LEHI — It's quite astonishing, but Real Salt Lake has positioned itself to win the MLS Supporter's Shield in the final month of the season despite being written off by most on July 27. That was the night the L.A. Galaxy were humiliated 4-1 at home by the Puerto Rico Islanders in the CONCACAF Champions League.
From RSL's perspective, it was a disastrous result. Already trailing the Galaxy by nine points in the MLS standings, it knew chasing down the leaders had become that much more difficult with them crashing out of the Champions League.
With Real Salt Lake juggling lineups in August and September between MLS and the CCL, the Galaxy now had the luxury of putting all of their resources toward league play and winning the MLS Supporter's Shield.
Two months later — and despite RSL's continental odyssey — Los Angeles' cushy 9-point lead atop the standings has been whittled to just two. Kyle Beckerman isn't necessarily surprised.
"When they were on their run, I could see right through it," said Beckerman. "They were getting results but I didn't really feel their soccer was to a level that was unbeatable. It was only a matter of time before the bounces started going the other way, and it happened."
In the two months since becoming the MLS front-runner by — ironically enough — losing, the Galaxy have posted a very average 4-4-1 record. Real Salt Lake, meanwhile, is 5-0-5 in league play during that same stretch to climb back into contention. The success is even more impressive when you consider it came while juggling five CONCACAF Champions League matches in four different countries.
From Aug. 7 to Oct. 2, Real Salt Lake played 14 matches over 56 days and traveled 22,000 miles. It lost just once, a heart-breaker in a Mexico City monsoon, to post an impressive 7-1-6 combined record in both competitions.
"It's been a real testament to how we built this team and the quality of all of our players. You begin to understand how important the word 'team' is around our locker room, and you also understand that we have a lot of guys that have justifiable claims that they should be playing more," said RSL coach Jason Kreis.
Twenty-one different players started at least one of the 14 matches, further justification that Real Salt Lake might be the deepest team in MLS.
"We have a deep squad, and as you saw throughout these games we proved it," said Andy Williams. "Switching goalkeepers, defenders going in and out, it's a testament to the coaching staff doing their work in the offseason."
A ton of preparation went into the 14-game stretch, and midfielder Will Johnson said the coaching staff handled it perfectly by prioritizing big games and showing faith in unproven players. Never was that more evident than in Seattle last month as rookie Chris Schuler made his first-career start in a nationally-televised game against the Sounders. He was outstanding as RSL earned yet another shutout.
Unfortunately for Schuler, he broke his foot in a training session in Toronto last week and is out for the season.
Realistically, though, Kreis doesn't need to worry about juggling lineups any longer. RSL finishes the season with three straight Saturday games, plenty of time for the team to become a cohesive unit again heading into the playoffs.
Whether Real Salt Lake is a No. 1 or No. 2 seed remains to be seen.