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Real Salt Lake kicks off 2020 season in Orlando with short-term and long-term attacking question marks

Injuries and suspensions leave RSL a bit shorthanded in season opener at Orlando

Real Salt Lake midfielder Damir Kreilach (8) celebrates his goal during the Real Salt Lake versus Toronto FC soccer match at Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy on Saturday, May 18, 2019.
Steve Griffin, Deseret News

HERRIMAN — Real Salt Lake would love nothing more than to put its best foot forward in Saturday’s Major League Soccer season opener at Orlando to prove to its many naysayers that 2020 won’t be a backward step for the club after last year’s third-place finish in the West.

With the current status of the roster, however, coach Freddy Juarez said that’s not realistic.

“We still don’t have all our pieces 100% fit, so with what we have we have to put on a good solid display on the road. We know going on the road in this league is tough, it has been the last two years, but we’ve managed to go get results,” Juarez said.

Sam Johnson is still recovering from offseason surgery and is several weeks away from full training. Everton Luiz is suspended because of last year’s playoff red card. Kyle Beckerman picked up a foot injury in the final preseason stint in Arizona and is listed as day to day. Corey Baird was also slowed by an injury in Arizona.

On top of that, 18-year-old Venezuelan winger Jeizon Ramirez hasn’t joined the team yet after he was signed back on Feb. 6.

RSL’s two other attacking signees, Justin Meram and Giuseppe Rossi, likely aren’t 90% fit heading into the season opener.

Whether Meram and Rossi play at Orlando or not, over the course of the season RSL management hope their signings bolsters an attack that was very average in 2019. Real Salt Lake’s 46 goals were the second fewest of the 14 teams that qualified for the MLS playoffs.

Meram and Rossi have strong resumes that could help increase the production in 2020 — which RSL needs after selling Jefferson Savarino to Brazilian club Atletico Mineiro earlier this preseason for a $2 million transfer fee.

Rossi hasn’t played professionally for a year and a half as he’s recovered from injuries, but the 33-year-old has the most impressive resume of anyone on the roster.

He’s spent his entire 15-year career in Europe, and played for Manchester United, Newcastle United, Parma, Fiorentina, Genoa, Villarreal, Levante and Celta Vigo. He’s scored 128 goals in 336 matches over all competitions during that time.

The New Jersey native also made 30 appearances for the Italian National Team from 2008 to 2014, scoring seven goals. He’s been injury prone in the latter half of his career, but if he can stay healthy he could be a huge offseason signing.

Meram, 31, has spent his entire nine-year career in MLS with Columbus, Orlando and Atlanta.

The first seven and a half years of his career were with Columbus, where he scored 40 goals in 188 appearances. Last year he scored four goals for Atlanta in 20 appearances.

While Real Salt Lake is trying to bolster its attack with veteran upgrades, defensively it stood pat after a giving up 41 goals in 2019, the third-fewest in MLS.

Nick Rimando’s retirement leaves a massive void at goalkeeper, but newcomer Zac MacMath has won the job coming out of the preseason and is excited for the challenge.

“We didn’t get as many games as we would’ve liked, but we’re confident in our ability and hopefully we can bring it on Saturday,” said MacMath.

Results wise, it was a disappointing preseason as RSL lost to Houston, Sporting Kansas City and lower-division Phoenix Rising, but nobody is fretting the results.

“It was a great preseason, we did very well. Of course we’re not satisfied with our results the last three games, but in some part of the games we did very well. We have to be positive, it’s final week and of course want to be ready for the game on Saturday,” said Damir Kreilach, who’s entering his third season with the club.

Albert Rusnak returns for his fourth season with the club after leading the team with 10 goals a year ago. Similar to Kreilach, he said results aside it was a strong preseason.

“It’s been a good preseason. We’ve worked on the stuff that we want to keep doing from last year, but we also worked on the stuff that we want to add and tweak a little bit for this season. I’m excited for the season, I’m sure everyone is ready for the Orlando game and we feel like we can come away with points,” said Rusnak.

Most national pundits put RSL on the playoff bubble in 2020 despite last year’s success. Replicating last year’s 12-4-1 home record, which was tied for the second most in MLS, would be a great start to proving its naysayers wrong. A slight improvement on its 4-9-4 road record wouldn’t hurt either.

Orlando had the second-worst record in MLS in 2019, and as the club transitions to new coach Oscar Pareja this season, perhaps Real Salt Lake can steal points in the opener.

Regardless of where the results come from, avoiding another slow start will be critical in a league where virtually everyone appeared to make upgrades in 2020. During the three years under former coach Mike Petke, RSL’s records to start the season were 2-7-2, 3-6-1 and 3-5-1.

It recovered each of the past two seasons to make the playoffs, but avoiding a similar slow start is something first-year full-time coach Juarez will look to change.

After Saturday’s contest, Real Salt Lake returns home next weekend for its home opener against the New York Red Bulls.