The team that wouldn’t die.

A gif is worth a thousand words:

Everything about it was unorthodox, but they ended up getting to exactly where they wanted to go.

Can’t argue much with that, especially given the context of this season – one that is, I think, unique in MLS history. They’re still in limbo with regard to ownership, they had their coach leave to be an assistant elsewhere in the league mid-season, they toggled between multiple formations and tactical iterations, they suffered catastrophic blow-out defeats and inflicted breathtaking upsets, and then they went all the way to the Western Conference Final by posting road wins over two of the most consistently excellent teams in the league.

By basically any measure this year was a massive success for Real Salt Lake.

Formation and tactics

Under Freddy Juarez it was a methodical 4-2-3-1 that usually played out of a mid-block, didn’t take too many risks with the fullbacks and kind of lacked an overall identity.

When Juarez left to join Brian Schmetzer’s Seattle staff in August, Pablo Mastroeni took over and decided to let his freak flag fly. The biggest change was a shift away from the 4-2-3-1 to a 3-5-2, one in which both wingbacks would push way upfield and even the deep-lying central midfielders were encouraged to get up into the attack.

He then added more bells and whistles, shifting right wingback Aaron Herrera to right center back and giving him license to push up as well, while the strong side wingback (usually Andrew Brody) would tuck inside and add more numbers into the box.

It was wild, and they put on some absolutely stunning shows. Of course, they suffered some stunning defeats as well – 6-1 to the Timbers in late September is one that stands out, as does the 4-3 home loss to the Quakes on Oct. 30.

That game, the loss to San Jose, pushed Mastroeni to evolve back into something more staid, and RSL finished the year, then spent most of the playoffs in a pretty conservative 4-4-1-1.

Given how Decision Day and the postseason went, that was clearly the right call.

Highlights

One of the most dramatic goals in MLS history:

RSL weren’t even supposed to be there! It really seemed like they’d blown their chance the week before with that gut-punch of a home loss to the Quakes, but somehow the fates aligned and got the Claret-and-Cobalt through 90 minutes of scoreless soccer at Children’s Mercy Park, at which point they knew they needed just one goal to get through and get into the postseason for the third time in four years.

And so they threw the kitchen sink at the hosts, registering eight shots from the 89th minute until the final whistle blew, one of which was Damir Kreilach’s miracle above.

They then just kept following it up with highlights – getting past the Sounders in Seattle via a PK shootout after failing to register a single shot during the run of play, and then thoroughly outplaying Sporting in another trip to KC, this time getting a late Bobby Wood goal to win 2-1 and advance to the Western Conference Final.

The miracles eventually ran out in Portland, but three-game stretches like the one above can keep a fanbase’s heart beating for years at a time.

RSL might not have won a trophy this year, but they won November for their fans.

Lowlight

I refuse to call the loss in Portland a lowlight. You’re not supposed to win three straight games on the road in any context, but especially in the playoffs.

And the truth is, it’s hard to categorize any particular performance as a lowlight, since even the hilariously inept ones (any of the regular-season losses to Portland, or that loss to the Quakes) just set up the high drama of the Decision Day win.

The lows of 2021 were manifestly worth the highs, even if they did play pretty bland soccer for the first four months of the year.

Anyway, RSL were so delightful with how they ended the season that I’m not giving them a lowlight. Everything they did served the greater good of fueling that chaotic November.

Revelation

David Ochoa won hearts in the RSL fanbase en route to winning the USL Cup with Real Monarchs as an 18-year-old in 2019. He also, in that game, put in a legendary time-wasting performance that Louisville fans still talk about with venom.

He kind of dropped off the radar in 2020. Then in 2021, he opened his year with a devastating error in Concacaf Olympic qualifying that helped cost the US U-23s a spot in the Olympics. Then some early-season celebration…

...earned him the ire of and harsh words from Minnesota United manager Adrian Heath. So the next week he did this:

Then he went to the Nations League with the US. Then he switched international allegiance to Mexico. Then he went on to have a pretty good – not great, but pretty good – first season as an MLS starter. Then he saved Kelyn Rowe’s attempt in the sixth round of PKs to advance RSL past Seattle, and subsequently trolled Seattle’s fans. Then he made a couple of nice saves to help RSL get past Sporting, and subsequently trolled Sporting’s fans. Then, between the West semis and final, he gave an interview where he said this about Heath:

"Look at him now. He’s out of the playoffs and I’m still going. Everyone talks and has their opinion, and it’s just on you to believe in yourself and shut those people up. I hope he’s pissed right now. He deserves it, trying to tell me that I’m not good – yet we beat his team. He deserves it."

It is impossible to look away from this kid. There just aren’t many personalities in the league like him.

Disappointment

Did you know RSL signed a Young DP two years ago, one who was then transferred into a U22 Initiative slot for 2021? 20-year-old Venezuelan winger Jeizon Ramirez arrived ahead of the 2020 season with a certain amount of expectations, the ones that are typically attached when a player arrives with that “DP tag. Then he played… 80 total minutes.

Ok – that’s totally understandable. He was 19 and coming to a foreign country in the midst of a global pandemic. An adjustment period is to be expected.

In 2021, Ramirez played… zero MLS minutes. None. Hell, he only got on the field for 256 minutes with Real Monarchs in the USL and scored just once.

Obviously not every young player investment is going to work out, and that’s the case here – RSL declined his contract on Monday. The complete lack of progress over two seasons is super disappointing for a club that’s generally been very good about turning potential into production.

2022 Preview

Five Players to Build Upon:

  • Damir Kreilach (AM/CF/SS/CM): Had damn near a Best XI-caliber season, and is working his way into the top tier of RSL’s all-time greats.
  • Albert Rusnak (AM/W): Came alive under Mastroeni and finally started looking like a very good MLS chance creator.
  • Justen Glad (CB): A grizzled veteran at 24, he finally seems to have, in Mastroeni, a coach who trusts him.
  • Aaron Herrera (RB/RWB/RCB): Don’t let his shaky playoff performance overshadow how consistently excellent he was during the regular season.
  • Anderson Julio (W): The most devastating, game-changing super-sub in MLS this past year, which continued right into the postseason. Will he return after being on loan?

Offseason Priority:

We all know the big offseason stories with RSL have nothing to do with the roster: It’s ownership and Mastroeni’s status. My guess is once they find the former, they will decide the fate of the latter.

That said, it’s hard to imagine them parting ways with Pablo after that postseason run.

Point to the roster itself, though, and the issues are obvious: Rusnak and Everton Luiz – who they were helpless without this past weekend in Portland – are out of contract. They’ve got to either bring those guys back or find high-level replacements for both. And can RSL pry Anderson Julio away from Liga MX's Atlético San Luis? The price has got to be right.