If there was a single game that sums up the last 10 matches of the 2022 season, it was the MLS Cup Playoff ‘loss’ to Real Salt Lake. The Seattle Sounders looked imminently mediocre then; they look fully mediocre now.
RSL comes back to Lumen Field on Sunday (7 PM PT, FOX 13+/Univision Seattle/Prime Video/ESPN+) on an even worse run of form than the Sounders, albeit still ahead of them in the standings.
Schmetzer’s men just need to behave like they did in the first 10 matches after the CCL, or like they did in the CCL, if they are to extend that MLS playoff streak to 14 seasons, the streak of finishing 4th or higher in the West, the streak of 7th or higher in the Shield race — lots of streaks of being pretty good. Plus, if they want to defend their CCL title they must win MLS Cup, because the other domestic routes to the tournament are out of reach.
For RSL Soapbox, Matt answers Four Questions.
SaH: What happened to the xDawg phase when Real Salt Lake looked more like the scrappy team that could?
RSLSB: It’s gone. I forget who said it — somebody at the league site, probably, and I bet it was Matt Doyle — but being a team run on vibes can work in the early season, when teams are still establishing an identity. The chaos of an early MLS season game — well, you saw it, right? That snow game here was ridiculous. That’s what early-season MLS can provide, and teams that are focused on being hyper-motivated can get by without having a distinct strategic plan on the field. It works significantly less well in the dog days of summer, when it’s harder to just make gut-busting runs all the time, and when other teams are improving.
That whole idea really does so much to explain Real Salt Lake. RSL coach Pablo Mastroeni is very clearly not a tactical mastermind — he’s not focused on that, by his own admission. He’s a heart, spirit and hard work guy. I won’t dispute that you need at least some of that in and around a team, but I don’t think you can find real, lasting success without somebody providing significant tactical instruction on a regular basis.
SaH: Is Aaron Herrera still the key to an awkward shape?
RSLSB: No, weirdly. That shape is gone, and now we play a very traditional 4-4-2 with two wingers, two central midfielders (roughly two 8s, with a little variation) and two forwards. I don’t know why that’s all been abandoned — though I didn’t care much for it, personally, I still would love to know why it vanished — and while we occasionally play a 3-5-2, it’s been quite a while. Aaron Herrera’s also been struggling this year, but that’s probably more down to not having Damir Kreilach’s head at which to aim.
SaH: How is Justin Meram good again?
RSLSB: I suspect he’s a confidence guy — when he’s playing for a coach who has faith in him and will play him despite dips in forms (Meram’s form still does dip, as one expects from an MLS-level winger), which he is definitely doing now, he can be an important part of a team. Hew’s got a maturity about him and a desire to lead. I don’t know how the bulk of his career went, aside from seeing him against us occasionally, but that leadership has been an important part of the team.
SaH bonus: Can RSL give Sounders Rubio Rubin? Y’all aren’t using him.
RSLSB: Can we have Joao Paulo? That seems like it would be a fair trade to me. We could use a midfielder. In all seriousness, I feel for Rubio Rubin. He played for a coach that wanted to play a passing game along the ground and found significant success. He now plays for a coach that prefers an aerial and crossing game, and he hasn’t found real success. For me, it’s not a mystery why he’s struggled, and that struggle has just led to him not playing. It’s too bad, really, because Rubin was on the verge of really rocketing his career forward in early 2021.
You should check out RSL Soapbox’s previews and the Reverse.