Saturday night marks Minnesota United’s 2021 home opener and their first home match in front of fans since the 2019 MLS Cup Playoffs. Real Salt Lake is the opponent, one the Loons have traditionally done well against. And ahead of Saturday night’s match we spoke with RSL Soapbox’s Deputy Editor Lucas Miller to get an insight of our opponents this week.
E Pluribus Loonum: Real Salt Lake had a rough 2020 season, not just pandemic related but also finishing second bottom in the Western Conference. What has been done to rectify that positioning in the table?
RSL Soapbox: Calling 2020 a rough season for Real Salt Lake is honestly generous with how things went for the team on and off the field. With owner Dell Loy Hansen essentially ban from any club activities and Major League Soccer having taken over the sale, there’s not a lot that can be done. The team has signed players from their academy and USL team, but those players might be taking up too many roster spots at present. General Manager Elliot Fall had been stockpiling allocation money, and with the sale of Corey Baird to LAFC for $500,000 in GAM, that has allowed the team to make some moves they may not otherwise have had the funds for without a new owner in place. The biggest signings for the team have been in the attack. Forward Rubio Rubin joined RSL after a brief stint with Landon Donovan’s San Diego Loyal. Winger Anderson Julio is here on a loan deal from Liga MX side San Luis. Both players looked very good in the attack, which is the main area of concern for RSL since Álvaro Saborío left in 2015. The most exciting news is the signing of former USMNT striker Bobby Wood. Wood won’t be back in the states in time for this game, but he’s certainly a player that could be a real game changer for RSL. At this point it’s not clear if those changes will be enough to find more success in the league this season. It’s a start, but even cautious optimism might be settings one’s hopes too high.
EPL: What is RSL looking to do in order to combat the tough results they’ve had against Minnesota in the past?
RSL SB: Minnesota United really are RSL’s bogeyman. If we learned anything from Minnesota’s last game against the Sounders, it’s that they can be vulnerable to a good attack. Now it’s not likely Real’s attack will be as dangerous as Seattle’s, but it may be their best bet and head coach Freddy Juarez will have watched that game very closely. RSL will have their own defensive concerns. With center back Nedum Onuoha retiring at the end of last season, the team has not replaced him yet. That leaves the defensive depth pretty thin, even with academy products Aaron Herrera and Justen Glad being very good on the backline. The midfield will stay fairly similar to 2020. Kyle Beckerman retired in the offseason but his playing time was much reduced in 2020 over previous seasons. It makes the midfield question a little easier, as the team will want to fit Albert Rusnak, Damier Kreilach, Pablo Ruiz, and Everton luiz into three playing spots. That likely means Everton sits this one out as Rusnak, Kreilach, and Ruiz has all proven themselves as indispensable. The attack has improved yet is also unproven, and the backline could be shaky. If they want a result against MNUFC, they whole team will need to fire on all cylinders and with this being their first game of the 2021 MLS season, that’s a big ask.
EPL: Where are you expecting Salt Lake to finish the table in 2021 and why?
RSL SB: I would expect them to finish around the playoff line but could easily land on either side, so 7th or 8th. They have improved over 2021, and with Bobby Wood’s approval fast approaching (but still TBD) all they need is another center back or two to be competitive. Longer term than just 2021, RSL will need a major roster overhaul with a new owner arrives, but the pieces they have in place now are enough to allow RSL to play the scrappy underdog role, which really is where they excel most.