After a stunning defeat, RSL is left with some very tough questions to face.

So I started writing this blog post on Sunday night, but I wasn’t sure why I was writing it, until today. I posted that I was pulling for New England to win MLS Cup, there are several reasons but the top one is I think they have an incredible team and I love the style of soccer they have been playing since Jermaine Jones was signed and how it has in large part freed up Lee Nguyen to become the player he is capable of being.

Of course having an opinion on twitter can be dangerous as people started to criticize me because if New England wins MLS Cup Real Salt Lake won’t end up with a Champions League spot.  They are right, RSL only gets into the tournament if LA or Seattle win, and we will get their 2nd spot by default since both have already qualified.  I went on to say that I didn’t want RSL to be in Champions League next year, because I don’t believe we can win it.  The reality is everything that follows is why I don’t want us in that tournament, and in part why I don’t think we can win it.  Simply we aren’t good enough, and while the 5-0 loss on Sunday was an anomaly where we played perhaps our worst match of the season and LA played one of their best, the reality is that we simply weren’t good enough to beat them and I don’t think continuing to do what we have in large part done for the last 5 years is the way we get good enough to beat them, to beat anyone who gets in our way of the trophies we should all be passionate about getting.

None of this means I don’t love RSL, or our players but sports is not a place where blind devotion should replace logic or common sense, it shouldn’t be a place where passion replaces intelligence.  Being critical actually is a way to show how much you care, because you want, and expect more, you know that better is within reach.  You may not agree with me, hell I don’t blame you if you don’t but my opinion is just as valid as those of fans who have for years hated on Saborio, Findley or any other RSL player who doesn’t live up to their expectations.  I have so much respect for the guys who play for RSL, because they in large part define what RSL is about, they have lived “The Team is the Star” and they have embraced the idea of the RSL Family.  Still we are left with some hard facts and some hard choices, is being consistently good, good enough?

Since RSL lifted the 2009 MLS Cup they have competed for 3 trophies, and won none.  That is a hard pill to swallow for fans, players and staff, but you don’t get to play for those trophies if you aren’t a very good team and RSL has shown since 2009 that they are consistently among the top teams in MLS.  Five straight years RSL has won at least 15 games and scored at least 50 points, only one other team in MLS history has done that, the LA Galaxy also five years running.

That consistency however may lead to whey RSL hasn’t reached that level of excellence required to lift one of those trophies they have competed for, now that seems like it would be the opposite but let’s take a few minutes to look at things more closely.  First, in our 5-0 loss to the LA Galaxy in the 2nd leg of the Western Conference semi-finals RSL started 6 players who were on the field during that 2009 MLS Cup victory (Nick Rimando, Nat Borchers, Chris Wingert, Ned Grabavoy, Kyle Beckerman and Javier Morales) and two others from the RSL roster in that game were on the pitch again in that loss (Robbie Findley and Tony Beltran) and while that level of experience is valuable one has to wonder if the fact that 7 of those players are over the age of 30 might impact RSL’s overall performance on the pitch?  The MLS season is brutally long, RSL started their training camp 10 months ago in late January, after ending the 2013 season in December.  Yeah that is a break of about 6 weeks in the last 20 some months, which can take a toll on even the most fit athletes.

That veteran core, also means that while RSL has signed many new players since 2009, the vast majority of the playing minutes have gone to those more veteran guys.  In fact over 2100 minutes of MLS action were played by Rimando, Beltran, Beckerman, Borchers, Wingert, Morales, Grabavoy and Borchers this year, only 3 other players saw more than 1440 minutes of action (equivalent of 16 matches) this season (Schuler-2154, Mulholland-1987, Plata-1985) and 3 others saw more than 1000 minutes of action (Gil-1386, Garcia-1191, Saborio-1148).

Now we often hear that RSL is one of, or the deepest team in MLS, but the reality is that those 13 players saw the vast majority of the minutes. There are 33660 minutes of MLS first team action each season, 11 players x 90 minutes per match x 34 matches = 33660, the top 11 players for RSL in minutes played had 25424 of those available minutes, that is 76% of the minutes.  That number would have been higher if it hadn’t been for national team call ups for Kyle Beckerman and Nick Rimando along with the injury of Alvaro Saborio.  If you add Saborio’s 1148 minutes and say 7 of the 10 matches Nick missed on national team duty with 4 of the 6 matches Kyle Beckerman missed and 82% of all available minutes would have gone to just 12 players.

