Brian Nicholson, Deseret News
SANDY — Real Salt Lake is in a funk.
It's lost three straight games, including two at home, and given up seven goals in the process. Its five-point cushion atop the Western Conference standings is now a four-point deficit.
With injuries still a concern heading into tonight's match against visiting Seattle, there's no evidence to suggest that just because RSL is home a bounce-back victory is on the horizon.
But as doom-and-gloom as things appear, internally the attitude is surprisingly upbeat for Real Salt Lake. Whether it's a false sense of security or not, the players aren't fazed by the three-game slide.
"We've got a lot of guys that have been around for a long time and understand what the business is about — (it's) about results over a season, not over a week or two," said midfielder Will Johnson. "We're just trying to stay positive, stay together. We've got each other's backs."
Johnson said there's no divisiveness in the locker room whatsoever. The players realize that before the three-game skid, RSL had put together an impressive seven-game unbeaten streak.
"We've been through the thick and the thin, the difficult and the great stuff, and we just need to remember we need to stay somewhere on level ground," coach Jason Kreis said.
A second healthy center back might be all Real Salt Lake needs to return to the top of the MLS table.
Six weeks ago, Nat Borchers, Jamison Olave and Chris Schuler had emerged as the best trio of center backs in MLS. It didn't matter that fourth-stringer Leone Cruz wasn't living up to expectations and was on his way out soon.
That all changed in Seattle on May 23 when Chris Wingert injured himself in the 20th minute and Schuler was thrown into emergency substitution duty. Playing on the turf of CenturyLink Field, Schuler aggravated an existing foot injury. Despite finishing the match, the team decided to shut him down for a month so he could properly heal.
Six weeks have passed, and Schuler is still on the mend and likely several more weeks away from a return.
Olave recently joined him on the injury report with a calf strain, and it triggered the start of RSL's defensive woes.
Olave played through the pain in a victory at Chivas USA a few weeks ago, but never would've started had Schuler been healthy. Four nights later, Olave looked even slower as Los Angeles came to Rio Tinto Stadium and stole a victory.
With Olave needing proper recovery time the past two weekends, Wingert started in his place at center back, with Tony Beltran sliding into Wingert's customary left back slot and then Terakazu Tanaka starting at right back where Beltran usually starts.
The lineup juggling didn't really pan out, however, as RSL dropped two straight to San Jose and Columbus.
"If we're completely honest with ourselves, it's very difficult to hold ourselves 100 percent accountable when you're asking multiple players to play out of position. Maybe that's the coaches' fault. Maybe we shouldn't have made those choices," Kreis said.
Kreis said at the end of the day, he wanted his most veteran, experienced players on the field, even if they were out of position.
Johnson said there's no point in making excuses for the continuity concerns at the back.
"It's unfortunate we're down two center backs, two of the best in the league, but we're trying to make do," Johnson said. "That's the reality of the situation, and we have to get going."
With Olave perhaps returning to the starting lineup for tonight's 8 p.m. kickoff, Kreis might not be forced to make such tough lineup choices. If he can't go, though, Kreis might feel compelled to start recently acquired Dwame Watson-Siriboe, who RSL picked up in a trade with Chicago last week in a desperate attempt to shore up depth at center back.
As desperate as RSL is for a win tonight, Seattle is far more desperate. The Sounders are 0-4-4 in their past eight league games and have drifted 10 points behind West-leading San Jose and six behind second-place Salt Lake.
"Every team in the league is going to go through difficult stretches. It's always going to be about how long those stretches are," Kreis said.
RSL can't afford to let its three-game winless streak evolve into a Seattle-like eight-game winless streak. Otherwise, any hope of the winning the Western Conference might be dashed.
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