What does 2015 hold for Real Salt Lake?

It came down to the wire, but a new CBA has been agreed to, so the MLS season can get under way.  What exactly does that mean for RSL heading into the 2015 season?

With some big off-season changes both in the front office as well as on the pitch, this clearly is now Dell Loy’s team with his choice for coach Jeff Cassar entering his second season and Craig Waibel as the Technical Director in place. So what are your expectations for RSL heading into the 2015 season? Remember this year we will see MLS action, CCL action, USOC action, as well as the addition of USL Pro side Real Monarchs, construction of a new stadium for them, the possible addition of a NWSL team, that is a whole lot of soccer (and yes we love it).

So let’s start with the bread and butter of RSL, the regular season, over the last 5 years 3 clubs in MLS have been the definition of regular season success, the LA Galaxy, the Seattle Sounders and Real Salt Lake. For the last 5 years both LA and RSL have won at least 15 matches and ended with at least 50 points, Seattle has done it the last 4 seasons.  RSL has made the playoffs every season since 2008, the longest active streak in MLS.

So what will RSL need to do in order to maintain those streaks?  With the departure of Nat Borchers, Ned Grabavoy, Sebastian Velasquez, Chris Wingert, Robbie Findley, Carlos Salcedo and a few other players there will be some open spots that need to be filled.  To fill those spots, RSL has made some very interesting moves, perhaps none has gotten more attention than the changes on defense, bringing back Jamison Olave to the Claret & Cobalt, a proven veteran who brings unmatched speed and physicality on the back line.  RSL also picked up a couple players who could really be game changers, to bolster the back line they brought in Demar Phillips and Elias Vasquez, oh and don’t forget we also added Boyd Okwuonu via the draft and HGP Phanuel Kavita.

Losing Ned a regular midfield starter and Sebastian one of the go to guys off the bench, could have been a huge hit for the RSL midfield, but a formation change to take advantage of a faster backline and the incredible depth at forward instead sees RSL likely moving to a 4-3-3 with Javier Morales, Luis Gil and Kyle Beckerman in the midfield which has looked really good this pre-season. Going forward I think this formation fits really well with a guy like Jordan Allen, who I think could be a breakout guy for RSL this season. His willingness to play whatever postion he is needed at, along with his creativity and class on the ball could really be a big boost off the bench or in a starting role.  There is also the fairly unknown quantity that is Wellington “Pecka” Paeckart, but given the success of the last few guys we have picked up from minor league teams, he could provide a nice addition to Luke Mulholland.  I think if the “talk” from Waibel and DLH about being willing to bring in one of those “Big Name DPs” this summer is true, you could see it be a midfield player to supplement Javi and Kyle both of whom continue to find ways to get better each year despite being on the “wrong” side of 30.

Up top the change to a 4-3-3 could be just what some guys needed, of course you have Saborio, who while polarizing for RSL fans, simply scores goals and lots of them.  Can Joao Plata return from his foot injury and reclaim the form that amazed everyone in MLS last year?  Will a full preseason be what Sebastian Jamie needs to go from showing flashes to making an impact?  Olmes Garcia has looked more confident this preseason, perhaps this is the year we see him show everyone what most of us RSL fans believe is true, that he is a game changer? What about Devon Sandoval, I think the 4-3-3 helps him a ton as a big physical target guy in the middle, will be a critical year for him.

One spot that often is overlooked for RSL is the keeper, for so long RSL has been able to know that no matter what Nick Rimando is there to make the magic save, to keep RSL in matches, and 2015 we will see more of the same. What makes it even better is that Jeff Attinella continues to impress as well, so should (as expected) Nick be called up to the USMNT for the Gold Cup, RSL shouldn’t miss a beat in goal.

For me there are some scary things this year, first up will be Gold Cup as it will likely test RSL’s depth this summer, what has long been one of the deepest rosters in MLS now has some question marks on it, at CB and even a bit in the midfield, where we will likely lose either/or/both Luis Gil and Kyle Beckerman.  I expect we lose Saborio, Gil, Rimando, Phillips, and Vasquez to their respective Gold Cup teams, that is 4 likely starters.  Now some of my roster concerns are due to the CBA talks going so long and RSL not knowing the roster rules or salary cap, I expect we will make some announcements in the next couple weeks to address some of that.  Another big relief will come from the Royal Monarchs SLC, the ability for younger guys to get quality minutes in matches could be a big difference maker for RSL this year, as Dunny keeps telling me “think about impact of LA II on Robbie Rogers last year” and I think he is spot on (as usual but don’t tell him I said that).

