By NICK IUELE
Life has not been easy for Real Salt Lake without centerback Jamison Olave, but after a spell of struggles the club's back line appears to be hitting its stride.
After dropping three straight league matches after Olave's latest injury, RSL won their CONCACAF Champions League match 2-0 over Tauro FC and played to an ugly, but effective, 0-0 draw with the Philadelphia Union Friday at PPL Park. Losing a high-caliber player like Olave was difficult to cope with at first, but RSL seems to be figuring out how to compete without their centerback rock, a reigning two-time MLS Best XI selection and the 2010 MLS Defender of the Year.
“I think that collectively [the defense] is finding their way a bit,” RSL manager Jason Kreis said after the Union draw. “The defense put a great effort in. The whole team had the mindset that they needed a shutout. Typically when we are very focused on doing that, we get it.”
The match against Philadelphia was the third match in seven days for RSL, and with Olave, who told SBI he should be back within a week after being out of action for the last month, and Chris Schuler coming off the injury report, the makeshift RSL back line has done a decent job steading the ship and treading water while waiting for their reinforcements to return.
“Two games in a row we got shutouts. It was never going to be easy, but we take a lot from the results, put it in our pockets and move forward,” Nat Borchers said.
One cog in the machine that needed to get acclimated was centerback Kwame Watson-Siriboe. The player charged with filling Olave’s big shoes for the time being has only played in nine MLS games this season and 19 in three years and is still trying to get situated, but with the help of veterans in the squad, Watson-Siriboe, a former UConn standout, is catching on quickly.
“I definitely didn’t expect to be thrown [into the starting XI]. I thought I would come in and still have time to learn the system,” said Watson-Siriboe, who was acquired in mid-season trade with the Chicago Fire. “I’m still learning on the fly. Luckily, I have great guys around me like Nick Rimando, Nat Borchers and Kyle Beckerman that have been teaching me along the way. I’ve made some mistakes, but it’s a learning process. I still have much to learn.”
Although Watson-Siriboe has been filling in well, his inexperience has been exposed at times in his first few matches with Salt Lake; however, Kreis is confident the 25-year-old will adapt quickly.
“[Kwame] has done a really solid job, but he’s making some mistakes along the way; some that really almost cost us some trouble,” Kreis said. “It’s no fault of his, but for a guy who only played three MLS games prior to coming here, three games in six nights is really tough. Fortunately for us it worked out [in the last two matches.]”
According to Watson-Siriboe, Olave has been an influential voice in his ear over this tough stretch.
“Even though he is still training to get healthy, Jamison has helped me a lot,” Watson-Siriboe said. “He’s told me how to be in position in certain parts of the game. I think that makes me feel good; to be honest sometimes it’s difficult, but getting that advice has helped me to grow as a player and hopefully that continues.”
Despite having 10 losses, Salt Lake is tied on points with Seattle Sounders for second in the Western Conference, though Seattle has two games in hand. The first three games without Olave seemed to shell-shock the club a bit, but two clean sheets in a row and finding a bit of success at the end of a tough stretch is something that can be built on both mentally and physically.
“We still have a lot to work on and need pay attention to detail; we could be a little sharper, but these shutouts were a step in the right direction for sure,” Rimando said. “I think we all knew in the back of our heads that we could get [positive] results. I think the guys are looking forward to having a longer break between games, though.”