In a group for the MLS is Back Tournament that includes three teams that started their 2020 seasons 2W-0L-0D, Real Salt Lake find themselves flying a bit under the radar.
In addition to RSL, Group D includes Minnesota United, Sporting Kansas City and the Colorado Rapids, all three of which were among the league's hottest teams before the season was postponed. Minnesota and Sporting put on vibrant attacking displays in blowout victories in Weeks 1 and 2, while the Rapids also took all six points, albeit in less emphatic fashion with a pair of 2-1 triumphs.
That means ahead of the upcoming tournament in Orlando, RSL doesn't figure to be a trendy pick to make it out of group play, if for no other reason than the lofty competition. But speaking with reporters on a Thursday conference call, RSL head coach Freddy Juarez said his team is perfectly happy with an underdog role. In fact, Juarez said, it's exactly what they're used to.
"If [national recognition] comes with the guys working hard, like when we won a playoff game two years ago and knocked out [LAFC] — if that comes with it, we welcome it," Juarez said. "What we know is our identity — we've got to be tough as nails. That's what makes me proud of the guys everyday training.
"That's who RSL is, that's the mentality I have and that's the mentality I want my players to have," he added. "It's all done with head down, work hard, enjoy beating teams and if the media decides to say we're playing great soccer and put hype on it, then great, we welcome it. But the reality is, we're here to enjoy the everyday process, the everyday workload, hanging around together. That's where we get the joy. If [recognition] comes, that would be great, but the reality is we want to go over there and win games. That's it. ...Our bread and butter, who we are, our culture, is punching above our weight, working extremely hard and being humble about it."
There's no doubt that RSL have a challenging path in front of them, but one variable with regards to the Minnesota matchup will be the absence of Loons' linchpin center back Ike Opara. The two-time MLS Defender of the Year announced that he will not be making the trip for the tournament due to injury.
(1/2) Before it’s reported elsewhere, I want to let the fans know that I am currently not in Orlando with my teammates. I am continuing my physical rehabilitation on a preexisting condition that was agreed upon between the league and MNUFC. I’m sad I’m not there with my guys— Ike Opara (@ikeopara) July 2, 2020
In theory, that should make the Loons more vulnerable at the back, and Juarez admitted that any time a player of Opara's caliber isn't in the picture, it helps the opponent. Still, Juarez said when he looks at Minnesota's depth at the position, he sees an improved group that will still make it a plenty tough matchup.
"[Opara] made a difference when he got to Minnesota, I don't think anyone could argue that," Juarez said. "When he left from [Sporting] KC to Minnesota, along with other pieces that [Adrian] Heath and that whole group brought in, I thought Ike Opara made a huge difference for that backline. He knows the league, he's special in the things that he's good at, and he will make any team competitive and make them better, and he did that for that team.
"I think that's going to be a big loss, but I think they also have good depth at center back, with experience now. Maybe their expansion year the center backs they had didn't have enough MLS experience, but now they have it, so we still expect a very good team to play against, Ike Opara or no Ike Opara."
As for what his side will look like, Juarez said he'll be bringing a full group, and that he understands that like every other team, squad rotation and getting contributions from his depth players is going to be imperative considering the congested schedule.
"We thought about guys maybe hanging back and helping [Real] Monarchs, but from my understanding we all have to travel, so we accept that," Juarez said. "We'll take everybody. It's like anything else, there's going to be some competition. I think there will be a lot of players used.
"As much as everyone wants to play and wants to play every minute, we've got to be smart. It's their first time playing, it's basically our second preseason, and going into a very hot, humid environment in crazy times as far as schedule — there's a lot of crazy things going on, who knows what the mentality is going to be. We hope that we can manage all that as much as we can and use as many players as we can."