[CONCACAF CHAMPIONS LEAGUE] For the past month or so, among the more intriguing aspects of MLS 2012 is whether Real Salt Lake's perceived problems are real or imagined. Heading into a Concacaf Champions League match against Tauro FC of Panama Tuesday night at Rio Tinto Stadium, RSL had lost four in a row, including a crushing 2-1 loss to FC Dallas in stoppage time Saturday night that marked its third straight defeat in league play.
Coach Jason Kreis challenged his team, which is clinging tenuously to second place in the Western Conference, to use that defeat as motivation for smarter and more incisive play. In beating Tauro FC, 2-0, with goals by Alvaro Saborio and Kyle Beckerman, RSL got the three points it needed, but its wasteful tendencies persisted.
Saborio tapped in the rebound of a saved Paulo Junior shot early in the second half, but failed to convert numerous other chances. He did force Tauro FC keeper Alvaro Anzola into several sharp saves and Anzola also turned away a tough first-time shot by Ned Grabavoy. Saborio is among the all-time top scorers in Concacaf play with nine goals in 12 matches, and whether he's hitting or missing, he's a man RSL must count on.
The patched-up back line seldom labored to stop the feeble Tauro FC attack. Still, for all the pace and strength and attacking verve Kenny Mansally brings to the left-back position, he's a turnover machine. A couple of giveaways in his defensive third weren't exploited. The depth that RSL has prided itself on the past few seasons has been thinned, and in the process of re-stocking the roster with capable backups it has taken some stinging defeats. The loss to FCD was its fourth at home this season, a distrubing stat for a team that has been notoriously tough at Rio Tinto Stadium since it opened in 2009.
Central defenders Nat Borchers (suspended) and Jamison Olave (hamstring injury) missed the Tauro match. They have been in and out of the lineup for most of the season, and for Tauro Kreis used Chris Wingert and Kwame Watson-Siriboe in their places. Wingert is normally an outside back and in the absence of Borchers and Olave, among the best tandems in the league, took a spot in the middle. Normally, Chris Schuler would be utilized, but he was also sidelined by bone bruise.
RSL is getting a bit of a break in that the revised Concacaf group phase requires only four games instead of six, so its schedule burden isn't quite as heavy. Yet it will nevertheless be tasked with players called away for international duty; Beckerman (USA), Will Johnson (Canada), and Saborio (Costa Rica) all played Wednesday and then again Saturday against FC Dallas.
One other nettlesome problem to RSL's season arose late in the Tauro match. After steering home the second goal with a typical shot from the top of the penalty arc, Beckerman launched himself into a clumsy midfield tackle trying to win a ball he had no chance of getting, and cleated an opponent in the groin. Out came the red card, which will sideline Beckerman for RSL's next group game, which is the return match in Panama against Tauro Sept. 18.
Down to 10 men, RSL held onto its 2-0 lead, a much better reaction to a Beckerman ejection than a league match July 14 in San Jose. Trailing, 1-0, when Beckerman was dismissed with a straight red card in the 57th minute, RSL conceded four more goals to lose, 5-0, the second-worst defeat in its history. While it hasn't been plagued by red cards or blowouts this season, RSL has committed just enough errors to raise questions of why such mistakes are being committed by a talented, experienced team.
Periodic absences of several talented, experienced players is a partial explanation, but such is the norm in MLS, and RSL has coped well with those demands the past few seasons. Tuesday night RSL did shake off that heartbreaking loss to FC Dallas by dominating a weaker opponent and punching out a much-needed win. How regularly that mindset and performance recur, and how well Kreis metes out the minutes for his top players, will determine where RSL finishes in the standings and how far it goes in the MLS Cup playoffs.