Despite losing a third straight match, 2-1 to Vancouver in Week 17, Real Salt Lake are still just one point out of the final playoff spot in the West. Although results of late have been hard to come by, they feel they’re still in control of their fate with six matches remaining in the season.
“As far as the numbers are concerned, there's still a very good opportunity. It depends on us,” RSL head coach Freddy Juarez said postgame. “So what do we do? We turn back home and it's the same mentality. We have to win and we have to be better in the areas that we weren't tonight. Listen, goals win games. And if we're not scoring, it's going to be tough to win games. We have to put the ball in the net. One of the things we talked about today was scoring our chances. We scored one and didn't score the others.
“In this league it's tough. Especially for us, we've got to almost play near perfect all the time. We don’t get to buy those players that come with goals. We’ve got to create chances and chances and chances. And it's not an easy task."
RSL head coach Freddy Juarez has been at the helm since August 11, 2019 | USA Today Sports Images
Juarez’s assessment encapsulates RSL's last 10 matches since the start of the September: not enough goals and nowhere close to perfect games. They scored only 11 goals across those 10 games and conceded 20, leading to a 2W-6L-2D stretch that has seen the team drop in the Western Conference standings.
The numbers lay bare the biggest question mark that’s hounded the team during every transfer window in recent years and for which there isn’t yet an answer: Who can be relied upon to score the goals for RSL? Midfielder-turned-forward Damir Kreilach is once again their most reliable option this year (7 goals) and he has as many goals as the rest of the forward corps combined: Corey Baird (2), Sam Johnson (1), Douglas Martinez (0), Justin Meram (3), Jeizon Ramirez (0), Giuseppe Rossi (1).
Outside of Kreilach, RSL have only seen flashes from these names, and that’s only when they’ve been available and injury-free. Johnson and Rossi were not in the squad against Vancouver – Juarez indicated that “everyone who stayed home was injured” – and Baird and Ramirez came off the bench.
And RSL are currently without star playmaker Albert Rusnak, whose passing skills typically help to unlock opportunities for the forwards, but who’s currently busy in Europe trying to help Slovakia qualify to next year’s Euros competition.
Highlights: Vancouver 2, RSL 1
HIGHLIGHTS: Vancouver Whitecaps FC vs. Real Salt Lake | October 10, 2020
Bottom line: The lack of consistent end product in attack continues to hurt an RSL team that is rarely played off the park. And when the team's defense isn't perfect, the margins are slimmer than normal for RSL.
“Since I've been here for the four years … we haven't had the guy who's going to score a lot of goals,” Juarez continued. “And that's 100 percent exactly what it is. So we have to scrap, we have to claw, we have to defend right. When we get a goal sometimes they come in bunches and sometimes you go through phases like this where we're not getting them consistently … You can talk all you want but we've been missing that piece for four years, five years almost.”
MLSsoccer.com columnist and former player Steve Zakuani highlighted RSL’s attacking issues in his analysis of the Vancouver-RSL match, writing: “The Fredy Montero-Lucas Cavallini partnership, while not completely firing on all cylinders yet, is better than anything Salt Lake are able to offer in attack.”
Canadian international Lucas Cavallini (3 goals in 12 appearances in 2020) was signed by Vancouver during the offseason for a reported $6 million transfer fee, while Fredy Montero (3 goals in 10 appearances), who virtually missed the entire summer due to personal and coaching decisions, has a proven track record scoring goals in MLS and abroad.
That caliber of player is likely not walking through the door for RSL in 2020 and so their best hope has to be reprising Juarez’s grind-it-out, defense-first formula from 2019 which allowed the team to finish in 3rd place in the West: Though they scored the second-fewest goals in the West last year, they had the second-stingiest defense in the conference to make those goals hold up.
In fact, Juarez felt that the one goal RSL scored to take the lead against Vancouver “should’ve been enough” to win the game. But RSL's reliable, air-tight defensive play was missing on Saturday and it has gone missing for parts of 2020 – RSL have allowed the 5th-most goals in the 12-team West, though they’ve played more matches than most. And they're just not scoring enough goals to make up for it.
"You gotta be a man and not put your hands down. That's life,” Juarez said when asked how the team extricates itself from the slump in which it’s mired. “There are situations that aren't necessarily going your way and you can't put your hands down and stop doing what you need to do to move forward. We need everyone to respond. And the guys have responded. Just a little bit of luck here and there. Last game didn't have that much luck, the final goal was offside. Today we scored an own goal. We’ve got to start off better to not be in those situations."