Well, OK, not an actual lion. They just sport one on their jersey, and another as a furry mascot suit on the sidelines at Rio Tinto Stadium.
Real Salt Lake, last year’s Audi MLS Cup Playoffs mouse that roared, have kept the good times going in 2022, racing out to a 3W-0L-1D start to the new campaign on the back of three straight victories over highly-rated adversaries this month.
“Going into the game today I told the guys, winning three games in this league in a row is massive, not just climbing the table, but for our confidence,” goalkeeper Zac MacMath told reporters after Saturday’s 2-1 win over Nashville SC. “And to start the season like that, it really goes to all the guys – through preseason to the first four games, everyone's stepping up when needed, and just the mentality of the group being very strong.”
Paced by a second-minute corner-kick header from Bobby Wood, who you may have heard of, and a 54th-minute winner from Tate Schmitt, who you probably haven’t, the victory pushes the Utah side clear atop the West table (albeit with LAFC capable of drawing level with a win over Vancouver late Sunday).
It was well-earned indeed against an NSC outfit who pushed and stretched RSL, offering up another lively performance in their eight-game season-opening road slate ahead of the debut of GEODIS Park in May. And the pushback came without RSL captain Damir Kreilach, their leading scorer in 2021.
This was a hammer-and-tongs clash between two rugged, collective-oriented teams, arrayed in mirror-image 3-4-2-1 formations built to press and stymie with pace and physicality. Perhaps that shouldn’t surprise anyone considering that Pablo Mastroeni played for Gary Smith at Colorado a decade ago – the two leading the Rapids to that club’s top honor, the 2010 MLS Cup title – and cites him as one of his leading mentors and coaching influences.
“The game looked like it was going to be a draw and should have been a draw given the chances that occurred either way, and they've managed to squeeze out a win,” said Smith postgame, lamenting “an opportunity lost” after his Boys in Gold tore into their hosts for long, dangerous stretches but again and again failed to beat MacMath at the final hurdle.
“Their [RSL’s] start to the season has been very bright, the confidence you can see in the group, even when things are going against them – they stuck to their task well. Pablo's got them well-organized and they're going to be difficult to beat.”
Last week Mastroeni and his players found a way, in a Massachusetts snowstorm, past his former US men’s national team coach Bruce Arena and the New England Revolution. The week before that, it was Brian Schmetzer and the indisputably elite Seattle Sounders, Salt Lake’s upset victims in the 2021 playoffs.
There’s a distinct pupil-turned-equal quality to Mastroeni’s ongoing rebirth along the Wasatch Front.
“Both Gary and Bruce were two coaches that definitely influenced my life as a player, but also as a coach, and I've taken bits and pieces from both of them to help me shape my style of play, my philosophy, my man-management,” said Mastroeni. “So they're both two guys that I hold in high esteem, and I consider both those guys mentors to me and I communicate with them throughout the year as well.
“In Gary's case, I knew what we were up against. They are a team that have been road warriors for the last few years. And you know they're going to be well organized, well-disciplined defensively. I think they were really bright in the way they attacked the game, especially in the first half, finding [Hany] Mukhtar and [Randall] Leal in between the lines.”
In all three wins RSL outpaced more highly-rated and expensively-constructed squads than their own, relying on a range of contributors, from little-known homegrowns like Schmitt and Erik Holt to value veterans like MacMath, Wood, Johan Kappelhof and Scott Caldwell deemed surplus to requirements elsewhere. Perhaps bigger names will arrive under new owners David Blitzer and Ryan Smith, but for now it's a largely unheralded bunch.
“So many little side stories from a lot of these different players tonight, guys coming into games, guys that started, guys like Bobby, [who was] throwing up for the last two days, to score a goal and play for 60 minutes,” said Mastroeni. “So many plots, and all of them come down to a real desire to want to be a part of this group, a real desire to will this group on – and again, we played three of the best teams in the league in the last four weeks.”
The influence of Mastroeni's guidance and charisma on RSL’s rapidly-crystallizing locker-room culture should not be overlooked.
“I wouldn’t say it’s so much my personal confidence is growing, but I would say just like the freedom and the confidence of the teammates around me that are trusting me and my abilities, and I think just that alone allows me to just play freely, knowing I got players around me that got my back defensively and also expect me to finish those chances,” said Schmitt, Salt Lake’s early co-leading scorer alongside Wood at two goals apiece, both of his strikes game-winners.
“It starts with the habits we instill in training. I think since preseason Pablo’s set a good standard for us just to absolutely just to go out and grind every day. And I think guys have followed that.”
The Claret-and-Cobalt slipped into the postseason by the skin of their teeth last fall, then embarked on a stunning underdog run to the Western Conference Final stage. Mastroeni, then an interim head coach, has clearly used that experience as a foundation for the current group.
“Where we ended last year, it's quickly come back and saying, 'These points matter. These things are golden points,'” he explained, nodding to high-intensity training sessions he joked have made him feel more like a referee than a coach at times.
“So the mindset, the fight – in training the other day, at the end of training, I just said, ‘fellas, there's three or four challenges that could have really hurt some of our teammates. And as long as we're going in with the right intentions.’ And so for a coach to have to dial training back four weeks into a season is an incredible thing.”