By Jason Davis – WASHINGTON, DC (June 8, 2022) US Soccer Players – Most successful MLS teams have an identity. It could be a particular way of playing, or a physical edge that gives them an advantage. Maybe it’s a leg up that comes from a bigger budget or a super productive academy.
Real Salt Lake is known for developing talented players but doesn’t get the current day academy accolades of the Philadelphia Union and FC Dallas. They’re a small market club and there’s nothing so specific about the style of play to turn that into a focus. Instead, Real Salt Lake’s identity is for getting the most out of a squad.
The roots of that ethos go back to the early years of RSL and the championship team of 2009. During the initial days of Major League Soccer’s 2.0 era, they eschewed famous names for players who fit its “the team is the star” mantra. Kyle Beckerman bossed the midfield, Javier Morales orchestrated the attack, and Nick Rimando provided some of the best goalkeeping in the league. Names like Tony Beltran and Ned Grabavoy rarely got league-wide attention but were always key cogs in good teams. That group of players won an MLS Cup, made it to the Concacaf Champions League final, and lost the 2013 MLS Cup.
Since those halcyon days, Real Salt Lake has been searching for ways to stay competitive in an ever-changing league. They’re a regular contender for a playoff berth in the Western Conference, making the postseason four of the last six years. RSL’s budget is never big and the star power is never obvious, but the club has regularly found a way to remain in contention in the Western Conference.
In recent years, change has been a near-constant at Real Salt Lake. A series of coaches and an unexpected sale prompted by events in 2020 had the potential to derail a precarious program. Last season’s unexpected coaching change at the end of August put assistant turned interim coach Pablo Mastroeni back in charge of an MLS team.
Mastroeni’s first head coaching job was as boss of the Colorado Rapids between 2014 and 2017. Following his dismissal in 2017, he returned to an assistant position, first with Houston and then with RSL.
It didn’t feel right that Mastroeni waited so olong for another opportunity after his time with the Rapids. His first two years in Colorado were difficult, but he led the Rapids to what at the time was the club’s best-ever regular season in 2016.
When another chance came, Mastroeni proved himself capable. Real Salt Lake made the playoffs on Decision Day as the West’s 7th-seed, knocked off the 2nd-seed and the 3rd-seed, and reached the Western Conference final.
Even in a league with Cinderella playoff runs baked into the concept, RSL’s push to the final four was stunning. Either Mastroeni caught lightning in a bottle, or he was building something in Utah that deserved further exploration. Real Salt Lake made Mastroeni the permanent hire in December, an obvious choice given the circumstances.
Mastroeni won the job through results. He’s also a good fit for the team Real Salt Lake wants to be. Although Mastroeni spent years playing for Real Salt Lake’s chief rival in Colorado, his blue-collar attitude as a tough-nosed defensive midfielder matches perfectly with RSL’s long standing team-first mentality. That gets significant buy-in from players. It’s a central part of his philosophy and only compliments his tactical approach.
Any hunt through the numbers to explain the club’s success this season probably won’t deliver a satisfactory explanation. That doesn’t mean it isn’t built on something real.
RSL is the only team in the Western Conference playoff places with a negative goal difference at -1. Via FBref.com and Stats Bomb, it’s also the only club in the top seven with a negative expected goal difference. The metrics say RSL is overperforming when it comes to its place in the table. Meanwhile, the most important numbers, wins, losses, and draws, say that RSL is a good team.
Certainly worth noting is that Real Salt Lake has largely managed their success without captain Damir Kreilach, who is out for three months following back surgery. Winger Jefferson Savarino is back in the fold and should give the club a lift on the attacking end. They also signed talented attacker Diego Luna from El Paso Locomotive, a coup in light of the 18-year-old’s European options. RSL is a club with a reputation for playing young players. Luna might be part of the rotation soon.
In other words, RSL has every reason to think things will only get better from here. The club suffered a 2-1 setback in Vancouver this past weekend but now enters a run with three of its next four matches at home. The spirit of possibility is back, and that emanates from Mastroeni’s leadership.
Maybe no club in MLS is better at turning its unassuming figures into heroes, appreciated for their attitude and approach along with their contributions to the club’s success on the field. That’s what Mastroeni is doing right now, continuing to build Real Salt Lake into the kind of club it wants to become.
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Photo by Bill Barrett – ISIPhotos.com