This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2017, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
Seattle •Real Salt Lake general manager Craig Waibel said anyone is allowed to "view art, the game, our game, and interpret it as they wish."
It's been sort of all over the place lately at RSL.
"I don't really get caught up in someone being disappointed I'm disappointed," Waibel said this week. "I don't like the paintings I've been looking at the last couple weeks, and anyone who does probably enjoys very abstract, non-meaningful art."
Waibel, like everyone associated with RSL, is waiting anxiously for the canvas that is this 2017 season to have a full set of colors at its disposal. When it all comes together, he said, its something to behold.
Yet RSL hasn't been dealing with an entire set, instead it's been a series of injuries, significant change, and at times, troubling performances. RSL (3-7-2, 11 points) is off to its worst start since 2007 even after its 2-1 win over New York City FC on Wednesday.
"At this point, the biggest part of the problem is you can set out 30 paints," Waibel said, "and if you take away 17 of them, you limit the ability of the artist, and you limit the ability of the colors within the art."
The numbers parallel RSL's ongoing injury crisis. RSL utilized 26 of its 28 players within the first 11 weeks of the season. The only two to not see the field? Center back Justen Glad, who suffered a knee injury while with the U.S. U-20 national team, and third-string goalkeeper Lalo Fernandez.
RSL already has lost 77 games to injury between 13 first-team players, many of whom were designated starters coming into the year, entering this weekend in Seattle. That number likely will balloon to as much as 82 after the match against the Sounders.
"The truth is," Waibel said, "you're only seeing this amount of players because of the injuries we've sustained."
But how did RSL get here?
Solving the issues
Mike Petke might be fuming inside due to the injury issue still pestering RSL, but the coach hired in late March to replace former coach Jeff Cassar refuses to give any credence to being down so many key players.
"Majority of failure comes from people who make excuses," Petke said. "So I'm frustrated in the fact that I would like these guys to be able to, like I know they want to contribute, but I'm steady in my thought process that I keep saying it, somebody's absence is another person's opportunity."
Waibel said RSL remains in the midst of investigating how a team managed to pick up so many muscle-related injuries so early in the year. Everything is being thrown into question, too, going all the way back to offseason workout plans, to whether or not they were executed properly, to how the players were put through respective preseason regimens.
"We go back to fitness tests on opening day," Waibel said, "and I would say comfortably that not all the players were where wanted them to be."
Ten of the 13 players who have gone down with injury have been muscle-related. Waibel says traditionally such injuries are fatigue-based, but in looking back, another possibility remains.
"Did we overwork them or underwork them and once the season started, was the load too much on a weekly basis?" Waibel said. "These are all things we have to solve as we go forward."
The truth is that nobody knows what this RSL team is capable of because it hasn't come close to fielding its ideal starting lineup with an ideal bench to have Petke and his staff pick and choose from.
Is this a rebuild?
Former RSL president Bill Manning, now heading the operation at Toronto FC, has said his new team is where his old team was in 2010: With a fantastic core finally found, one to build around for years to come. That, Waibel said, is the most difficult thing to do in MLS. Assembling the perfect core, which RSL had from 2009 to 2014, is a task any front office type dreams of.
"Every team is building and rebuilding until they find that perfect recipe for success, and then it's hang on for dear life and try to keep it together," Waibel said. "This club's missed the playoffs one time in the last nine seasons. The great thing about MLS is we've struggled to start, and we're really two wins away from the playoff picture."
The win over NYCFC has put RSL into a tie for seventh place in the West, just two points out of the playoff picture.
But with a roster progressively leaning toward a youth movement, Waibel said he has "absolutely no issues" with the term rebuild when it comes to RSL. The last few acquisitions have been both for the now and distant future. Albert Rusnák (22) was signed to replace Javier Morales. Jefferson Savarino (20) was brought on to be a versatile piece in the attack.
Toss in winger Brooks Lennon (19) on loan from Liverpool, Park City's Sebastian Saucedo (20), Danilo Acosta (19), Glad (20), and the list goes on and on.
Waibel recently made no bones about voicing his frustration with some performances from veteran players, too. During RSL's four-game skid, the general manager coined some outings as "very average to subpar" with a team slimmed due to injury and national-team duty. An about-face to a troublesome start demands more from players who have been through the rough patches, Waibel said.
