It’s starting to become so familiar that it deserves its own meme: Real Salt Lake scores two goals, RSL player loses his mind and gets sent off, RSL collectively loses its mind and gives up two late goals, RSL gets a 2–2 draw on the road.
This time, it was the Portland Timbers who were the recipients of Real’s late-game philanthropy. Joao Plata put RSL up 1–0 on a stellar free kick before Kyle Beckerman received a straight red card in the 31st minute. That left Real with an immense task in trying to hold onto its lead while down a man to the defending MLS champions, all in front of a raucous Portland crowd.
RSL not only managed to hold onto its lead going into halftime, but doubled it in the 58th minute when Yura Movsisyan got a couple of bounces his way and sliced through the Timbers defense to score his first league goal for the club since October 2009. Portland doubled down and started throwing everything they had at RSL, racking up corner kicks and putting constant pressure on Nick Rimando’s goal.
That approach clearly worked — the Timbers got their equalizer and frustrated Jamison Olave to the point where he totally lost the plot as well. Olave got a red card of his own for an off-the-ball offense on Adi, and managed to up the ante by conceding a penalty kick, which Adi subsequently converted.
It was all-too-reminiscent of the 2–2 draw RSL got in its season opener at Orlando, from the scoreline to the early red card to the late defensive collapse.
Although RSL remains undefeated in league play — and earning a draw at Providence Park is a perfectly respectable result — outcomes like Real has gotten in Orlando and Portland almost feel like defeats. Something about snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, or whatever.
It’s hard to get a good read on the potential of this year’s side, considering the number of minutes Real has played while down a man (or two). Maybe that’s the point, though.
RSL has been down to nine men five times in its history, and three of those have occurred since April 2015. That’s according to a stat Tweeted out by the team’s official account last night. That’s also slightly terrifying if you’re thinking about the team’s immediate future.
The attitude Jeff Cassar has shown in the press is unfailingly optimistic and even-keeled, as opposed to his players’ antics on the pitch at times. He’s spoken about these shorthanded matches being learning moments and the result of his players desire to compete and win.
Is that the right approach? Of course, we observers have no way of knowing how Cassar handles things personally with his players, but when red cards are wreaking such havoc on Real’s point total, there does seem to be a problem. The more of these kinds of matches Real has, in which the players lose their composure both in terms of discipline and in terms of defensive presence, the more scrutiny Cassar will be under.
RSL has made some important investments in attacking players since the TAM mechanism came into play mid-2015, and we’re starting to see those investments pay dividends, so to speak, in the performances that Burrito Martinez and Movsisyan have been turning in alongside Plata and Javier Morales. Real has produced some spectacular goals so far in 2016, both in individual moments of brilliance and in well-worked team goals.
But if Cassar can’t get his players to actually stay on the pitch, it will take a lot of goals from that attacking corps to keep Real afloat in a very competitive Western Conference.
Fortunately for RSL, they’ve got an extra week to regroup before the next match. With no game this upcoming weekend, players like Morales and Olave can work on rehabbing their injuries, everyone will have time to work on mental and physical discipline, and the team can be well-rested and well-prepared for April.
Beware, though. Real’s next match is on the road, in Kansas City, for a fixture in which there is no love lost between the two teams. Multiple red cards in that matchup wouldn’t exactly be a surprise…
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