LEHI — When the 2010 MLS schedule was announced earlier this year, it was almost as if the league was daring Real Salt Lake to prove it again.
A historically bad team on the road, last November RSL won playoff games at Columbus and Chicago and followed it up by beating the Galaxy on a neutral field in Seattle to claim the MLS Cup championship.
Just like that, Real Salt Lake had become a juggernaut away from Rio Tinto Stadium. Four months later the league is challenging coach Jason Kreis' team to repeat its unlikely road performances.
Four of RSL's first five games in the 2010 campaign are on the road, including this Saturday's season-opener at San Jose.
"I'm excited. I think we're ready for the challenge. Obviously we'll find out after the first few weeks," said RSL defender Chris Wingert. "Hopefully we'll get off on the right foot and not be behind the 8 ball after the first month."
After a trip to the Bay Area, RSL heads to Houston on Thursday, returns home for its home opener on April 10, and then travels to Los Angeles and then Columbus over the following two weekends.
It's an absolutely brutal way to begin the season for the defending champs, especially considering that Houston, Los Angeles and Columbus finished with the three best regular season records in 2009 and were a combined 24-7-14 at home.
"They're throwing us in the fire right off," said midfielder Andy Williams.
Regardless of the tough schedule, Kreis said there are no more excuses for poor road performances this year. The team revealed its potential in the playoffs and it's to be expected more often this year.
"We're a team that's been together long enough that we shouldn't feel like there's crutches we can lean on as to why we're not the group on the road as we are at home," said Kreis.
A commitment to the defensive end was the key down the stretch last year, and it will once again be the key — particularly on the road — this season.
With a schedule front-loaded with road games, RSL spent a good chunk of the preseason putting in the work on the defensive side of the ball.
"Jason and the coaching staff are smart, they know we have really good soccer players. We have a lot guys that are technically gifted, especially going forward. If they instill the mentality that the team defends together, it sets the tone right away," said Ned Grabavoy. "From there, we let our attacking flair and style hang out."
That flair and style are dependent upon remaining compact defensively. It was the focus throughout the playoffs, and with each passing victory the players' confidence seemed to grow.
If RSL rediscovers that confidence right away, it may end up being one of the better road teams in MLS in 2010. If that road confidence continues to remain elusive, the club will likely be on the playoff bubble all season once again.
Real Salt Lake season opener
RSL at San Jose
Saturday, 7 p.m.
TV: Fox Soccer
Radio: 700 AM, 1600 AM
e-mail: [email protected]