“The grind got us the three points today.”
For all the gamesmanship and flaring tempers and bad blood and spicy-hot postgame takes that adorned and accompanied it, with those eight words, Real Salt Lake’s captain and playmaker Albert Rusnak expertly summed up his side's season-opening 2-1 win at Minnesota United.
By now you’ve probably watched and read and even argued about the antics of RSL goalkeeper David Ochoa, who lustily endeared himself to the Loons and their fans with sustained displays of what is known as picardia or malandragem in South American soccer cultures, or “Concacafing” to some in this part of the hemisphere.
After soaking up the crowd’s jeers and insults for 90-plus minutes as his teammates clawed out two goals against the run of play, the 20-year-old capped the final whistle of his first career MLS win with a cathartic punt of the ball into the Wonderwall supporters’ section at Allianz Field, nearly sparking a brawl and drawing the profound scorn of his opponents (and plenty of others too).
We don’t need to rehash all that here, except for maybe one key word in the above paragraph: win.
Win is something the Claret-and-Cobalt did only five times in all of 2020, on their way to a second-from-bottom finish in the Western Conference. Those struggles on the pitch were just about matched by substantial turbulence off it, leading to the club being put up for sale, an ongoing process that portends a bright new era for the club but also carries an air of transition and uncertainty.
The reality is that RSL currently just don’t have quite the same bandwidth as some of their MLS peers when it comes to style and aesthetics and identity, to say noting of luxuries like big-name transfer swoops with seven-figure salaries and/or transfer fees. That’s dimmed their relevance in the national conversation, as their paucity of Audi MLS Cup Playoffs buzz and placement at the foot of the early editions of the MLSsoccer.com Power Rankings indicate.
Head coach Freddy Juarez knows all that. And to his credit, he is resisting – at least publicly – the temptation to parlay it into that all-too-familiar underdog, ‘no one believes in us’ card to motivate his squad, a tactic his MNUFC counterpart Adrian Heath utilized ad nauseam as his Loons climbed the MLS dogpile. Nor has he lobbied for reinforcements or lamented his circumstances, instead adopting what he calls a “totally process-oriented” approach.
“I asked the group to not pay attention to what you guys write,” Juarez said in a Tuesday media availability. “And you're all going to have your opinions, and you should have your opinions. For us it's the everyday. It's the everyday work. We know we're footballers, we get paid to be footballers. RSL’s a club that has tradition, RSL’s a club that has a great following in the state and the city, people love the team and the club.
“That's what we pay attention to. It’s our fans, the ones that motivate us on the day to day, and that gets us going. We know what our DNA is. Aside from whatever anyone else has said, we want to make sure that we outwork opponents, we want to make sure that we make it tough on opponents when they come in here, and compete – compete against any team that you put in front of us.”
In the wake of the Ochoa hubbub, Juarez sought to cool the temperature while still backing his player, and he was notably measured in how he described his handling of the young ‘keeper, who may have transgressed some of the league’s unwritten rules but helped safeguard the kind of result that RSL simply cannot turn their nose up at right now.
“I don't want to ever take away his fire,” said Juarez of his message to Ochoa, “but you got to be smart about situations. He's developing. You’ve got to make sure your conversation with him is just understanding that that's going to happen everywhere, and if you're a good professional you're going to learn how to deal with it and take it as just good fan banter and give them the applause after the game and move on, but not to take the bait and get involved in stuff.”
A homegrown product of RSL’s development pathway just like Ochoa and 10 of his other first-team players, Juarez seems to embody the club’s collective mentality at this uniquely challenging juncture. For all that’s transpired, there’s an aura of expectation around the club, a desire to not only do themselves and the fans proud but to make a positive impression on whoever eventually arrives to take up the mantle of ownership.
Beyond Ochoa’s tricks of the trade, Salt Lake are being pragmatic about both their tactics and personnel. Juarez would love his team to get the ball on the floor and ping it around like the wonderfully fluid RSL sides of the past, but he hailed their resourcefulness when that wasn’t possible in Minnesota.
He’d probably prefer that Ochoa focus on the fundamentals at this phase in his development, but he sounds ready to ride the ups and downs of a young player he’s put his faith in. The club wanted to sign Ecuadorian speedster Anderson Julio some two years ago, only to lose out to Liga MX’s Atletico San Luis. But they worked a loan deal for the winger and he bagged both goals on Saturday, both in transition, both against the run of play, both exploiting defensive errors.
“There was many, many games last year where we controlled the possession, ended up with more possession, and didn't end up with the win,” said Juarez on Tuesday. “So I would rather get the win anytime and I know everybody in the locker room would as well.”
It’s not perfect. It’s not even the complete product, in all likelihood. But for RSL, it’ll do for now.