The halfway point of the Major League Soccer season has come and gone and we are now on the backside of things in the heat of the summer. As is the case in all professional sporting seasons, the picture of who is a contender and who is a pretender gets clearer as the season progresses.
Major League Soccer is no exception to this rule, in fact, the season in MLS can be so long that a team can go through a number of iterations from bad to good back to bad again. Real Salt Lake is currently in a stretch where they may be playing their best soccer of the season, knocking of the two best teams in the Western Conference in back to back matches. Putting in a strong 70 minutes against Sporting Kansas City and a full 90 against FC Dallas. Earning the club six big points over three matches in seven days. This stretch has been good enough to solidify themselves in fourth place in the West with 29 points.
So how good is Mike Petke’s team? The easy answer is better than a year ago and certainly good enough to be a playoff team this season. But if we dig a little deeper and ask “How good is this team?”, the answer may not be quite as easy.
RSL is two wildly different teams depending on the venue. The Claret and Cobalt are (8-1-1) at Rio Tinto Stadium, but just (1-7-1) away from Sandy. 25 of their 29 points have come at home and just four on the road. This points out two things, one obvious and one not so obvious. The first is that teams generally all play better at home, no matter the sport or level. In Major League Soccer this season, all 23 clubs have been home than road records, not surprising. Though RSL’s margin at home vs. road is quite wide, even compared to the rest of the league. The second reason for the disparity between home and road records for RSL is a bit more nuanced and only time may be the solution. Real Salt Lake is a relatively young team. Last week in one match, seven of the eleven starters were 23 years old or younger. While this bodes well for the future, right now it can be problematic with the youth needing to learn how to win away from home. The good news is that the talent is clearly there and appears to be getting better and better with each passing month. The question is when will it translate to success on the road? They get a chance to improve and get a result this Saturday night against Minnesota United FC in Minneapolis.
So the answer to the question of whether or not Real is for “real” really depends on how you define “for real”. If your definition is being among the six best teams in the Western Conference, then the answer is most definitely, yes. If you are defining “for real” as being a player and challenger for a Western Conference Title and a deep run in the Postseason, then I think that answer is still unknown and is most likely to be determined on the road.
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