CCL also scares me, listen I get how much all of us RSL fans want another crack at being the first MLS team to lift that trophy, I just am not sure that this is the RSL team to do it.  Depth, schedule congestions, and focus all concern me about CCL, I believe that no team that has ever advanced out of the group stage in the fall has gone on to reach MLS Cup that same season.  Given the depth of the Western Conference with Sporting KC and Houston coming over, playoff spots are going to be very tight in the West (I think 3-6 could be a matter of 3-4 points), so for me CCL this year isn’t my favorite thing. I hope RSL proves me wrong, but it scares me.

Western Conference depth really scares me, with SKC and HOU coming over to the West we get the teams that have represented the Eastern Conference in 3 of the last 4 seasons at MLS Cup, Houston often uses a late season push to get into the playoffs but averaged a 4th place finish over the last 4 seasons, while SKC averages a 2nd place season over those same 4 seasons.  Then factor in an ever improving Vancouver team, the very unpredictable FC Dallas and a San Jose team that will have to face twice in their new stadium and the West is anything but easy, even with 6 teams making the playoffs.  The new schedule format means we will only have to face SEA, FCD, HOU twice this season but it also means we face LAG, SKC and Portland 3 times, twice at Rio Tinto and once on the road, while we will make two trips to VAN, SJ and Colorado this year while hosting each of them once.

I see the Western Conference breaking down into 3 groups:

  • Playoff Locks – Seattle, LA Galaxy, Sporting KC, RSL
  • Playoff Contenders – Vancouver, FC Dallas, Houston
  • Playoff Dreamers – Colorado, Portland, San Jose

Now given how tight I think the West will be it wouldn’t take much for a team to drop or jump from any of those groups.

For me the measure of regular season success is that 15 wins/50 points level and I think RSL has what it will take to get there for a 6th straight season, the keys will be taking advantage of home matches against both of the expansion teams entering the league this year and having some late match goals to get us wins vs draws, and avoiding injuries.

While many would say that over the last 3 years RSL has simply lost too many pieces that have been critical to their success, I think in a league that makes it almost impossible to keep a core of players together for a long period of time that RSL has done better than most.  The combination of some younger fresh legs this year, a coach with a years more experience, and a willing owner to dig deep if needed, makes it exciting.  Last year I thought something was off, perhaps it was the disappointments of 2013 along with MLS doing their best to alienate fans that had me rather disinterested about halfway thru the season.  I can say that I might be more excited for the RSL season this year than I have been in 4-5 years, it should be a heck of a ride to watch some new guys in a new exciting formation show us what they have to offer.  Toss in the Monarchs and whatever else DLH throws our way, and 2015 could be a very fun year for soccer in Salt Lake City.

Oh, my predictions – I think RSL finishes 3rd in the West with a 17-9-8 record, that means a 6th season above 15/50. I think we give up more goals than we have in years with 43 allowed but I also think we hit 60 on goals scored for a +17 goal differential.

I will pick Luis Gil as the team MVP this year, I think the new formation will allow him to shine as the superstar RSL fans know he is.

I will pick Jordan Allen for my newcomer of the year, a tight race with Demar Phillips but I think Jordan’s ability to play so many positions will be a huge factor for RSL this year.

My defender of the year pick is Chris Schuler, with so many changes on the backline his leadership will be needed, I think he may also get that USMNT call up that he deserves, unfortunately it might hit us during Gold Cup.

So that is it, this team and organization clearly are now under the leadership of Dell Loy Hansen and as someone said on twitter today “Can’t really argue with what he has done so far. Honestly, he’s not a soccer guy, but he’s a good owner.”  I actually think he is becoming more of a soccer guy, but he sure is doing a good job of surrounding himself with folks who know soccer very well.

That’s How I See It

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