If Real Salt Lake were distracted with the myriad of off-field developments in the last week, they failed to show it when they rallied very late for a 4-4 draw in Portland.
Captain Kyle Beckerman told media this week that “the vibes in the locker room are great” as RSL prepare to face the defending MLS Cup champion Seattle Sounders, who are themselves riding high after brushing aside LAFC 3-1 and moving up to 2nd place in the West. RSL lurk four points away in 5th place.
“There are always going to be big games with Seattle. Whenever we play them it’s going to mean something,” Beckerman said. “It’s going to be easy to focus and make sure everybody’s on board because of what they’ve done in the past four years and really since they’ve been in the league, just being such a solid team. Everybody will be up for it.“
Beckerman stressed how important it will be to punish Seattle during the stretches that RSL have the upper hand, in order to avoid the same fate as LAFC, who allowed a goal to Seattle against the run of play and never recovered.
One of Beckerman’s biggest tasks as the deep-lying central midfielder will be tracking Sounders playmaker Nico Lodeiro, whom he calls the best at his position.
“For me, Lodeiro is the best No. 10 in the league for a couple years now, ever since he’s been here [in 2016]. The guy is just a champion. Everywhere he goes — you check the stats and everywhere he’s gone he’s been a champion. It’s just amazing,” Beckerman said. “This guy doesn’t stop running. Constantly. He’s pulling the strings for their team. So hopefully we get some chances and we can kind of stymie their attack a little bit. We know it’s going to be a challenge for us, but definitely one we’re looking forward to.”
Watch: Seattle's Schmetzer on facing RSL
RSL have their own rising star in 2018 rookie of the year Corey Baird, who is enjoying a breakout 2020.
Baird is no longer solely relying on his speed to take on defenders or to get in behind backlines, Juarez says, but has developed a new level of sophistication to his game, transforming into an extra midfielder when needed and linking passes in the attack with his quick feet and dribbling.
“His development has come where his technique, his timing and his understanding of space is really improving to be comfortable getting him between the lines," Juarez said. "Whereas earlier in the season and a lot last year it was about running in behind and it was about staying on the touchlines because he wanted to receive [the ball] with time and run at someone, now you’re seeing him be part of the link-up play that adds another dimension to his game and adds another dimension to our game as well.”
Supporting Baird will be forwards Giuseppe Rossi and Sam Johnson, who should be full of confidence after each came off the bench to score one of the final two goals in the 4-4 tie. Rossi is a former Italian national team star with a long track record, and Johnson is one of the club’s Designated Players who has only managed four appearances and one start this year.
Juarez made it clear Johnson is “not out of favor, there are just [other] guys in good rhythm.” And there will be more competition at forward when Douglas Martinez (three starts) returns on Saturday or next week.
For a team that has played lockdown defense under Juarez since August of last year, the inspired, aggressive attacking displays of recent weeks — they also scored four goals on the road in Colorado — will only serve to make them a more dangerous threat in the Western Conference after their 3rd-place finish last year.
“Everyone expects things to fall apart,” Juarez said. “But myself and my great staff and the leaders on the team, we just try to get on with it and stick with it. If anything, I think it made the team even more united.”