In all reality, there’s only one direction for Real Salt Lake to go in 2021 — up.
The chaotic start-stop-start-stop 2020 season was arguably the most disappointing in franchise history as RSL finished 11th in the Western Conference as it whiffed on high internal expectations.
After a third-place finish in 2019, RSL finished as the lowest scoring team in the Western Conference in Freddy Juarez’s first year as full-time head coach a year later.
Complicating the narrative of the 2020 season was the off-the-field drama last summer with owner Dell Loy Hansen, who eventually announced he would sell the team after stories about a toxic work environment within RSL began surfacing. Real Salt Lake is a club still on the market heading into the 2021 season.
Regardless of the impact of COVID-19 and other outside distractions, Real Salt Lake wasn’t good enough in 2020, something Juarez said the team isn’t trying to hide from.
“We all came in with one mentality and thought in mind and that was we weren’t good enough last year as a group, collectively, players, staff, club, we weren’t good enough last year and that’s the only thing that’s been in the back of our minds,” said Juarez.
In acknowledging the struggles of last season, Juarez is hopeful for a much-improved 2021 season, which gets underway Saturday at Minnesota United at 6 p.m.
RSL was the odd team out in the opening weekend of 27-team MLS last weekend. Minnesota, regarded as one of the teams to beat in the West this season, opened with a 4-0 loss at Seattle and will be hungry for quick redemption against RSL.
While Juarez acknowledges Minnesota has a slight advantage with a live game under its belt, RSL’s coach has been pleased with how his team has competed throughout the preseason and having an extra week to fine tune ahead of the opener isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
“I was super pleased with the guys’ energy and focus and the training camp; there hasn’t been a bad training session from the group overall,” said Juarez.
Extra training sessions are probably a good thing for the team’s many new attacking pieces.
Scoring goals was RSL’s biggest weakness a year ago, which the club addressed with three notable attacking signings. It signed Ecuadorian striker Anderson Julio on loan from San Luis in Mexico’s Liga MX, and then added 25-year-old American striker Rubio Rubin.
The Oregon native began his career in Europe as a 17-year-old, but he’s bounced around over the past eight years, including playing with San Diego in the USL last year. A player with seven U.S. National Team appearances under previous coaching regimes, Rubin is hoping for a fresh start in 2021 in MLS.
Both Julio and Rubin have played a good chunk of minutes this preseason and figure to feature against Minnesota.
An additional forward should arrive soon as RSL officially signed U.S. National Team player Bobby Wood on April 2. He wasn’t expected to join the team until the summer, but his contract with German second division club Hamburg was terminated earlier this month and he should be joining his new MLS team soon.
Wood, 28, has spent his entire professional career in Europe, but the Hawaii native has only scored three goals over the past three seasons as he’s struggled for playing time in the German second division.
His best season came during the 2015-16 season with Union Berlin when he scored 17 goals and was a teammate of Damir Kreilach. The two will be reunited again with RSL this season.
“We are extremely excited to welcome Bobby and his family to Salt Lake City and our club. His proven track record as a goal scorer, combined with his work rate and tenacity will be invaluable additions to our roster,” said RSL general manager Elliott Fall in a statement after Wood’s signing. “He is a player who we have tracked for several years and are quite familiar with from his extensive experience with the U.S. National Team. Over the last several months, we have had the pleasure to get to know him more personally and have the utmost confidence he will have a positive impact on our roster and locker room for years to come.”
The trio of Wood, Rubin and Julio gives Juarez new attacking options to try and build around, with Douglas Martinez, Maikel Chang, Justin Meram and Jeizon Ramirez also back from last year.
Corey Baird is no longer with the team as he was traded to Los Angeles FC for allocation money.
Real Salt Lake will also hope for better production from Albert Rusnak, with the midfielder suffering through his worst statistical season with RSL in 2020 with just three goals and two assists.
Juarez is confident in improved played from his attacking midfielder this year.
“He’s ready to give the best version of Albert, and for us to be successful and any team in the world their best players need to have good seasons. They’re the leaders, they’ve got to be the leaders on the pitch. Albert is no different. We need him to have a good season, and I believe he will, and I believe he will with everything he’s doing,” said Juarez.
While RSL’s attack got an overhaul this offseason, the rest of the roster remains mostly intact. The most notable changes were departures, as captain Kyle Beckerman retired after 14 seasons with the club, with center back Nedum Onuoha also retiring at the end of the season.
Beckerman was the last player remaining on the roster that has lifted a trophy with RSL. He was part of the 2009 championship team, but also part of the 2013 Western Conference championship team that lost in the 2013 MLS Cup.
Beckerman played sparingly in 2020 as he was overtaken by Pablo Ruiz on the depth chart, so filling his spot isn’t too big of a concern for Juarez.
The bigger concern is the vacancy at center back. Real Salt Lake hasn’t signed a veteran replacement for Onuoha yet, which means Erik Holt will be the third center back on the depth chart to start 2021.
“Bringing in Pablo (Mastroeni) has added some fine details of how we want to defend, Matthew (Taylor) on the attacking side some fine details. It’s not like there’s huge changes, there’s just some details they’re helping with that helps the group overall.” — RSL coach Freddy Juarez
In the eight games Holt has started for RSL the past two years, the team has never won.
Juarez is quick to mention that Holt has looked much better this preseason, however, and believes the addition of former Colorado player and coach Pablo Mastroeni to the RSL coaching staff has helped Holt and the whole roster in subtle ways.
“Bringing in Pablo has added some fine details of how we want to defend, Matthew (Taylor) on the attacking side some fine details. It’s not like there’s huge changes, there’s just some details they’re helping with that helps the group overall,” said Juarez.
Completing an overhaul of his coaching staff, Juarez also has a new goalkeeper coach with Ignacio Hernandez joining the staff.
Keeper is a position that remains up in the air heading into the season, even though it’s only a matter of time until RSL hands the reins over to 20-year-old David Ochoa.
He was the starting keeper for the U.S. Under-23 National Team during the CONCACAF Olympic qualifying tournament last month, but the youngster made a crucial error in a semifinal loss to Honduras as the U.S. failed to qualify for the Olympics again. It last qualified for the Olympics in Beijing in 2008.
Weighing the risks of those type of youthful mistakes versus developing him as a starter are things RSL’s coaching staff will consider each week when deciding between Ochoa, Andrew Putna and Zac MacMath in goal.
After opening the season on the road this weekend at Minnesota, RSL plays five of its next six games at home with an opportunity to build much-needed momentum early in the 2021 season.