Real Salt Lake has quietly transformed into serious MLS Cup contender

Chris Nicoll-USA TODAY Sports

Real Salt Lake's bad 2015 is a thing of the past. As Paul Tenorio notes, RSL is back to its old, dominant ways.

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During the “MLS Rivalry Weekend,” in which much of the attention in the Western Conference was showered upon the Seattle Sounders and Portland Timbers – sixth and eighth place, respectively in the standings – Real Salt Lake quietly went about its business on Friday night.

RSL downed the Colorado Rapids, 2-1, in a battle for second place in the West. It was given the national spotlight on UniMas Friday night, but outside of that stage there was little hype about the Rocky Mountain Cup. Or about the turnaround in Salt Lake City, where RSL has thundered back from a ninth-place finish last season into Supporters’ Shield contention this season.

And that relative anonymity is just fine with the players and coaches at RSL.

“It’s never been about Salt Lake. We’re fine with that. Trust me.”

- RSL forward Yura Movsisyan

“It’s never been about Salt Lake,” forward Yura Movsisyan told FourFourTwo. “We’re fine with that. Trust me.”

This is the space in which RSL lives. The players enjoy being underdogs. They think it’s fine that no one wants to talk about them. As Movsisyan repeated time and again in a conversation on Saturday, this is a team that believes in itself. And knows that it’s a matter of time until they convert everyone else into being believers, too.

If people are late to jump aboard the train, that’s OK.

“People are leery about last year,” RSL coach Jeff Cassar said. “And we’re not the team we were last year.”

No, it’s definitely not the same team. But it isn’t the personnel which has changed drastically. Movsisyan represents the only major addition to RSL’s squad from last year to this year, and while his return to the club has been a boost to RSL’s dynamic attack, it’s the comfort in the system that has made the biggest difference from one year to the next.

Cassar was changing RSL from the diamond 4-4-2 that had been so popular under Jason Kreis to a 4-3-3. There were, understandably, some growing pains. Veterans like Kyle Beckerman and Javier Morales had to learn new roles. New additions, like Juan Manuel “Burrito” Martinez, had to gain familiarity with teammates. Injuries didn’t help.

The result was a disastrous campaign that led to some people questioning whether Cassar would last another year in Salt Lake City. Now, according to an report, the third-year coach is in negotiations for an extension. (“I really hope he gets his extension,” Movsisyan said. “He’s earned it. He deserves it.”)

Was there a moment everything clicked? Not really. Cassar said it simply took time for this team to find its own identity separate from those RSL teams that were so successful under Kreis. Everyone became more comfortable in their roles – from the GM to the coach to the players.

“It’s never one thing why we’re better,” Cassar said. “We’re staying healthier, we’ve got better players, we’re much more focused, our front office is where it needs to be to be successful. Last year was Craig Waibel’s first year as GM and it was my second year as coach, he had just come off my staff. So there was a lot of new things and it takes time for everyone. But what I really like is we never lost our locker room, we never lost our character of our team. And we’ve stuck through it and that made us all hungrier.”

Russell Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

Jeff Cassar. (Russell Isabella-USA TODAY Sports)

Where RSL has thrived is on the attacking end of the field. It can beat you in so many ways. Against Colorado, it was Movsisyan that was causing havoc up top. His powerful target play is a handful for any back line and he leads RSL with nine goals. Movisisyan was the beneficiary of the playmaking abilities of Martinez, who has six goals and three assists this season. Earlier this year, it was the individual skill of Joao Plata – he of seven goals and 10 assists – that was carrying RSL.

How do they work together? Martinez starts on the right and is able to float and find the ball to influence the game. Plata’s pace and skill causes nightmares on the opposite side. And Movsisyan’s presence in the middle of the front line prevents teams from providing too much help on either wing. There isn’t one thing a team can zone in on to stop.

Cassar said the team works on patterns and movements to use in games, but he also encourages a certain amount of creativity and freelancing. That can cause inconsistencies at times, but as RSL has grown more comfortable it’s been a more confident team and the connections in the final third have benefitted.

“In the game it can be structured, but it can also be brilliant,” Cassar said.

He also pointed to the young players that have enhanced the depth of the team, including Jordan Allen, Olmes García and Omar Holness. Their presence allows the front line to do more because there are reinforcements capable of maintaining that aggressive style of play.

RSL is a handful to defend, but where opponents have found success is in countering and hitting at a backline that has been susceptible at times this year. That has changed in the last two months, however. RSL conceded 25 goals in the first 16 games, but the team has allowed more than one goal in a game just twice since the start of July; 12 total in a span of 11 games.

Cassar said his squad wasn’t proactive enough defensively, but it has grown better at recognizing dangerous moments.

RSL is a more well-rounded team, and if you don’t think it is for real, everyone there is ready to change your mind.

“We’ve got a lot of belief,” Movsisyan said. “And we might not get the coverage we deserve, or we might not get the coverage other teams get without [actually] putting the product on the field and proving it. But we believe in ourselves and that’s all we need.”

Continue: Klinsmann gets roster right