I seem to recall that in early April (as I furiously consumed whatever I could find to prepare for the upcoming season) that Real Salt Lake – with no owner in place and an 11th place finish in 2020 - was picked to finish last in the Western Conference. There had been no big signings (Bobby Wood is coming but it’s been a while since his star was on the rise). Albert Rusnak was good – but didn’t seem to live up to expectations. There was some buzz about the young right back – Aaron Herrera. But Kyle Beckerman – the heart and soul of the team - had retired. There have been young talent in Utah (the team led the league in Homegrown minutes last year) ... but it just seemed that the team was … adrift.
Well, through the opening four games, Salt Lake is 2-1-1. They’ve scored six goals and let in four, and they’re currently 7th in the West with a game in hand on Dallas and two on most of the pack.
(4/24) Minnesota United 1 - 2 Real Salt Lake Goals: Anderson Julio (2)
(5/1) Real Salt Lake 3 - 1 Sporting Kansas City (Goals: Kreilach (1), Rubin (2)
(5/8) Real Salt Lake 1 - 2 San Jose Earthquakes Goal: Rubin (1)
(5/15) Real Salt Lake 0 – 0 Nashville SC
Let’s talk about Rubio Rubin. When I read that he signed with Salt Lake, I … well, I shrugged... and said, “meh.” He had been a promising youngster (remember when he made his national team debut about seven years ago... before Trinidad & Tobago... before Christian Pulisic) ... He’d bounced around the lower leagues in Europe... he came back to North America and played in Tijuana... spent last year with San Diego Loyal in USL-C ... becomes an unheralded signing for Freddy Juarez’s team... and he’s got three goals and two assists in their first three games.
So the question is: Is this sustainable?
Maybe? Clearly, their opening win came against a struggling Minnesota side, but the second win came against a quality side in Sporting Kansas City. Ten poor minutes of marking cost them the game against San Jose. But the focus is on the former USMNT hopeful: Rubin looks like a player who has finally played to the potential he showed so many years ago. He didn’t get on the board last week, but he was dangerous against Nashville. He is playing with confidence, attacking defenders off the dribble, and finishing the crosses - the goal against San Jose is especially brilliant. He’s combining well with his teammates (particularly Kreilach who has three assists) – doing what we would expect the #9 to do. But by now, defenses are aware that he’s upped his game. Nashville adjusted and kept him off the scoreboard. Can Dallas do the same?
How do they play?
Expect to see Real Salt Lake come out in a 4-2-3-1 with Rubin leading the line. I expect to see veteran Justin Meram on the left (he’s had good looks at goal and bad luck with the crossbar) and Anderson Julio (two goals in the opener) on the right with Rusnak in the middle. Rusnak has yet to log a goal or an assist despite his hefty price tag.
Screening the defense will likely be Damir Kreilach and either Pablo Ruiz or Nick Besler.
In the back, Aaron Herrera has missed several games due to injury, but Andrew Brody is receiving high praise as his replacement on the right side. Justin Glad and Eric Holt are likely to get the call in the heart of the defense and then Donny Toia on the left.
In goal, after a solid showing in Olympic qualifying, David Ochoa has enjoyed a strong start to the season and made waves early on by kicking a ball into the stands to celebrate a win.
Meram – Rusnak – Julio
Kreilach – Ruiz
Toia – Holt – Glad – Brody
Keys to the Game:
1) Contain Rubin. He’s played a part in five of Salt Lake’s six goals. Don’t let him combine with his teammates. But we must of course bear in mind that if Rubin is demanding the attention of the central defenders, Meram will be 1 v 1 on the outside – and probably against Eddie Munjoma. Also, Luchi, this is not an endorsement for playing five defenders.
2) When Real lost to Chris Wondolowski (I mean San Jose [no, actually I do mean Wondo]), it was because the center backs failed to mark him in the box. If I’m Luchi, I want to test Justin Glad and whoever he partners with. See if they fall asleep. But the reality is that outside of Wondo, RSL has done a tremendous job of limiting their opponents’ shots on goal – only 12 through four games. They get back and clog the passing lanes around the box. As usual, Dallas is likely to be more successful playing quickly on the counter than trying to break them down defensively. Similarly, we need to take advantage of poor marking corners and free kicks.
3) Greg Seltzer highlighted Brody as a surprise early standout. He has an assist from his defensive position and has shown an inclination to get forward in the attack. Ryan Hollingshead will need to track back. If Dallas can sort its left wing situation, there may be an opportunity to slip behind him.
Tell me, friends. What have I not told you in the scouting reports that you want to know?