SALT LAKE CITY — Real Salt Lake’s defense has been the key to a good start of the season, but the club knows things aren’t going to get any easier Saturday night when it faces D.C. United.
The dynamic trio of Paul Arriola, Luciano Acosta and, of course, Wayne Rooney present a huge challenge for an RSL squad that’s only allowed two goals in two matches while tallying one victory and one tie.
Coach Mike Petke said his defense will need to keep an eye on Rooney, in particular, in transition where the all-time second-leading scorer in Premier League history is dangerous.
“He’s good at finding space,” Petke said. “As long as we recognize where he is and we limit anything centrally, we’ll give ourselves a better chance.”
It makes Rooney all the more dangerous — either as the main force or a decoy — with Acosta and Arriola at his side. RSL defender Brooks Lennon called them “great attacking players,” so the defense will need to be on point to negate United’s offensive potential.
“Those three guys, we need to make sure we’re locking them down,” Lennon said. “If we do the rest up top, I think we can get a good result.”
Though it's unlikely that veteran defender Tony Beltran will return to the lineup this week after his injury absence, Real Salt Lake still presents problems to opposing defenses — in part because of the versatility of its back line.
Lennon has shown his fortitude since switching positions to right back, but he can deftly play in the middle or left. Aaron Herrera has cemented a spot in the lineup as left back, but his game is also diverse enough to play on the right side. And centerback Marcelo Silva can also play left. Defender Nedum Onuoha has also been a solid addition in his limited time with the club.
"The fact that we have so many versatile guys, especially in the back line, is very helpful," Lennon said. "If we can just lock down the back line, it can be key for us this year."
Perhaps even more important for now, Lennon likes that the back line has had stability so far this season. Those four players have logged every minute in the two matches, a 1-1 tie at Houston followed by a 1-0 victory over Vancouver at Rio Tinto Stadium last Saturday.
"Being able to play with the same players two games in a row is nice," Lennon said. "Cause you pick up on things that they like to do and their tendencies. I think the consistency has been key for us."
RSL's depth will be bolstered, though, when Beltran returns after his devastating knee injury in 2017. In the meantime, the 31-year-old defender continues to contribute through his mentorship of the younger guys.
"Tony is a great guy, a great leader, especially for me," said the 21-year-old Lennon, who came up through RSL's system. "He helps me every day on things I need to work on, little tips and hints that I can pick up on to be a better outside back. When he’s healthy, everyone knows him, everyone’s seen him throughout the years, he’s a quality player."
The team's defensive success can also be attributed to the man in goal, Nick Rimando, who's only given up one goal in 180 minutes.
"It’s nice. He’s a legend at the club," Lennon said. "You look, his stats and records, it’s mind-boggling. It's nice to have that behind you, especially his leadership and communication. For me, it's nice because I'm a newbie in this position."
RSL's defensive mindset this weekend will be to remain organized, utilize the depth of the line, communication passing on and effective tackling and blocking, Petke said.
"All that together, the mentality has to be the same, especially going into a place like D.C.," he said. "We’re going to have to be on point with our defending."Comment on this story
While the offense is bound to pick up its effectiveness after only netting one goal in each of its first two outings — or at least that's the presumed hope — the defenders are taking it upon themselves to remain a steady force.
"We’re all part of the same team and we’re all working collectively," Lennon said. "But as the saying goes, 'Defense wins championships,' so if your defense is solid and keeping shutouts then obviously we give the forwards a chance to win the game for us."