Of all the quirks and oddities of soccer, the one Real Salt Lake is going through right now may be the biggest, the weirdest and, ultimately for them, the hardest.
Smack dab in the heart of their season, they have no games to play.
Their last match was on May 29, a listless 3-1 loss at home to the Minnesota Stars, a backwater club that isn't even a part of Major League Soccer, and they won't play again until June 16, against Chivas USA. Their last MLS game was May 26. That means they haven't played and won't play an MLS game for a stretch of 21 days.
Let's stop and think about that.
Can anyone imagine the New England Patriots sitting out the month of October? Or the Philadelphia Phillies bagging games through all of July? Or the Los Angeles Lakers shutting down for a few weeks in February?
It does not compute.
It seems … un-American.
And, to a large extent, it is.
The reason RSL has such a long break is twofold:
First, Major League Soccer action has been suspended for the better part of three weeks out of respect for the World Cup qualifying period, a span when many players from around the globe are called up for duty on their national teams. RSL has two players Kyle Beckerman and Nick Rimando currently on the U.S. national team, with two more Will Johnson (Canada) and Alvaro Saborio (Costa Rica) playing for theirs. Most international leagues, unlike MLS, don't have that same scheduling conflict because their regular seasons don't run over the summer.
Second, it's a part of soccer's tradition to make some room for parallel tournaments that, in the case of Major League Soccer, go on in the middle of regular-season schedules. These games have nothing to do with the chase for the MLS Cup.
Built into RSL's slate is an outside competition called the U.S. Open Cup, a tournament involving a wide assortment of clubs, amateur and professional, around the country that culminates in a title match played in August. The pursuit of that is the reason they played second-tier Minnesota in the first place. Had they won, they would have gone on to play games against opponents through this period that has became blank on account of Real being eliminated.
Upon further review, the U.S. Open Cup is kind of an interesting concept, actually, a single-elimination, knockout event that has been going on for the better part of a century. It's similar to domestic cup competitions played in other countries. It would be like Major League Baseball teams competing against comers at lower levels could you see the Salt Lake Bees taking on the New York Yankees, and, if they won, going on to play the L.A. Dodgers, and so forth? for a national championship. Since the start of MLS in 1996, clubs from that league have won the Open Cup title 15 of 16 times. Seattle Sounders FC has won the last three.
While cool, it's still not Job One for an MLS contender such as Real Salt Lake, one of the best teams in the league and a genuine threat to capture this year's MLS Cup.
The skeptic might suspect a timely lame effort, like the stinker RSL offered against the lesser Stars, might be tempting and even welcome for players on a club looking for an even more substantial break from their otherwise grueling regular-season schedule. Real has rarely played well in Open Cup action, now sporting just a 5-8 record overall, having given up 27 goals and scored only 21 in those games.
It raises the questions: Who gives a flying rip? Isn't the MLS Cup the prize everyone associated with RSL really wants?
Apparently, Jason Kreis cared. After his team fell flat against Minnesota, the RSL coach said, for the first time he could recall, he "would not want to be a player on this team."
Translation: He's punishing his club in its down time.
Says RSL executive Trey Fitz-Gerald: "Our guys thought they could show up at about 75 percent. Jason was pissed. Let's just say he's reminding them about the importance of effort."
Kreis has subsequently put players through tough two-a-day sessions.
"It's a short-term disappointment," Fitz-Gerald says. "It's a trophy we've never won before. The team that wins the Open Cup gets an automatic berth in the next CONCACAF competition. But that would have created an arduous path for us."
That's because subsequent Open Cup games, had RSL kept winning, would have been jammed between important MLS regular-season matches beyond the current idle window. The absence of games might actually benefit them in another way: They are waiting for a number of players including midfielder Javier Morales to recover from injuries that had sidelined them.
Still, it's strange for fans here and players, too to look away from any kind of live games for three weeks, in the middle of a period of mostly great soccer weather, to find a competitive buzz elsewhere.
GORDON MONSON hosts "The Big Show" weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 1280 and 960 AM The Zone. Twitter: @GordonMonson.
P RSL at Chivas USA June 16, 8:30 p.m.
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