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Real Salt Lake: Three surprises from first half of MLS season

Real Salt Lake forward Corey Baird (27) dribbles the ball during the second half against the Houston Dynamo at Rio Tinto Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

Here are the three biggest surprises from Real Salt Lake’s season so far.

1. How quick of a turnaround RSL has made

Real Salt Lake started the season on a rather sour note as it allowed 14 goals through its first six matches. The most jarring of those results included when LAFC gutted Real Salt Lake on its home field in Rio Tinto Stadium when the expansion squad bested RSL 5-1. Another included when the team lost 4-0 on the road against New York City FC. Perhaps the hardest pill to swallow was the team’s first outing against FC Dallas when what looked like a sure three points turned into a rather disappointing tie after FC Dallas scored a late own-goal.

Even with all of that, RSL has kept its head up and not let questions of “what if” cloud its thoughts. Currently, Real Salt Lake is sitting in fourth in the Western Conference with 23 points and a 7-7-2 record. And aside from that rather embarrassing home loss to LAFC at the beginning of the season, RSL hasn’t lost any other game at home, though the San Jose Earthquakes earned a draw in Rio Tinto this past weekend.

During one of its arguably most tiring stretches of the season where it played five games in 15 days, the team played fairly well. Real lost its Open Cup match against Sporting KC in an effort to not have tired legs against the LA Galaxy a few days later, a match the team would go on to lose 3-0, but it won the first three games of that span to earn an important nine points to boost its position in the standings.

Maybe RSL’s turnaround isn’t as much as a surprise as the team could have been working off the rust in the early stages of this season, but things could have taken a turn for the worse. The club could have used this season as more of a rebuilding year with a young core, but right now RSL seems to be in great position to compete for the cup.

2. Baird’s ascension

Corey Baird wasn’t expected to make any sort of impact on this year’s squad. Most thought he could excel with the Real Monarchs enough to the point where he would see some minutes with Real Salt Lake, but in the midst of injuries, Baird has risen to the occasion.

He is currently the leading goal scorer for the Real Salt Lake with four goals — Albert Rusnák, Joao Plata and Luis Silva each have three goals — and he has only started 10 games this season, though he has played in 16 overall.

Baird has garnered the respect of his teammates for his contributions on the field, and he often looks to players like  Kyle Beckerman for advice as he credits them for much of his success.

“On the field, Kyle’s been huge in encouraging me and complimenting me whenever I do something well,” Baird said. “It’s just huge to get that confidence, and the older guys talk to you, they’ve been in the league … and they’ve done everything for so many years and it’s just listening to them and taking their advice as much as possible.”

Chemistry is a big thing Baird hopes to keep improving, but with the way he has been playing, he seems to fit right in.

3. Young core is helping shape Real Salt Lake’s identity

Baird isn’t the only young gun to give RSL a new sense of hope. Other younger players are giving RSL fans hope that once veteran players like Beckerman and goalkeeper Nick Rimando leave, there will still be a steady stream of players to not only fall back on, but rely on.

Players like Danilo Acosta and Sebastian Saucedo are  working to prove they can play consistently at a high level, but before Real Salt Lake’s two-week break, head coach Mike Petke liked what both of these players were bringing to the table. Though as he often harps on, he’s not just going to hand out opportunities.

“Guys like Danny and [Saucedo] up until recently, have been a little bit streaky,” Petke said. “They’ve had very good games, and you can argue that they’re young and that’s part of the process, but I know what they’re capable of and I demand a lot out of them.”

Petke’s high expectations seem to be resonating with Real Salt Lake as his young core is putting in the work to earn playing time, and as a result, it’s making the team stronger as a whole.

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