A subtle kink is emerging in Real Salt Lake's armor, and it's definitely a concern heading into a very critical stretch of the season.
No team was better than RSL last year when it came to killing games off and getting results as it conceded just five combined goals in the final 15 minutes of MLS matches.
That close-out ability has disappeared lately.
RSL has already conceded five combined goals in those last 15 minutes this year, and four of the five have occurred in the past five matches. For a team that's struggling to score on its own, it can't afford to give them away late.
RSL coach Jason Kreis chalked up last Saturday's late penalty kick as a "one-off" situation, but it's tough to ignore the trend as his team travels to Chicago to take on the Fire tonight at 6:30 p.m.
Kreis said closing games out is one of many areas RSL needs work on.
"I just think we need to continue to try and improve in every aspect of our game. I think it would be unfair to try and pick out one thing and say this is the area of the game we have to improve on. For me, we have to improve in every aspect, and we're not asking for huge improvements, I think we're asking for little improvements," said Kreis.
With a 1-2-4 record without Javier Morales in the starting line-up, Kreis said it's important for RSL to continue to work hard for results.
"There are challenging times in jobs and in your lives, and you feel like you're close to getting things back in order and back to a happy state. It just takes some belief — a lot of belief in yourself and the players around you and hard work," he said.
Getting a result in Chicago won't be easy. Coming off a three-game road trip, the Fire are 1-0-4 in the past month and playing much better than their 2-4-9 record would indicate.
Eight of the last nine meetings between these teams has been decided by one goal or less, and another low scoring game is likely.
Because of injuries and national team call-ups Real Salt Lake has been forced to play with very limited depth at forward the past month. It's about to get tougher. Jean Alexandre has been suspended one game by the MLS Disciplinary Committee for a dangerous play on D.C. United's Jed Zayner in last Saturday's game.
No foul was called on the play, but after reviewing the incident the league decided Alexandre's studs-up challenge on the ball was worthy of a one-game suspension.
The timing is particularly tough because Alvaro Saborio and Arturo Alvarez won't accompany the team to Chicago either. Even though the duo returned from their respective national teams on Monday, Kreis wants to rest them after what was a busy stretch during the Gold Cup.
Fabian Espindola, who's scored in three of the last four games, will need to continue to pick up the scoring slack for RSL to get back to its winning ways.
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