This week on the C&C podcast, we caught up with Real Salt Lake TV analyst (and former RSL defender) Brian Dunseth, one of the most knowledgable soccer minds when it comes to MLS – and unmatched when you want to learn about RSL. An abridged version of our conversation is below, to help get you up to speed with what Nashville faces this weekend.
How has the club been able to outperform early-season expectations?
“I get why the experts didn’t look at RSL. You’re looking at what happened with the ownership last year, which is horrific. You’re looking at the situation where the club is essentially being managed by the league – it’s autonomous but the league is still OKing everything – you have a head coach [Freddy Juarez] in his second real season after taking over for Mike Petke after he was unceremoniously fired. He has really no huge name. Ultimately, when you look at the team, you say guys like Albert Rusnak, Damir Kreilach, Everton Luiz, Pablo Ruiz: alright, really good players for an MLS standard. But then you’ve lost Kyle Beckerman, you’ve lost Nedum Onuoha, you just traded Corey Baird down to LAFC. So I get all that.
“Now, talking to Freddy, the one thing I don’t think people truly understand from the outside is: he cleaned house on his entire staff. So you do all that, you add Rubio Rubin who nobody was talking about – despite being a US Soccer Young Player of the Year, seven or eight international appearances, spent some time with Maradona down with Dorados Sinaloa – Anderson Julio, who RSL had as their No. 1 target two years ago. And then they got Bobby Wood over the line: everyone’s like ‘Bobby Wood isn’t Bobby Wood, because he’s not playing, and he’s not good enough.’ When the board’s trying to get you out and telling the coach not to play you, maybe there’s a reason you’re not playing.
“I’ve been using a team analogy that this team is similar to what the Columbus Crew was when [Tim] Bezbatchenko and Caleb Porter got there: the Haslams buy in, Dr. Pete Edwards buys in. Next thing you know, you add a Lucas Zelarayan, you add a Darlington Nagbe, and all of a sudden you’re an MLS Cup Champion. Dependent upon the right owner – if there’s an owner that comes in and you’re willing to spend $5 million on acquisition per-player – all of a sudden you’re in a different bracket.”
Is Rubio Rubin – the almost cast-off former “future star” emblematic of the way this club wants to build?
“Rubio’s just a great kid, man. He wrecked his foot and his ankle. It stopped him from international appearances, brought him back – you don’t sign for Tijuana in Liga MX unless you’re a good player – and I thin kthat all he wanted was the opportunity.
“I think out of all the big-name players: three games, three goals, two assists? Rubio’s phenomenal, what he’s done so far. He’s the first pure No. 9 this club’s had since Alvaro Saborio. It’s a guy that can hold the ball up; he’s not going to run into channels and get away from centerbacks, like he’s right there. All of his goals have been really, really high-level goals.”
Are Justen Glad, Aaron Herrera, and David Ochoa the types who represent the next generation, or just blending in with the fabric of the squad?
“That’s kind of been the mantra, because of previous ownership: there was the idea that ‘hey we can do what New York did with Tyler Adams, we can do what Vancouver did with Alphonso Davies, and we can sell players.’ Because of the mechanisms of the league at the time, this club lost Richie Ledezma to go to Holland, and then lost Sebastian Soto to initially go to Germany. That was because there just weren’t enough Homegrown spots to sign with the first team, to sign a professional contract.
“With adding the Monarchs, adding the Royals, and adding the Academy from Casa Grande – which is an incredible training facility – Aaron Herrera, Justen Glad, David Ochoa, Donny Toia, Eric Holt, I mean, they started against San Jose: back four and goalkeeper were all Homegrowns. It’s really mind-blowing when you think about it. Then on top of that, they’ve identified kids that are MLS caliber, but not MLS starter – and that’s the tough part. There’s only so many Caden Clarks or Cade Cowells in the league right now that are special, that are next level.
“Of those three, I would say Herrera is at the head of all three, because I think he’s adaptable to play on either side, left or right. But he picked up a hamstring injury against Sporting Kansas City. Ochoa, I believe, his ceiling is a US Men’s National Team starting goalkeeper. Glad, I think is going to end up being more like a Nat Borchers or even a Walker Zimmerman: he’s going to get a cup of coffee with the national team. Going to be MLS lifers for the most part, but not necessarily full international-caliber starting World Cups.”
With the David Ochoa/Minnesota United dustup, is RSL embracing the bad boy thing?
“I believe that we need more villains. I don’t like the fact that we’re all cookie-cutter heroes. I was here for it: that ‘goonies never say die’ mentality.
“For Ochoa, he won a USL Championship at 18. He was in the final at Louisville blowing kisses to the fans in the middle of the game. Cruyffing forwards sliding by him, and turning around and laughing. Was it petulant? Yeah. Did I love it? 100% Was it malicious, did he turn and Kaku the ball into the stands? No. He knew immediately he shouldn’t do it, you could tell. He’s in that one position that, when the ball hits the back of the net, you’re gonna hear a lot of s–t-talking. He’s going to get it from his own fans – he was already a target. I think now, you can play that role, and it’s totally fine. If that’s who you want to be, awesome. I’m here for it.
“But you’ve now given a pass to every fan in any opponent’s stadium to come after you, and know there’s an opportunity to get underneath your skin.”
What’s the RSL gameplan against a team like Nashville, and where is the game going to be won or lost?
“This is where I think Gary has done an incredible job: games will be ugly, because that’s the way he sets it up. He’s a very pragmatic coach with the way that he wants a 4-2-3-1 or some hybrid, he’s going to sit with four, he’s going to sit with two, and then he’s going to ask his outside backs to get forward, but still create the balance. And he’s going to ask Godoy and everlasting gobstopper Dax McCarty to just sit and protect. Now he’s added a different dimension up top. I think [they have] a much more well-rounded identity that’s not just, ‘hey we’re going to be pragmatic defensively, we’re going to keep the ball in front of us, and we’re never going to concede more than a goal.’ When I watched them last year, it was a boring style of soccer. But they started building on it… I think Nashville is one of the most well-rounded early-season teams that I’ve seen.”