The Columbus Crew enters a more congested portion of the season, playing three MLS regular season matches in seven days. It begins Saturday night in Sandy, Utah when second place in the league Real Salt Lake welcomes the Black & Gold to Rio Tinto Stadium.
With the growing number of expansion teams joining MLS, Eastern and Western division teams don’t play each other often. That and the COVID-19 pandemic leaves a three-year gap between the last time these two sides competed
To get a look at who Real Salt Lake is today, Massive Report reached out to a friend at SBNation’s RSL Soapbox, Lucas Muller. Here’s what he had to say about a relatively unknown Salt Lake side.
Massive Report: Entering this season, a lot of the talk surrounding Real Salt Lake was less than great. Past owners’ transgressions, a change in coach and losing midfielder Albert Rusnák in the offseason had all the experts putting Salt Lake near the bottom of the Western Conference. Heading into this weekend, Real sits second in the league with 28 points in 16 matches. What’s different about RSL this year that’s made them so dangerous?
Real Soapbox: There’s no doubt Real Salt Lake have outperformed expectations, and by a good margin. The loss of Albert Rusnák, who was not only captain but also provided 10 goals and 10 assists in 2021, seemed like a major problem. RSL’s strength has not been found in their creativity or being lethal in front of goal, but rather a strong defense and multiple players finding the back of the net. The center-back pairing of Justen Glad and Marcelo Silva has been incredible, harking back to the glory days of Nat Borchers and Jamison Olave on the backline. Not to mention that Zac MacMath is having one of the best seasons of his career.
After RSL’s run to the Western Conference Final in 2021, interim head coach Pablo Mastroeni was given the job full time and his players really believe in him. He’s not the most tactically-minded coach but he is very good at leading players. An early run of intensive injuries saw players emerge that you wouldn’t have expected. Jasper Löeffelsend, who RSL selected with the 81st pick of the draft, has been incredible in the midfield. They’ve brought back winger Jefferson Savarino and he’s already having an impact. Right now, it seems like RSL is both over-preforming while maturing to be a better team.
MR: Speaking of Rusnák, who’s taken his place as the player to watch for RSL in 2022? Is there anyone else that supporters should look out for who they may have never heard of?
RSB: Rusnak was never replaced, at least not directly. The team did sign Diego Luna from the USL Championship, who can play a similar role, but Albert’s spot has been empty much of the season. The team has instead opted to rely more on their wings than a creative attacking midfielder. If you saw any of RSL’s playoff games last season where Rusnak was out with Covid, it’s a similar style to that. With the signing of Savarino, who recently won the league in Brazil with Atlético Mineiro, that aspect of the game gets that much stronger.
The players most exciting to watch for RSL at the moment are the returns of Savarino and Anderson Julio. Julio was on loan with RSL last season, had a long and drawn out purchase that only recently saw him land in Utah again. Then there’s Luna. He’s currently with the U-20 USMNT but was incredible at the USL Championship level. I believe he’s the record purchase price for a player from that league. Sadly, he won’t feature tonight, but he’s certainly one to keep an eye on.
MR: A familiar name for Crew supporters is veteran midfielder Justin Meram. After a big few years with the Crew, the fan-favorite kind of fell off the radar until he reemerged with Salt Lake. How’s Meram been since joining the Claret and Cobalt?
LM: Meram has been a great pickup for RSL. He’s not always perfect, but he brings a lot to the team and he’s a guy that seems really engaged with the other players. His average is higher than most left wingers in the league and he’s provided some moments of absolute brilliance for the team. He’s good on the ball and brings a creative spark to that side of the field RSL otherwise lack.
One thing that’s clear about Meram is that he still has a lot of love for the Crew and seems to remember his time there fondly.