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Disciplined approach key for Real Salt Lake in MLS is Back Tournament opener Sunday

RSL opens MLS is Back against rival Colorado in Group D clash on Sunday night on ESPN

SHARE Disciplined approach key for Real Salt Lake in MLS is Back Tournament opener Sunday
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Real Salt Lake defender Marcelo Silva (30) shoots against the New York City Red Bulls in Sandy on Saturday, March 7, 2020. RSL tied with New York 1-1.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — After more than 120 days of waiting, Real Salt Lake finally gets a chance to play soccer again on Sunday.

The spread of COVID-19 shut down MLS just two games into the 2020 season back on March 12, but the league restarted its season this week with the MLS is Back Tournament in Orlando, and on Sunday it’s RSL’s turn to take center stage against rival Colorado (8:30 p.m., ESPN).

“Everybody is anxious in a good way to start playing. We’ve trained for so long without an actual meaningful game, so I think everyone is looking forward to the first game,” said RSL midfielder Albert Rusnak. “It may be a little bit of a weird feeling at the start of the game just because we haven’t played a competitive game for so long.”

The last time RSL did play a competitive game was back on March 7, when Damir Kreilach scored a late equalizer to help salvage a 1-1 home draw against the New York Red Bulls.

Even though that match was so long ago, RSL coach Freddy Juarez has stressed throughout the break that he was really pleased with the way his team attacked and defended in that match, and it’s a style he hopes continues with the MLS restart.

If the first four games of the MLS is Back Tournament in Orlando are any indicator, don’t expect RSL to outshoot Colorado 21-4 like it did New York. No one has scored a goal in the first half of any of those matches, with just five total goals being scored.

The early defensive mentality isn’t surprising at all, as the tournament format lends itself to a conservative approach. The tournament is similar to a World Cup format, with teams playing three group games and qualifying for the knockout round based on group standings.

Getting a result in the opener — particularly a win — greatly increases a team’s hopes of advancing. Conversely, a loss creates an immediate sense of urgency in the final two group games, so teams often play not to lose in the opener.

With the Florida heat and humidity, the inevitable rust after a four-month break between games and the conservative nature of group openers, RSL keeper Zac MacMath believes structure is the key to getting a result.

“The teams that are more organized and disciplined, I think you’ll see will have a lot more success in this tournament. I think that’s one of the things we’ve stressed so much is being organized and disciplined and really try and control what we can control throughout the game, and hopefully that puts (us) in positions to win games,” said MacMath.

The first three group games also count toward the MLS regular season standings, assuming the season resumes at some point after the tournament.

RSL has been the dominant team in the Rocky Mountain Cup rivalry with Colorado, winning 11 of the past 13 season series with a 19-8-10 record during that stretch. On Sunday, it faces what Juarez believes is a much different Colorado team under first-year head coach Robin Fraser.

“He’s added a lot of organization in the attack. You see a true identity when they get the ball,” said Juarez.

Colorado won both of its matches before the MLS suspension back in March. For a team that’s qualified for the playoffs in just one of the past six seasons, it was a great start to the 2020 season.

The Rapids were very strong defensively in those first two games just like RSL, but Juarez hopes his team can still find a way to create ample scoring chances.

“I want to see our team attack. I want to see our team create opportunities, and that’s been a lot of the talk in the last few days, is getting in behind the opponent, and once we get behind, we have to do a better job of getting numbers in the box,” said Juarez.

After Sunday, RSL’s second group play match is scheduled against Minnesota on Friday.