That doesn’t really scream depth to me and it is hard for players like Carlos Salcedo, Sebastian Velasquez and others to develop when their available minutes are so very limited.  Perhaps with the advent of the Royal Monarchs (I still don’t believe that name) some of those “depth” players will actually be able to develop, but the reality is that winning now matters in MLS and RSL like many teams are much more likely to rely on their dependable veterans vs giving younger players quality first team minutes.  I think that hurts us, can you really expect Sebastian to come in and make a difference when he is only given 222 minutes of action in a season, Cole Grossman saw a lot of action in terms of matches with 17 appearances but just 532 minutes (less than 6 full matches), with injuries and suspensions Carlos Salcedo got 8 starts but his 800 minutes still aren’t a lot when you’re talking about a young developing player.  I do think in the years to come the Monarchs will pay dividends for RSL, but I worry a little bit about it becoming a bit divisive at first.  Guys who have been working hard for a couple years to get a shot at first team minutes, going toe to toe with veteran players all of a sudden being sent to the Monarchs, it is going to be a very tough thing for second year head coach Jeff Cassar to manage, as all players have egos and they all want to play at the top level.

So what happens next for RSL?  Well there are two scenarios, first one is that LA or Seattle win MLS Cup and RSL ends up in CONCACAF Champions League, and I am hoping that doesn’t happen for a very selfish reason.  Should we qualify, we will try to win it that means we will in large part take the core of our current roster (many of whom were part of that 2010/11 run) and hope that we can replicate that success.  I don’t think we can, sorry what has changed for RSL since the disappoint loss at home to Monterrey?  We have lost several big matches, in 2011 we lost the Western Conference final to LA, in 2012 we couldn’t beat Herediano at Rio Tinto and failed to make it out of our CCL Group, we followed that up with a loss to the Seattle Sounders in the home leg of the Western Conference semifinals. In 2013 we rode a favorable schedule to the finals of the US Open Cup and playing against DC United (who finished dead last in the MLS regular season) we lost, we then fought our way to MLS Cup, only to fall in PK’s to Sporting KC.  MLS is about winning now, so coaches play their more experienced players, sometime to a fault because failure to win costs them their jobs, so if we end up in Champions League it could prevent us from making some moves to become better in the future for the sake of being good now.   Of course there is a huge unknown in this scenario, the new CBA, we could see rosters become bigger, we could see a huge bump in the salary cap that would allow RSL to supplement their current roster with some key players that could boost our core enough to be very competitive in CCL and MLS, but that is simply an unknown at this point.

So the second scenario is that we don’t qualify for Champions League and we take a very long and hard look at our roster.  RSL fans owe a debt to our veterans but sports are cruel and when players get older they often are a bit slower, a bit more injury prone, a bit less aggressive, now that doesn’t happen in every case but all of us as we age face those things.  The lineup we put out against the LA Galaxy averaged 30 years old, and despite LA having a good number of older players their lineup averaged more than a year younger than RSL at 28.9.  Not making CCL, would force RSL to take a long and hard look at who to protect in the upcoming expansion draft.  How to make some of those veteran salaries fit within a still unknown salary cap, a couple years ago RSL made some hard choices to get younger and faster. Gone was Jamison Olave, in came Chris Schuler in a larger role. Also out were Fabian Espindola, in came newly signed Joao Plata and Olmes Garica, and Will Johnson, in came Luis Gil in a larger role, it could be time to make some more hard choices.  As good as Javier Morales is, he is getting older and his price tag keeps going up and a more and more able Luis Gil is waiting in the wings.  Alvaro Saborio has been awesome when he is healthy and focused but you need your DP to be there all season long and to step up in the playoffs, 1 goal and 0 assists in the past 3 post seasons simply isn’t good enough.  Nat Borchers is an interesting case, he has maintained such a high level of fitness over the years that despite being 33, he sure looks like he has several good years left and his partnership with Chris Schuler has let him be more tactical and let Schuler do more of the high pressing and chasing.  We could go down the entire list, but I think later in the week when I reveal my “expansion draft protected list” it will cover a lot more of what I think the future of RSL should or could look like.

RSL is a good team, a very good team or else they wouldn’t have made the playoffs 7 straight years, and they wouldn’t have a record setting 5 straight 15 win/50 point seasons, yet for all of that there is a single trophy and that was 5 years ago.  So yeah, everyone has to ask themselves is being good enough to do things like that every year, or do we have to get better and good enough to win trophies?  I think you know how I feel about things.

That’s How I See It

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