Floundering near the bottom of the MLS standings a few months ago, Real Salt Lake defender Nat Borchers was asked what it was going to take for the club to get over the hump especially on the road.
Very simply, he said not give up any goals.
It seemed like a silly expectation, especially for a team with just one shutout and 17 goals allowed 10 games into the season. It turns out Borchers was foreshadowing the future with his bold statement.
In the seven games since beating San Jose 3-1 on May 31, Real Salt Lake owns a 3-1-3 record with five shutouts and only two goals against.
Saturday's win over Columbus vaulted RSL into first place in the Western Conference for the first time in franchise history.
"I think what's been the best thing for us on this last little run has been our consistency. I just don't think we're giving up a lot of chances," Borchers said. "Obviously, if you give up chances, teams are going to score on some of those chances."
Even though Columbus had 14 shots on Saturday, they were mostly half-chances as it only put two shots on goal.
"We've been working hard this whole season. Robin (Fraser's) really taken a hold of the defense with Jeff Cassar on set pieces; we're just coming together," said RSL keeper Nick Rimando about the role of the assistant coaches. "Defense is definitely clicking right now."
It's a good thing the defense started clicking when it did; otherwise, RSL might be a last-place team instead of a first-place team.
Prior to beating Columbus with two goals, Real had recorded just three goals in its previous six matches. It's the type of scoring rut that usually leads to four or five losses and pushes a team toward the bottom of the standings.
RSL managed to trudge through the offensive doldrums, including a pair of scoreless draws at home.
"You can dwell on some of the negatives, but you could also dwell on a lot of positives," said Real coach Jason Kreis. "Yeah, we hadn't scored goals, but yeah, we hadn't given up any, either. So there was something to take from it."
With other Western Conference teams settling for ties recently as well, RSL's frustrating goal-less ties were actually paying off and keeping the team within striking distance of first place.
Just past the midway point of the season, only Chicago (14) and Kansas City (18) have surrendered fewer goals than Real Salt Lake's 19. Houston and New England have also allowed 19 goals.
RSL's defense is really going to be put to the test in the coming months, with seven of its next 10 games on the road."Anytime you have a defense that doesn't give up goals and doesn't give up a whole lot a chances, you're always going to be in with a chance to win," Kreis said.
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