Here’s what we thought we knew about Real Salt Lake, even if we hadn’t explicitly discussed it:
- Despite winning only three of its first seven games, the team appeared to have picked up where it left off last season when they won the Western Conference;
- The transition from Jason Kreis to Jeff Cassar appears to have been a smooth one, with the team’s characteristic formation, style, and performance preserved;
- The backbone of the team — Nick Rimando, Nat Borchers, Kyle Beckerman, Javi Morales, and Álvaro Saborío — appeared as strong as ever, particularly with a healthy Chris Schuler.
After Saturday’s night’s 2-2, come-from-ahead draw against visiting Vancouver, however, it may be time to reconsider our assumptions. With late goals from Nicolas Mezquida and Sebastian Fernandez, the Whitecaps became the fourth team to snare a comeback draw against RSL – the second to come back from a two goals down.
That RSL had it so easy in the game’s opening minutes made the comeback even more surprising. When João Plata (2′) and Saborío (9′) had the team up two before the 10-minute-mark, it looked as if the league’s last undefeated team would cruise. Ensuring chances for Plata and Saborío were denied by David Ousted and the cross bar, but RSL remained in control. Going into the final moments, there was no indication this would be San Jose all over again.
Then, in the 86th minute, the defense broke, allowed Darren Mattocks to have a crack on Rimando, and let Mezquida pounce when their keeper spilled the shot down in front of goal. Eight minutes later, a heavy touch from Saborío as RSL tried to break out of its own end eventually allowed Fernández to tee off from 30-plus yards. Rimando, failing to get down for the shot, gave Vancouver a point, relegating RSL to its fifth draw in eight games.
From the pure number of goals allowed, to the timing of them, to their effect on the final results, this is not the type performance we expect from one of the league’s best teams, and while it’s difficult to imagine the season ending without Real Salt Lake among the circuit’s strongest sides, Saturday forces us to question whether Cassar’s team is there right now. On one hand, they are undefeated – the only MLS team that can make that claim. On the other hand, the team’s last three performances have failed to impress. They weren’t convincing against (what we now see as) a poor Philadelphia, they had trouble with a winless Portland, and they dropped points at home to Vancouver.
Let’s go back to what we thought we knew, implicitly acknowledging each of item (and more) is part of the complete RSL package – one that would leave the team among the best in Major League Soccer. The identity is in place, the backbone has typically played well, but they haven’t quite picked up where they left off.
In these late match capitulations, we see flaws that weren’t present in November and December. We see a particular defensive frailties that only surface at the end of games. We see an inability to control the moments that matter most.
We may also be seeing nothing more than a phase. But in that phase, is Real Salt Lake really as good as, say, Seattle? Thankfully for them, the question’s pretty meaningless, right now.