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Real Salt Lake’s tumultuous 2020 officially in books with snowy loss to Kansas City, and club now faces many big issues this offseason

r12\ and Sporting Kansas City defender Roberto Puncec (4) run down the ball as Real Salt Lake and Sporting KC play at Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy on Sunday, Nov. 8, 2020. Sporting KC won 2-0.
Douglas Martinez and Sporting Kansas City defender Roberto Puncec (4) run down the ball as Real Salt Lake and Sporting KC play at Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy on Sunday, Nov. 8, 2020. Sporting KC won 2-0.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

SANDY — From third place to 11th place, the 2020 season was a pretty steep fall for Real Salt Lake.

It came to an unceremonious end on snowy Sunday night at Rio Tinto Stadium as RSL fell to first-place Kansas City 2-0. The home team created few chances in Nedum Onuoha’s final game as a pro, and when it did the players usually missed the target.

It was a fitting end to a turbulent 2020 season in which Real Salt Lake wasn’t good enough most nights, and why it won’t be participating in the MLS playoffs.

Prior to officially being eliminated from playoff contention with a loss at the Galaxy last weekend, Real Salt Lake’s players clung to the hope that the wins would eventually come in time to secure a third-straight playoff berth despite the many hurdles created by COVID-19.

Those wins never came as RSL finished the shortened 2020 season with a 5-10-7 record, ending the season with a 1-6-2 mark over its final nine games. It finished with 25 goals in 22 matches, the fewest of the 12 Western Conference teams.

“To be completely honest I don’t think we have done enough to make playoffs this year as a team,” said Albert Rusnak prior to Sunday’s finale.

That was obvious to those who followed RSL, which won just five games under first-year full-time coach Freddy Juarez.

Juarez was the architect of RSL’s late-season push to the West No. 3 seed serving while as the interim coach last year, but the same magic was elusive this season.

“There’s things I could’ve done different. It’s definitely a crazy year, but I’m not blaming that because all the other teams had to deal with that,” said Juarez. “I believe we are a playoff team. I’m not saying as high as last year, but I believe we should’ve been in the playoffs. No excuses. That’s on me.”

Defender Donny Toia said RSL was far too inconsistent to be in the playoff conversation.

“I felt it was a big drop off. I felt there were so many games that we had chances to win the game or at least come out with a draw, and we gave up a silly goal that cost us the game and three points. I feel like that happened too many times this year and obviously that showed in the standings,” said Toia.

There were glimmers of potential in multi-goal wins over Colorado and Los Angeles FC, but those were aberrations and not the norm. On most nights Real Salt Lake was woeful in front of goal as the club never found anyone to replace the production of Jefferson Savarino, who was transferred to Brazilian club Atletico Mineiro before the start of season.

Damir Kreilach led the team with eight goals in another productive year for the Croatian, but after that it was a steep drop off. Justin Meram and Albert Rusnak scored three goals each, Corey Baird and Douglas Martinez two each, with five others scoring a single goal.

One of those players who scored just once was Sam Johnson, who was released by the club in a mutual agreement late last month. Big picture, it was another failed striker signing for RSL which will head into the offseason with a massive hole to fill up top.

RSL made a million-dollar gamble this season that Giuseppe Rossi could be a goal scorer, but the vet of European soccer was rarely healthy and only made seven appearances scoring once. That 94th minute goal against Portland to salvage a 4-4 draw might’ve been the highlight of the season.

A more consistent threat up top is the biggest issue the club must address this offseason to be competitive in 2021.

“I’ll be honest, I think we need a striker. We need somebody who’s going to hold the ball up for us and score goals,” said Toia.

Quality strikers don’t come cheaply though, and with the uncertainty about who RSL’s future owner will be after Dell Loy Hansen announced back in August he was selling the team, there’s no telling how spendy or frugal the team might be this offseason.

“I’m interested myself to see what the new owner, if we have one before the next season starts, what kind of players we’re going to bring in as a club,” said Rusnak.

Despite the uncertainty surrounding the direction of the ownership, defender Justen Glad said he’s confident in the existing front office to improve the roster.

“I don’t know too much about who the future owner is going to be and what that ownership is going to be looking like, but I have complete faith in Elliott (Fall) and Tony (Beltran) that they’re going to make the right signings and help our team improve. Going forward I’m sure we’re going to be better,” said Glad.

That will depend on the type of attacking help the team secures, but also the defensive help brought in to replace retiring Onuoha.

Though he didn’t exit his final game as winner as he was subbed off in the 63rd minute, the white out at Rio Tinto Stadium will likely be one of his lasting memories of his two and a half years in Utah.

After the game Onuoha made sure to grab that orange soccer ball, and he clutched it proudly until he walked up the Rio Tinto Stadium tunnel one last time. One can only imagine that ball will be displayed on a shelf back in England whenever he returns home.