Estimated read time: 4-5 minutes
SANDY — Grit-and-grind, xDAWG; call it what you want, there's no doubt that Real Salt Lake is known more for its heart than its flash on the field.
Beginning with its penalty-kicks MLS Cup victory in 2009, all the way through to the "comeback kids" style playoff runs in recent years, RSL is not afraid of getting wins the hard — and sometimes ugly — way.
"I think for me, unfortunately, that's always what we've been," defender Aaron Herrera said. "I don't think just being a grit-and-grind team is a team that you want to be; you want to be a team that can take it to teams and sort of beat them with your own quality, not just not just from grinding out the game. But I think right now that's where we're at."
Fans and pundits would agree with ESPN's Dan Hajducky in saying the team "is positioned to grit and grind," and nearly 80% of the Twitter respondents saying RSL is a "grit-and-grind team."
Interestingly, head coach Pablo Mastroeni had a different response when asked about the team's identity.
"I wouldn't consider it grit-and-grind," Mastroeni said. "I think ... the last five or six games it's been some really good football: attacking football, creating a lot of chances on goal, not giving up too many opportunities. I think if we finish the opportunities that we create there'd be a different perception of it."
Defense has been RSL's calling card all season, as well as the main contributor to a "grit-and-grind" moniker. As Hajducky pointed out, the Claret and Cobalt are one of only eight MLS teams with less than 30 goals allowed and one of five teams yet to lose after taking a lead.
RSL is tied for fourth in the league in clean sheets this season with eight, thanks in large part to the work of Herrera and his back-line buddies Justen Glad, Marcelo Silva and Andrew Brody, along with Zac MacMath in goal, who is tied for second in the league in saves with 79.
Still, Mastroeni goes against the grain by saying his team is playing a "very attack-oriented" style of soccer right now.
"The way we're playing ... I think it's exciting. I think it's very attack oriented," Mastroeni said. "I think the only thing that we're lacking is opportunities on goal."
RSL has scored more than two goals in a game just three times this season, with two of those coming against bottom-three teams in the west, Houston and Kansas City.
Another PRIME example of how Mastroeni is not on the same page with his players. This is again, not great. Also grit and grind? That's a compliment. Take it Pablo. The only time we've beaten a team by 2+ goals has been agains the 3 worst teams. We are grit and grind. #RSLhttps://t.co/5Ygsc6vl6M— Hayden Nielsen (@haydennielsen18) August 10, 2022
The team is middle-of-the-pack (or worse) in nearly every attacking statistic, with the exception of header goals, where RSL leads the league with nine on the season.
MLS writer Matthew Doyle and RSL Senior Director of Communications Trey Fitz-Gerald have co-coined a term known as xDAWG, a play on the xG (expected goal) statistic, to describe the grit-and-grind style that has brought RSL success so far this season, currently sitting at fifth place in the west.
"Teams that are able to find it within themselves to play really hard every single week — playoff hard — put themselves into position to win games," Doyle said in June. "Pablo Mastroeni knows this, and he's got his team playing like that. RSL's xDAWG factor is really high."
"Brutality," "force of will," "human spirit" and "tryhard ruggedness" are other terms that Doyle has used to describe RSL's xDAWG.
Fitz-Gerald even went so far as to call this the "xDAWG era" for RSL when talking about Mastroeni's squad's ability to bounce back after losses this season.
Fan and host of the RSL Show Josh Clark made t-shirts with xDAWG written on the front to "represent the fight and grit of RSL."
The RSL and larger MLS communities seem to have bought in on RSL's identity involving some combination of grit and xDAWG, so why does Mastroeni shy away from the label? Clearly, his end goal with RSL is to create a more "exciting" and "attack-oriented" style, likely with a lot more goals scored.
But for now, the team has to fight for every goal and every point in the standings.
"Everyone on the field has to be willing to grind out these games because obviously, the quality hasn't been there I mean, the goals have been really going in the net for us," Herrera said. "So I think we got to do what we can and right now and that's put in the work and grind out results and do whatever it takes."
The squad hits the road this weekend to take on the Seattle Sounders on Sunday at 8 p.m. MDT.