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What we’ve learned after two games from RSL

A loss and a draw to start the season isn't exciting, but we've still learned something.

What we’ve learned after two games from RSL

Real Salt Lake has played a grand total of two matches in MLS this season, and they’ve been on the road. I’d like to imagine that we’ve learned something from them, some of it positive and others of it decidedly less so. Let’s talk.


Matt Crooks looks like a good player already, which is relieving considering he’s our one attacking addition of real note (at least, the one addition who isn’t 17 years old.) He’s shown a creativity in possession and combined exceedingly well with Diego Luna and Chicho Arango in creating a goal against St. Louis City. Am I excited for Crooks? Yes. Do I think I'll ever remember his nickname is "Tree"? No. Do I think he's going to prove a quality addition to the squad and a starting-caliber player? Probably — but time will tell.


Diego Luna has been discussed as being in a “free role” on the left side — but is that true? Let’s look at the reality of the idea. Against St. Louis, Luna played largely on the left side — at least as far as his attacking contributions are concerned. Of his 37 passes through the game, at most three were on the right third in the attacking half of the field. A further seven or so were in the central third. 10 were in the defensive half, maybe one of which was in the attacking third.

Of course, if you compare that with Andres Gomez’s role, it’s going to look much more free, in that he’s coming centrally considering Gomez is basically pinned to the right side of the field.

When we’re establishing the reality of Luna being in a free role, and that being a new development, sticking to something more concrete than an eye test is paramount. If we reflect on RSL’s 3-1 win over St. Louis City in June, when Luna scored two goals and notched a further assist, we see roughly the same patterns — definitely skewed to the left side, but with definite presence in the middle third and little in the right third. The same can be said of his performance against New York Red Bulls in July and against LA Galaxy in October. (Thanks, Kyle, for a good reference of some of Luna’s top games.)

I’m not trying to say that Luna isn’t given some freedom to roam, but let’s not rewrite history: This isn’t anything new for the kid. Now, maybe RSL coach Pablo Mastroeni is giving him a little more license in and out of possession, and maybe my tune will change after more than two matches have been played. But what I think we’re seeing right now is a continuation of Luna’s good form in the back half of 2023.


The backline still fills me with doubt and questions. Is our best pairing really Brayan Vera and Justen Glad? I’m continually worried about Vera’s tactical acumen at the position, and I think that trickles down to reckless play and a poor partnership.

I talked about this on Off the Crossbar with Kyle and Trevor, but there’s this narrative that Justen Glad has somehow become a bad center back after years of being good. He’s not even to his statistical peak age, and we know how good he’s been. What’s caused the slide? For me, it’s a partnership that simply doesn’t work. The backline consistently looks a bit mixed up and all over the place.

We saw Justen Glad at his best when he’s had a partner who is reliable and organized. Marcelo Silva over the last two years is a great example; Nedum Onuoha, another. Glad is not infallible, and I do think he’s got a bit of a gap in his game organizing the defense. If we want to see the best out of Glad, I think we need to see Vera be a more natural center back. It’s worth remembering that less than half of his matches played have saw him at center back, per Transfermarkt, and half of those (20) have been at RSL.

All that to say: I suppose this season will require some amount of patience from me. I don’t think Vera’s moving from that center back slot, and there is absolutely not a better option than Glad on the bench. We’re in for the long haul on this one, and maybe Vera needs more time at center back.

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