After another blown lead, is it time to reconsider our assumptions about Real Salt Lake?

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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.

Agent: “There’s no hatred” between Bale, Ronaldo

Gareth Bale & Cristiano Ronaldo, Real Madrid CF
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Gareth Bale doesn’t at all dislike Cristiano Ronaldo — or vice versa — despite what may seem a lukewarm on-field relationship between the two Real Madrid superstars, insists Jonathan Barnett, agent of Bale.

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Instead, Barnett insists that the two men with very different personalities have a healthy relationship, and competition, that pushes each Galactico to be the best player he can be.

Barnett, on Bale’s relationship with Ronaldo — quotes from the Guardian:

“They don’t go out eating every night together, but it’s fine. There’s no hatred there. Gareth is a quiet guy. They’re complete opposites. But I think Gareth can learn a little bit from Ronaldo as well, interacting maybe a little bit. But he wants his own life and he lives it. Gareth is a great footballer, he doesn’t want anything more. He has some very good endorsements but his whole life is to be the best footballer in the world. I don’t think he wants to be the best model in the world or the best underwear seller. That’s not him.”

That’s a hilarious closing quote from Barnett, but he knows exactly how some folks are going to interpret it: “Bale thinks Ronaldo loves himself too much.”

[ MORE: Giroud: “I must harden myself” to unseat Walcott ]

There’s nothing better for the ultimate success of a team than healthy, friendly competition between teammates who are spectacularly talented as Ronaldo and Bale. The former will only be around to perform at his current level for so much longer, but at what point does the latter officially take the torch and supplant Madrid’s biggest star, and how accepting will he be of passing that proverbial torch?

Olivier Giroud: “I must harden myself” to unseat Walcott

Olivier Giroud, France
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Is it just me, or does the press really only ever get noteworthy quotes from players during international breaks?

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I suppose it’s not surprising, given Premier League players get away from the mean ole British press, go back to their respective homelands and speak with journalists they’ve likely known since their early playing days, thus feel more comfortable opening up about key issues.

Anyway, today we have Olivier Giroud essentially calling himself out for having lost the starting striker’s job at Arsenal because he’s been outplayed of late by Theo Walcott. As discussed before, this is bad news for Giroud because he’s now falling down the depth chart for France with next summer’s European Championship on the horizon.

[ MORE: Aguero admits he wants Guardiola link-up ]

Giroud, on losing his place at Arsenal — quotes from the Guardian:

“At Arsenal, I am in competition with Theo for the striker position. But he is doing well at the moment, so there is no reason to change.

“Whether it was at Tours, Montpellier or Arsenal, I have never experienced a situation like this, I have often played from the start. I need to take positives and to harden myself mentally. It is something new for me.

“I was in [Walcott’s] place in previous seasons at Arsenal. I imagine what he must have been thinking. But I feel that the coach believes in me.”

Giroud goes on to cast into doubt his own confidence, stating in very certain terms he needs “to believe more in [his] abilities.” Giroud’s always come across as a bit of an existentialist, but it’s always strange to hear players publicly call themselves out — particularly their confidence — as if that’s not going to increase the pressure currently weighing down on them.

[ MORE: Rodgers reportedly chosen to take over at Aston Villa ]

The next eight months are going to be monumentally important in Giroud’s career, as the 29-year-old attempts to prove he’s worth keeping around at Arsenal and deserving of a place in the national team squad for next summer’s EUROs, which are to be played in France.