You can see last year what happened with the bad start and taking so many games to get a first win and for each player to get their first goal. It’s not ideal. It’s not the way to start the season, and that cost the playoff spot last year. —RSL midfielder Albert Rusnak
As Real Salt Lake prepares for its MLS season opener Saturday night at FC Dallas, Albert Rusnak and his Claret-and-Cobalt crew are hoping they learned a valuable lesson in 2017.
That lesson: Avoid a s-l-o-w start.
The Slovakian midfielder didn’t score a goal or notch an assist in the first five games in a rough beginning of the season, resulting in an 0-2-3 record and the firing of coach Jeff Cassar. A gradual improvement, which led to a terrific second half, began when Rusnak played a part in all three goals during a 3-0 victory over Vancouver on a snowy spring day at Rio Tinto Stadium in new coach Mike Petke’s debut.
“You can see last year what happened with the bad start and taking so many games to get a first win and for each player to get their first goal. It’s not ideal,” Rusnak said. “It’s not the way to start the season, and that cost the playoff spot last year.”
RSL only won four matches in its first 16 outings, but Petke’s club turned things around dramatically in the second half when players were integrated into his system and earned points in 12 of the final 15 matches (8-3-4) and featured a stingy defense and an explosive offense.
Likewise, Rusnak turned out to be one of the more potent offensive weapons once he got into a groove, finishing with seven goals and 14 assists while earning RSL’s Golden Boot and MVP honors.
“That’s the identity of this team,” Rusnak said, referring to the 2017 second half, “and that’s what we’ll be looking to do this year.”
ReaL missed the playoffs by only one point despite the rugged start, so the team wants to transfer that momentum into the beginning of this season.
“It’s tough when you don’t make the playoffs back-to-back,” RSL defender Justen Glad said. “So for me, there’s a chip on my shoulder every game. I’d say the same for everyone else. We’ve got to hold ourselves to a higher standard, and that starts right now.”
There’s also some added motivation against Dallas in light of RSL’s two losses last year. In the first half of 2017, Real Salt Lake lost those two matches by a combined score of 9-2.
“We lost to Dallas at home and away,” Rusnak said, “so, yeah, there’s definitely some work to be done over there. Just looking at a good start to the season. It’s great to start with three points, especially on the road, so that will be our aim.”
RSL has the tools for a productive season. The club, now in its 14th year, has fresh legs and athleticism with 14 players who are 23 or younger. Management also brought back savvy veterans in longtime stalwarts Nick Rimando and Kyle Beckerman.
Real Salt Lake enters this campaign having bolstered its roster with the additions of Spanish forward Alfredo Ortuno — 17 goals in 40 Spanish second division matches last year — and late camp addition Croatian midfielder Kamir Kreilach. Along with that increased firepower, RSL improved its depth at defense with newcomers Shawn Berry, Adam Henley and Aaron Herrera.
Rusnak pointed out that RSL is also coming into this season with far fewer injuries than last year, and he likes that they trained on natural grass a lot after spending a lot of time on turf in camp in 2017.
“I think we’re in a better spot,” he said. “I think this preseason is better than the one last year.”
This will be the first MLS match for both teams, but Dallas got some valuable playing experience while competing in the CONCACAF Champions League this past week.
“Obviously they have games on us. They might be a little more fit," Glad said. “But at the end of the day, it’s on us.”