Lehi • Once, not all that long ago, Real Salt Lake was considered one of the best soccer teams in North America.
RSL played for the CONCACAF championship. Their skill and style were the envy of Major League Soccer. Things were going so good that local fans and media complained about their team's lack of national exposure, arguing that soccer world was missing the best show on (American) turf.
But that was then.
RSL is a pedestrian 7-7-6 in all games since the CONCACAF Final loss to Monterrey in late April. More recently, Real has lost two in a row, four of its past five and is coming off perhaps its most devastating loss of the season a 3-2 defeat in the final seconds last Saturday at Houston. Once a serious contender, if not a favorite, to win the Supporter's Shield, Real now finds itself scrambling just to lock down a wild card playoff berth.
Things got so bad last weekend that RSL coach Jason Kreis promised a shakeup in the near future. He has since backed off of that a bit but only a bit.
Kreis rejects any notion that his team is feeling lost in the midst of its woes. But just the same, he has laid down a challenge going into Saturday's game at Chivas: Get on board, or get off.
"The guys who are feeling helpless about it should leave ... because we're not helpless at all," Kreis said. "We have the ability, we know what to do. We have the right mentality, we have the right mentality in this group. We have everything we need to bring ourselves out of this hole and if we continue to believe and fight we will."
Certainly, there are some good reasons for Real's downfall. The team that started 4-0 in MLS play this season has been rocked repeatedly by injuries, and they have taken a toll.
Two losses have been key. Midfielder Javier Morales, the midfielder who makes RSL's engine run, suffered a dislocated and broken ankle in early May and isn't expected back until October. Defender Jamison Olave, known as the "Eraser" in the RSL locker room, injured a hamstring during the MLS All-Star Game. He could be back by Saturday.
The loss of quality depth has hurt RSL not only in games, but also on the practice field, which translates to the lack of competition for starting spots.
RSL has a $2.67 million salary cap, points out general manager Garth Lagerwey, "and we've had a million dollars worth of players not on the field. We've had one arm tied behind our back and half of another."
But Kreis says there is more to it than that. Some guys just aren't getting it done.
It's "the bare-bones truth," he said. "All of our players … have gotten opportunities to step in and show what they're made of. And not 10-, 15-minute opportunities. Starting opportunities to reach out and grab something and quite a few of them haven't done it. They'll get more opportunities still going forward, but we still need to recognize that if we don't get this thing turned around, if we don't make the playoffs, if we don't put together a good run of results toward the end of the season, then difficult decisions are going to have to be made, sure."
The bottom line, said Lagerwey, "is that the players who were unable to finish [in Houston], it is a reflection on them. We're always looking for ways to improve the team."
Veteran RSL midfielder Kyle Beckerman says it is hardly time to panic. The MLS season is long, and Real still has several games in hand on most of its conference and wild-card rivals. There's still time to turn things around.
"That's the way soccer is," Beckerman said. "When you win, you're on top of the world. You're only as good as your last game. If we do well at Chivas [on Saturday], the last couple of games will be forgotten."
Kreis, too, is calling for calm. But he also knows the battle for the proper mental outlook is ongoing. They "don't want to get into this mindset if we allow a goal the game is over," he said. "That is a losing mentality for me and that will be the one thing that breaks the camel's back. … That when it becomes crunch time."
If the MLS playoffs began today...
Western Conference Pts. GP GD
L.A. Galaxy 51 26 17
Sounders FC 45 26 9
Dallas FC 43 26 6
Eastern Conference Pts. GP GD
Columbus 49 25 5
Sporting KC 36 25 5
Houston 35 26 2
Wild Card Pts. GP GD
Colorado 41 27 5
Real Salt Lake 36 23 12
Philadelphia 34 24 6
N.Y. Red Bulls 32 26 4