this negativity around the club was in 2017 when the news of 22 year old Slovak international Albert Rusnak signed with RSL. Finally, the club invested money in a young international player who could have the team built around him and who was tied down for a number of years. The quotes coming from the club show the positivity was there:
“This is really exciting,” Dell Loy Hansen said. “As everyone knows, the key to any soccer team is your number 10.”
Then RSL coach Jeff Cassar called it a “special time” for the club. “I cannot tell you how excited I am for this year,” Cassar said. “Adding somebody with Albert’s quality, he’s young, he’s energetic, but he has an unbelievable amount of experience.”
You’d be forgiven for thinking that RSL had found found answer to its prayers. At the time, we all did. But here we are, in 2021. After a great 2017 (30 appearances, 7 goals, 13 assists), Albert has put up some inconsistent numbers. Since 2018, Rusnak has made 87 appearances, scored 24 goals and created a further 8. None of those contributions have come this season so far and they don't look to be coming any time soon.
It’s the tipping point for so many of us. Fans and media alike feel like they are owed answers from this team. We’ve stood by the team through everything I’ve listed above, from a headline to a punchline, and still sung our hearts out when we’ve been in the stadium. We are the small market team that could, thanks to our fans unyielding loyalty. Make no mistake, anybody who has ever pulled on an RSL jersey would find a home cooked meal and a wealth of hospitality from a Salt Lake fan because this club is a piece of our family. The questions being currently asked aren’t to blame anybody, but because we want better for our players, not from them.
The RSL office has clearly done what they believe is the best for the player by defending him from what they see as media criticism, but it once again has pulled back the mask on that disconnect that had existed since Ned and Nat pulled on those new jerseys in NYC and Portland. However you slice it, Albert has not performed this season as as “a number 10” nor has be done so as a winger, as Freddy has called him. Coming in at 7:15 a.m., being the captain and setting examples to younger players isn’t making two of the metrics we have to judge him, goals and assists, go up.
The questions being asked by Lucas, the team at Soapbox and many others are not bad-faith questions designed to kick somebody when they are down. They are questions backed by data, researched by people who have worked hard to become good at their jobs and above all else are driven by the fans of Real Salt Lake. Accusing somebody doing their job (and doing it well) of “not understanding soccer” exposes the disconnect between fans and the organization that has built over seven years in a way that endangers the patience we show the club while they sort out the many issues plaguing the club both on and off the field. It is the job of anybody in sports media to ask the questions the fanbase is asking in an effort to get them the answers. When those answers don’t come, its that fanbase you’re not answering and insulting the person asking that question in the process.
So I'm left asking new questions but getting the same answer. Can Albert Rusnak, a player of obvious quality, find his form again? Can this coach, this system, this club in its current state get Albert back to that level? Will Rusnak come out of the hard times and be rewarded with a trip to the MLS Cup final like all those legends did in 2013?
I want to believe.