SANDY — It’s amazing what an MLS playoff win and then a near upset in the conference semifinals can do for a team’s offseason outlook.
As Real Salt Lake’s players talked to the media following their exit physicals with team physician Andrew Cooper on Wednesday evening, the mood around the squad was upbeat.
There was a different vibe than the end of last year’s campaign when streaking RSL missed the playoffs by one point, fully believing it would’ve done damage in the playoffs.
This year the team got into the playoffs, and even though it didn’t play particularly well in the final month of the regular season, the players believe they’ve laid a foundation for future success with so many young players making meaningful contributions in 2018.
“There’s only one team that gets to win the trophy at the end, and the rest of us it’s disappointing and we have that same feeling, but I think there was a lot to learn from this year to push on for next year to do better,” said RSL captain Kyle Beckerman.
“To get in and test ourselves in a playoff format and to get past that first round against LAFC is just something you can’t teach, now the next time we get into these positions we’re going to be one year better and we’ve gone through it.”
One of the biggest talking points from the players was the recognition that their performance on the road must get better.
Real Salt Lake’s 11-2-4 home record was tied for the best in the Western Conference, but its 3-11-3 record away from Rio Tinto Stadium was the worst of the among the top eight teams in the West.
“Early on and midway through the season we weren’t picking up any points on the road and that was tough for us. We put some good performances up on the road we just couldn’t pick up points,” said defender Brooks Lennon. “I think moving forward to next year, just trying to keep that same home form that we had this year but just trying to pick up more points on the road, so we can move higher up in the table.”
Lennon’s emergence at right back was one of the numerous surprises over the course of the 2018 season. Lennon had played forward his entire life, but adjusted well to right back when injuries thrust him into that spot and he never relinquished the role.
Aaron Herrera emerged late as a left back starter even though he’s a more natural right-footed player.
Other surprises along the way included Alfredo Ortuno fizzling out in just a couple months after being signed to be RSL’s marquee striker. That opened the door for others to score goals, and rookie Corey Baird took advantage of that opportunity and finished with eight goals and was named MLS rookie of the year.
Damir Kreilach switched positions from defensive midfielder to forward late in the summer and quickly became RSL’s top scorer, and then the Karate Kid hero of the playoffs.
Beckerman knows changes are inevitable to the roster, but he reiterated that he’s very comfortable with the group that ended the 2018 season and hopes everyone gets a chance to build on that foundation.
It was a theme echoed by the variety of players who talked to the media.
“The season as a whole you can look back on it as a positive, I thought we did really well. Lucky to get into the playoffs on that last decision day, but we got in and made the most of our opportunities in the knockout game beating LAFC,” said Lennon.
The one player whose interview took on a more subdued tone was Justen Glad.
After starting 33 of 34 games in the regular season he didn’t start any of RSL’s three playoff games, including the ouster at Kansas City when he seemed like a shoo-in to start.1 comment on this story
“For me, obviously it was a little disappointing, but that’s professional sports. You’ve just got to take the hits as they come and roll with them until you get better and be ready for whatever happens,” said Glad.
He said not starting in the playoffs will be motivation for next year because, “you play the season to get into the playoffs, those are the games you want to get in.”
The franchise took that next step in making the playoffs this season, and the expectations from the players will be to take the next step in 2019.