SANDY — Alvaro Saborio has always been a lightning rod of discussion for Real Salt Lake.
For all his goal production through the years, he’s routinely been criticized for his perceived disinterest in working off the ball both offensively and defensively.
At the end of the day though, it’s a results-oriented business and Saborio is one of the most efficient strikers in MLS history.
RSL could certainly use his production right now.
In the 10 games prior to Saborio’s departure for the World Cup and then resulting broken foot, Real Salt Lake scored a whopping 21 goals to rank near the top of MLS. In the past eight games without Saborio, however, that production has dried up with only six goals.
Real Salt Lake’s record during that stretch is 2-4-2, creating an interesting scenario.
Two months ago it sat comfortably in second place in the Western Conference, trailing only Seattle. The standings have tightened up amid RSL’s struggles, and heading into Saturday’s match against visiting Vancouver (8 p.m., Ch. 30), a loss could conceivably drop the club from second place to sixth place, and on the outside of the playoff picture looking in.
It’s crazy to think, but it’s 90 minutes from becoming a reality if others don’t start to pick up the scoring slack.
A portion of that burden falls on backup strikers Devon Sandoval and Olmes Garcia — who have zero goals in 1,213 combined minutes this season — but coach Jeff Cassar said the responsibility is shared by everyone on the roster.
“It’s never just on the forwards scoring the goal, even when the forwards are scoring. They’ve got to get good service, they’ve got to get numbers in the box so it makes the other team make decisions. If the other teams can just tee up on our two forwards it makes it difficult,” said Cassar.
Three of the six goals since Saborio departed have been on penalty kicks, and that’s fine with Cassar. It means RSL is creating dangerous opportunities. He wants to see more of that whether it’s set pieces, breakaways or whatever.
In last week’s 1-0 loss at Los Angeles, those opportunities were there. Kyle Beckerman and Nat Borchers both missed free headers on set pieces in the second half.
“When we’re not scoring goals, the attention turns on the strikers, but really it’s about how we’re creating chances and what we’re doing to help put guys in good spots because really that’s going to get those guys started and fired up. We’ve got guys that can score for sure, we just need a good home game to get hot,” said Borchers.
Midfielder Ned Grabavoy believes the replacements can fill that void even though there’s no tangible proof they can.
“Those players need to understand they’re not Sabo. They’re different players. So they need to do the positive things they have in their game to help bring something to the group. We’re completely comfortable and happy with the group we have,” said Grabavoy.
He’s confident that once those striker partnership combinations of Joao Plata, Sandoval, Garcia and perhaps sometime soon Robbie Findley get more comfortable, the productivity will increase.
Many believe Beckerman’s return from World Cup duty will fix some of the scoring problems. He missed six matches, and his absence was painfully obvious with the midfield lacking continuity and creativity at times. The result was only four goals in six games.
The recent slide has dropped RSL’s overall offensive production down to 1.5 goals per game, down slightly from last year’s 1.67 average.
Grabavoy insists there’s no panic.
“We have plenty of guys who’ve been around long enough to know we always seem to go through this every season,” he said. “We need to call on different guys to score goals. I know we’re capable of doing it, we’ve done it before, so it’s not really a concern or worry for me right now.”
With three straight home games to close July against Vancouver, Montreal and New York, if Real Salt Lake doesn’t get it figured out over the next three weeks, it will become a concern because Saborio’s return is months away.
He’s in a walking boot until the end of August, and afterward he’ll spend September and October building his fitness and strength in hopes of a late-season return.
“That would be great, and then we’re heading into the playoffs with a full arsenal,” he said.
There’s no guarantee it will unfold that way, so now’s the time for players like Sandoval and Garcia to take their chances while the rest of the team picks up the slack too.
James Edward is Deseret News prep editor and Real Salt Lake beat writer.
Copyright 2016, Deseret News Publishing Company