Based on its troublesome history, Real Salt Lake should be ecstatic about being tied for second place in the Western Conference at the midway point of the 2008 season.
After all, the franchise was in fifth place at this time in its inaugural 2005 season, and in sixth place in each of the past two years.
Instead of celebrating its progress, though, the team has tepid emotions about the first 15 games this season.
"It's hard for me to say I'm content because I guess I look at it more game to game, and I see the points that we've dropped," said RSL coach Jason Kreis. "If we had done a better job of that, we'd have a lot more points we'd be in first place by a ways."
Instead, with half the season remaining, RSL (5-6-4, 19 points) is tied with two-time defending MLS Cup champion Houston for second place in the West, two points behind the L.A. Galaxy.
The final 15 minutes of its games are what's really holding RSL back from being one of the elite teams in the league, having been outscored 8-3 after the 76th minute. The club hasn't gained anything from its three late goals, but the eight goals allowed have directly cost RSL six points.
"We're not completely happy, nor should we be," said general manager Garth Lagerwey. "We need to continue to focus for 90 minutes."
Over the weekend, Real surrendered an 89th-minute goal at Kansas City, as Tony Beltran's own goal put a halt to a franchise-record-tying, five-game unbeaten streak.
Despite the mini setback, with half the season remaining, Real Salt Lake is just one win shy of its six victories in 2007 and five wins from equaling its club-record 10 wins in 2006.
Kreis is confident the foundation has been laid for much better production in the second half of the season, which begins Thursday at home against the Houston Dynamo.
During an often frustrating first three months, Kreis believes RSL has started to move in the right direction in key areas.
He believes the players have figured out how to defend well for long stretches, which helps limit opponents' quality scoring chances. On the opposite side of the pitch, Kreis believes RSL is creating plenty of scoring opportunities of its own, including just enough on the road to be in a position to walk away with positive results.
"For me, the one thing that's lacking is the final touch," said Kreis.
Real Salt Lake leads the league with 203 shots, yet it ranks eighth in the league with 18 goals scored.
Kreis said he still has the utmost confidence in forwards like Kenny Deuchar and Robbie Findley, and he believes it's just a matter of time until the goals start coming in bunches. Until then, RSL will continue to rely on several promising players thus far in 2008.
Lagerwey believes that Javier Morales, who is tied for the league lead with seven assists, is having an all-star caliber season at attacking midfielder.
Another player who Lagerwey has been pleasantly surprised with is rookie defender Beltran, taken with the third overall pick in the 2008 MLS SuperDraft. Despite Saturday's own goal, he's started nine matches and is second only to Los Angeles' Sean Franklin, who leads all rookies with 13 starts.
Lagerwey said he's also been very pleased with the way Chris Wingert has elevated his game and leadership, not to mention the satisfaction of seeing defender Jamison Olave's recent emergence. Dema Kovalenko and Kyle Beckerman have been solid as well in the midfield.
Moving forward, Real Salt Lake must find a way to be more productive on the road if it hopes to secure its first playoff berth in franchise history. While RSL has been impressive at Rice-Eccles Stadium with a 4-0-4 unbeaten record, it's one of the worst teams in MLS on the road with a 1-6-0 mark."I think there's been some very positive things and there's been some not-so positive things," said Kreis, who is 11-19-11 since taking over for John Ellinger early last season. "I still feel like we're moving in the right direction."
E-mail: [email protected]