They may have scored the goals that secured the victory, but it was the team's efforts at the other end of the field that both Albert Rusnak and Damir Kreilach were keen to highlight after Real Salt Lake's opening MLS is Back Tournament win over the Colorado Rapids on Sunday night.
Rusnak broke the deadlock in the first half in Orlando before Kreilach sealed the win on 76 minutes. But both paid tribute to the team's defensive work after a win that took them top of Group D.
"We were for 90 minutes very solid defensively, and that’s something that we have put much work into in training in the last couple of months," Rusnak said in the team's post-match press conference. "It felt great to finally be back on the field and play a competitive game. To start the tournament with a win is huge."
Added Kreilach: "Last year I feel like we showed we are a team that's so difficult to break down. We showed today as well that we are defensively a very good team and first of all that we have to defend. At the end of the day, we are at any time able to create the chances."
Such focus on the less eye-catching aspects of the game is no accident. In the buildup to the MLS is Back Tournament, head coach Freddy Juarez has embraced his team's role as an underdog with a chip on their shoulder in a group containing three teams that began the season 2-0-0 — Sporting KC, Minnesota United, as well as Colorado.
"We spoke today as a team," Juarez, who was appointed the team's permanent coach in the offseason, said. "The message has been that we’re a team that, when there’s tough moments we can embrace it, we can come together as a team and we don’t mind having to defend hard. Would we rather have the ball the whole game? Yeah, which team wouldn’t? But when those moments come we show our true character. That’s been our thing.
"There are going to be times that we have to grind it out and we have to work as a team. We have to try and protect our goal and endure some hard times, and we did. That’s us, that’s our identity. We have to be tough we’re going to be tough, and when we control the game in possession and create chances, we’ll take it as well. It’s something that, again, the defense did a great job, goalkeeper, the whole team."
RSL will next take on a Minnesota team fresh from a 2-1 win over Sporting KC for their second group game on Friday (10:30 pm ET | ESPN, ESPN Deportes in US; TSN in Canada). And Juarez is anticipating the need for a similarly battle-hardened performance from his team.
"Minnesota is a good team, well-coached team," he said. "It feels like every team in this group works extremely hard, so there’s not going to be an easy game. But we’ll enjoy tonight. We’ll let the guys enjoy it, love what they did. We work all week, and in this case we worked for four months. So, we already have a scouting report on Minnesota – we had a lot of time on our hands. I’m sure they had one of us three months ago. Right now we’ll enjoy this and we’ll get after it tomorrow. We expect a very good game against a very good opponent."