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Sandy • For the first time in nearly five months, Real Salt Lake can unpack its bags.
Since late January, RSL has been bouncing around the country, going from practice facilities to stadiums to airports, prepping for the next tarmac somewhere new. RSL's training camp convened in San Diego, and from there, the team boarded flights to Arizona, Mexico, Florida, Oregon, Missouri twice, California, Texas, Colorado, Ohio and New York.
In all, RSL has spent 70 percent of its 2016 regular season to date away from Rio Tinto Stadium. And the team lived to tell about it. With nine of its first 13 league matches on the road, RSL (7-4-2, 23 points) snagged 12 points away from Utah last year the team had 14 all year including three wins.
"We knew when we looked at the schedule that the first bit was going to be tough," RSL coach Jeff Cassar said. "To be where we are [in the standings], we're above where we probably actually anticipated us to be."
What was a hefty slate of road matches now morphs into RSL's annual flood of summertime games at home, at altitude, in the blistering dry heat along the Wasatch Front. Including RSL's 3-2 win at New York City FC on June 2, RSL has 15 league matches on the schedule from June to August including nine of the next 14 at Rio Tinto Stadium.
Including U.S. Open Cup matches and the recently scheduled friendly against Italian club Inter Milan on July 19, RSL could have as many as 10 home dates starting Tuesday against the Wilmington Hammerheads and ending on July 22 against the San Jose Earthquakes.
RSL earned its road stripes up to this point, but now comes the pressure of capitalizing on this flurry of home matches. A fruitful run over the next few months could put RSL in serious contention for a top playoff seed in the ruthless Western Conference.
"If you want to be one of the elite teams, you have to win your home games," said RSL right back Tony Beltran. "I think we have a huge opportunity in front of us, especially having some games in hand, to really establish ourselves as a dominant team in the West."
The first three months spent mostly on the road challenged the club, but as Cassar points out, RSL didn't face many matches with three- to four-day turnarounds like it will in June, July and August. If three points are to be a common theme this summer, RSL's depth must respond when called upon.
The coaching staff typically operates in two-week blocks, mapping out a rough sketch of which players could start when and where, Cassar said
"Whether it's injuries or suspensions or performances, you have to plan," he said. "It's how much can you stick to it, but bending a little bit. You don't want to overuse anybody, but you also don't need to rest people when they don't need it. It's that fine line."
RSL general manager Craig Waibel said roster management is the most crucial element to a successful run this summer. It's better to rest a player teetering on being overworked than see a starter miss a month with an untimely hamstring strain, he said. But unlike 2015, Waibel is confident in the club's depth.
"I think our depth is much more capable than it was last year," he said. "We have much more capable players on our bench this year that can actually go in and sustain a level of play and win games, as opposed to last year where I feel like our depth failed us."
Despite the number of home games scheduled in Sandy, this is the most testing part of the lengthy MLS regular season, according to Beltran. The heat and altitude paired with the close proximity of games make a few days off here and there that much more valuable. Cassar said RSL has luckily dodged the heat both at home and on the road up to this point, but added his group must get acclimated to it and quickly to have the upper hand on teams visiting Rio Tinto.
Javier Morales agrees with Beltran, but said he'd rather play in triple digits than frigid temperatures.
"Now, at home, we have to take care of business," Morales said. "We need to take three points. It's going to be really important for the last quarter of the season."
The Open Cup match against Wilmington officially signals the end of RSL's longest road trip in club history. On the road for six weeks and five consecutive games while the grounds crew installed a new pitch, RSL gets to christen the new grass with a slew of home games that could, come early September, keep it very much in the postseason conversation.
"We're looking toward the end of this season and how do we stay fresh, rather than run into a freight train in the playoffs," Waibel said.
Cassar's checklist for a summertime boon is short and sweet: health and ambition.
"It is set up [for us]," he said.
Wilmington Hammerheads at Real Salt Lake
P Fourth round of 2016 U.S. Open Cup Tuesday, 8 p.m.
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