Who would've guessed a Real Salt Lake team that allowed 11 goals in its first six matches this year only one of which was a win would be one of the best defensive teams in Major League Soccer by midseason?
It would've been a laughable suggestion in early May, but heading into this weekend's MLS All-Star Game, it's a reality.
RSL is tied for second in goals against (19), second in goals-against average (1.06) and first in shutouts (7). Nick Rimando, who has been in goal every minute this year, already owns a 284-minute scoreless streak this season, and he's in the midst of a 271-minute scoreless streak 23 minutes shy of Kansas City's season high.
With three straight shutouts, Real Salt Lake has only allowed two goals in its past eight matches. It's the best defensive stretch in MLS this year and one of the best in recent memory.
Just think how glossy RSL's record might be if it could score?
"The fact of the matter is the whole team is concentrating and focusing a lot more about what we're doing on the defensive end," said RSL assistant coach Robin Fraser.
"Organized teams win in this league, and we've worked on being organized all year long. I think the last eight or so games are a pretty good example of a team that fights for each other."
It's not just the defenders playing well even though Chris Wingert, Jamison Olave and Nat Borchers are probably all-star worthy as well as they've played lately but the midfield is doing its job, also. Dema Kovalenko is working his tail off at holding midfield, while the rest of the midfielders are chipping in defensively, too.
Even the forwards are pressuring the ball more aggressively, forcing opponents to give it away quicker.
"The team has bought into the philosophy that if we're organized and we're hard to break down we're going to give up less chances, and if you give up less chances you're going to give up less goals," said Fraser, one of the league's all-time best defenders.
RSL's impressive defensive form conjures up memories of Houston's incredible run in 2007. The Dynamo recorded seven straight shutouts during an impressive stretch last summer and ultimately shattered the league record with only 23 goals allowed.
A slow start to the 2008 season will inevitably keep RSL from breaking that lofty record. However, Chivas USA's 28 goals against last year is the second-best defensive season in league history and a seemingly attainable goal for RSL.
"Our team and our backline have had a chance to really start to play together. The more we get a chance to play together, the better we're going to be. I think that's true for any team," said Wingert.
"The more we've gotten a few shutouts, the more confidence we have that we can grind out 0-0 draws if we have to or 1-0 wins. Confidence is huge in this sport."
Last Saturday's draw at Chicago was a perfect example of grinding out a result. Almost simultaneously in the 75th minute, the entire squad seemed to run out of gas, courtesy of the Midwest humidity. The players gutted out the final quarter hour and earned a valuable road point.
"After the game, the whole backline just dropped to their knees because they were exhausted," said Wingert.
While a lot of players are responsible for the turnaround, Olave's emergence is undoubtedly a big reason why. It took the first-year RSL player about a month to crack the starting lineup, but he's been a mainstay since. The team's overall record is 6-6-6 but 5-3-5 with Olave in the lineup.
"We have four very good center backs, and Jamison came in and he offered us something we didn't really have a lot of, and that's speed and covering ability," said Fraser. "I think the pairing of he and Nat has done very, very well so far. Their strengths complement each other."Ian Joy's emergence has been critical as well, as he's returned from a six-game hiatus with three straight starts, all shutouts for Real Salt Lake.
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