So it has been a very active off/pre-season for Real Salt Lake, the roster moves top any of the previous off seasons both in quantity and quality of players impacted. The team was forced to take a long, hard look at both how to get under the MLS salary cap, RSL would have been about 1 million over without major changes, as well as how to become a better team on the offensive side of the ball.
The latter goal became evident when the history of “big” games at Rio Tinto Stadium was examined, despite being the better team in the 2008 Western Conference final against the New York Red Bulls, a 1-0 loss. The same could be said of the 2010 playoff match against FC Dallas a home draw but a series loss, the 2011 Champions League final against Monterrey, a 1-0 loss, and the 2012 playoff loss to the Seattle Sounders, another 1-0 loss. 2012 saw RSL score 46 goals, but 7 of the 10 playoff teams has as many or more goals scored than did RSL. It was no surprise that only one striker, Alvaro Saborio, remained with the team after the season, his 40 goals in MLS action over the last 3 years is only surpassed by San Jose’s Chris Wondolowski.
Perhaps the biggest surprise of the offseason was the return of Robbie Findley to the RSL roster, in 2010 the Portland Timbers took his rights in the expansion draft, and after a couple of rough seasons in the UK (5 coaches in 2 years), RSL stepped up to secure his rights and bring him back to Salt Lake City. Both Robbie and RSL head coach Jason Kreis seem genuinely excited about the move, and expect big things in 2013. A move that might have been almost as big of a surprise was the trade that brought Joao Plata to RSL from Toronto FC, a trade that happened in a hotel bar in Indianapolis on MLS Draft week. Plata was one of the few highlights for TFC who had another rough season in 2012, and he could be a player that turns a lot of heads in the Claret and Cobalt in 2013.
There were other moves to fill slots left open by some of the cuts RSL was forced to make, the side brought in Cole Grossman and Aaron Maund early in the offseason, then added John Stertzer and Devon Sandoval via the MLS Draft. RSL signed another homegrown player as Carlos Salcedo has continued to impress the staff. Still RSL wasn’t done, they picked up Lovel Palmer, Khari Stephenson, Jeff Attinella, and in perhaps one of the other big offseason surprises added Josh Saunders to the roster. Just last week RSL added Olmes Garcia, a young prospect from Columbia that has a lot of people excited. This could be the first time RSL enters a season with a full roster, currently at 29, the team could be adding one more player before the home opener in less than 3 weeks. That move is being made in part because there are a lot of younger and lesser experienced players on the roster, but also in part because MLS no longer provides an allocation money incentive to teams to leave roster spots open.
A couple of things about the RSL roster stick out to me, first is that the team has left an international slot open. You never know when having one of those will come in handy. Second, RSL got bigger, as 7 of our new players are 6’0” or taller, a very handy thing when defending or taking advantage of set pieces. The team did also get younger, as the RSL roster now has 11 players born in the 1990’s, and while I expect that these young players will make an impact in the 2013 season for RSL, the last couple moves made by Jason Kreis and Garth Lagerwey show a desire for consistency and experience as well.
No matter who you talk to about young soccer players, almost everyone will tell you that they tend to be very inconsistent, so it is no surprise that RSL added a couple of more experienced players in this off season, guys like Lovel Palmer, Josh Saunders and Khari Stephenson will bring years of MLS experience to provide a level of consistency that makes the coaching staff a bit more confident. If we know anything about Jason and the staff at RSL it is that they want to win every match they are in, so the thought of having to rely on unproven and inconsistent players makes them nervous.
Faced with the prospect of maybe having to play two less experienced players in the midfield on opening day, could have been one of the reasons Khari was quickly brought in to supplement the midfield. If you think about a fully healthy RSL midfield it is fairly impressive, you have the likely top 4 of Javier Morales, Ned Grabavoy, Luis Gil, and Kyle Beckerman. Then you can add in veterans like Lovel Palmer, Stephenson, Yordany Alvarez to go along with younger guys like Cole Grossman, John Stertzer, David Viana, Enzo Martinez, and Sebastian Velasquez. You have to believe that it may be the deepest midfield in MLS, as 3 or 4 of our backups could likely be starting at other teams (and several have).
The confidence that the RSL staff have in both Chris Schuler and Kwame Watson-Siriboe is amazing, not only did that confidence allow them to trade away an All Star caliber player like Jamison Olave, but when Nat Borchers needed off season surgery and Chris Wingert on the shelf for awhile the team didn’t panic. The most likely starting back line will be Tony Beltran (who looks to have a little extra pep in his step this pre-season – a callup with the USMNT can do that for you) and Kenny Mansally who was picked up towards the end of last season. RSL did bring in Aaron Maund from Toronto FC, and picked up Lovel Palmer from Portland, they also signed a HGP (home grown player) in Carlos Salcedo (who I feel is going to be a star in MLS), Rich Balchan has been on trial with RSL and could be signed to fill our 30th roster spot to provide some additional depth. When you get Wingert and Borchers back healthy, that is a mighty deep defense.
We again saw the RSL staff bolster our GK staff, the mainstay is Nick Rimando who could capture his 100th MLS clean sheet in the season opener, with the departure of Kyle Reynish in the off-season, RSL needed to add more than 20 yr old Lalo Fernandez. So RSL picked up 24 yr old Jeff Attinella from Tampa Bay, and then when a back to back MLS Cup winning keeper became available, well how do you not sign Josh Saunders who will provide an incredible amount of depth to RSL in goal. I expect one of our younger keepers to be loaned out for most of the season and wouldn’t be surprised if both of them spend a lot of time getting minutes via loans.
The biggest question of the off-season was up top of the formation, as I started with RSL made some surprising moves up top, first they let go everyone except Alvaro Saborio, then they brought back Robbie Findley. You remember Robbie, that guy who scored the tying goal in the 2009 MLS Cup, the guy who provided speed unlike any other player to wear the Claret and Cobalt. In 2010 Sabo and Robbie combined for 17 goals and 8 assists, you remember that year, RSL was undefeated at home, RSL lead MLS in goals scored, and RSL finished just 3 points shy of the Supporter’s Shield. RSL drafted Devon Sandoval, a big, physical and very talented player who I think will catch a lot of people by surprise this year. Then RSL added Joao Plata, what he may lack in size he makes up for in speed and aggressive play, I think he will quickly become a RSL favorite, and to round out the strikers RSL picked up Olmes Garcia last week, a 20yr old striker from Columbia. Some might question the depth of RSL up top, but I have a huge amount of confidence in the group that Jason and Garth have put together.
It is likely that for the first time in RSL history that the team will use all of their roster spots, and while Garth can refer to this as RSL 2.0, I don’t call it that, RSL 2.0 started when Jason, Garth and Bill took over. I call this RSL re-tooled, a team that has built a roster that is posed to go for another run for trophies, a team that could be kept together (in large part) for the next 3 years and beyond. I don’t expect that with so many changes that we will see a team that looks as smooth as we have seen over the last couple of seasons, but I think the excitement of the young players, the challenge of a 2nd or 3rd chance for some of the new players, and the leadership of the guys who know what is expect of them will make this a RSL team that is fun to watch, and will surprise anyone who might take them lightly.
That’s How I See It