"From an internal point of view, from my point of view as a general manager, we need to redefine for our players that this club is bigger than every single one of them," Waibel said. "We need to remind them that they fight for the front of the jersey, not for the back.
"I'm not saying any of our players in particular have got carried away with that particular belief, but I will say that I believe that this club is in a transition moment with players where we treat players very, very well and our fans, quite frankly, treat our players extremely well. That's a great thing. At the same time, the players have to recognize the opportunities that are given to them, and they have to be willing to fight for more than just themselves."
Banking on a turnaround
Herculez Gomez understands that his final year will be remembered for its remarkable turnaround. The 35-year-old forward, who retired this offseason to become an analyst at ESPN, was part of the 2016 Seattle Sounders team that reversed course on a terrible first five months to steamroll into the postseason and eventually hoist the MLS Cup trophy.
That Sounders team is the latest poster child for sluggish starts in MLS.
Can RSL make a similar summer turnaround?
"I say this with all due respect, but there's a huge talent drop from that [Sounders] group to the group you have now for Salt Lake," Gomez said. "But this is a very forgiving league. As proven, if you can string along three or four wins, things change very quickly."
Wednesday's win over NYCFC is a good starting point, but Saturday afternoon's test in Seattle will tell whether RSL is officially back on track or still figuring out how to play down so many key players. The Sounders have won six straight against RSL in downtown Seattle.
"Petke's got his hands full," Gomez said. "It's very easy for a team that spends to throw players out there in MLS and go get results, but when your depth is tested, that's when the true tactician or coach will come out, and RSL's depth is being tested."
RSL forward Yura Movsisyan provided his own sliver of context this week, and he referenced that same Sounders team a year ago as his primary example. Poor starts, poor stretches, poor performances happen for every team in MLS.
Sooner or later, the response arrives. From there, it's up to a team to build off it and leave the exasperating results behind.
"It's just about grinding through it, sticking to what you know best and not losing belief," he said.
RSL's ongoing injury issues
Entering Saturday's road match at Seattle, RSL had a total of 77 games missed due to injury among 13 players
Defender Justen Glad (knee) • 11 games
Midfielder Jordan Allen (quad) • 10 games
Defender David Horst (knee surgery) • 10 games
Defender Tony Beltran (back and calf) • 9 games
Forward Chad Barrett (knee surgery) • 9 games
Defender Aaron Maund (hamstring) • 8 games
Defender Chris Schuler (foot and hamstring) • 4 games
Forward Joao Plata (quad) • 4 games
Goalkeeper Nick Rimando (hamstring) • 3 games
Midfielder Kyle Beckerman (calf) • 3 games
Defender Demar Phillips (hamstring) • 3 games
Midfielder Sunday Stephen (hamstring) • 3 games
Real Salt Lake at Seattle Sounders
At CenturyLink Field, Seattle, Wash.
Kickoff • 3 p.m. MST Saturday
TV • KMYU
Radio • 700 AM
Records • RSL 3-7-2, Seattle 2-5-4
Last meeting • Seattle 2-1 win (Oct. 23, 2016 at CenturyLink Field)
About Seattle • The Sounders are riding a three-game losing streak into Saturday after falling 3-0 at Sporting KC on Wednesday night. … Seattle is on a four-game winless streak. … Forward Clint Dempsey leads the Sounders with four goals .… Midfielder Nicolas Lodeiro has three goals and four assists so far this year. … Captain Ozzie Alonso missed the match at Sporting KC with quad tightness. … Sounders have won six straight home games against RSL.
About RSL • RSL snapped a four-game losing streak in Wednesday's 2-1 win over New York City FC. … Albert Rusnák's goal stopped a 329-minute scoreless streak, which was the fifth-longest in franchise history. … RSL's Kyle Beckerman and Nick Rimando returned to the starting lineup for the first time since April 22. … Rimando broke the all-time saves record in the 2-1 win Wednesday. … RSL defender Tony Beltran (calf) is expected to play Saturday with Real Monarchs. … Forward Yura Movsisyan was evaluated for concussion symptoms at halftime Wednesday, but eventually was cleared.