So for the last couple of years we have heard folks talking about MLS 3.0, the era of big TV deals, new forms of Allocation money, and even more big name DPs. RSL’s owner has talked about it as a part of the reason why some of the front office changes over the last couple of years have been made, so RSL can compete in this new MLS, despite being a small market team.
Last year we saw RSL attract Juan Manuel “Burrito” Martinez, a move that saw him pay off his own contract so he could find a new team to play with, and he chose to come to Salt Lake City. We saw the potential of what he can do in his limited minutes at the end of the season last year, I expect the best is yet to come. It was a sign of things to come, or so it appears.
Listening to Yura talk to the media today, he mentioned over and over again that he had told his agent that he wanted to come back to MLS, and back to RSL for the last two years. Now a player having a very specific place he wants to play can really put both his current club and his target in a rough spot as deals are never easy to complete. Between transfer fees, salary, MLS salary cap issues, it is a complicated thing but Yura’s agent Patrick McCabe (@GlobalPremMgmt) and RSL GM Criag Waibel did a lot of work over the last couple of months to make this deal happen.
So we have come to the final part of our RSL roster review as the team heads into the 2016 season, in part 1 we looked at keepers and forwards, in part 2 we looked at the midfield. Now we will look at the defenders, an area where RSL struggled with injuries, new players and of course our adjustment to a new formation. 2015 was not a good year for the RSL defense, the 48 goals allowed was the 3rd worst total in RSL history and the highest number since the 2006 season.
Defenders – This position has the most questions heading into 2016, here are the current players on the roster
- Tony Beltran – The only thing close to a consistent player on the back line in 2015, Tony actually had one of his best seasons and continues to distinguish himself as one of the best outside backs in MLS. Tony started the most matches(31) and played the most minutes(2774) of any RSL player in 2015, his play was one of the highlights of the 2015 season. I think we can expect more from Tony in 2016 as he continues to be more and more of a leader on the pitch and the on the backline.
- Jamison Olave – Most of us were surprised when RSL brought Olave back, but after losing Nat Borchers the team needed a proven CB and Olave is that. Unfortunately 2015 was a mixed bag with Jamison, he had moments where we got those highlight reel defensive saves and bursts of near superhuman speed, but we also got 3 red cards and with a few injuries. With just 22 matches played in 2015, the 2nd lowest total of his MLS career, we can only hope that after signing a new contract in the off season that we will get a bit more action on the pitch and fewer red cards from Olave in 2016.
So in my RSL roster review part 1 we focused on forwards and keepers, which happen to be where the team has some great depth. Now we will take a look at the midfield where there are a lot more questions but also a lot of talent.
Midfield – with two of the games top players in their positions (Kyle Beckerman and Javier Morales) you would think there would be no questions about the RSL midfield, but I have questions, lots of them.
- Javier Morales – There are few in MLS that are as good with the ball at their feet as Javi, his vision and passing are sublime as all RSL opponents know only too well. This however has lead to him being one of the most fouled players in MLS over the last several years and at age 36 it has taken it’s toll. In 2015 he played in just 24 matches, the lowest full season total in him MLS career (minus the injury year of 2011), and while he maintains a great level of fitness the league is a physical one. If we can keep Javi healthy for the 2016 campaign I think every RSL fan would rejoice, but we will for sure take what we can get because RSL is simply a much better team with him than without him.
- Kyle Beckerman – The face of the franchise, and there simply is no other player in MLS, I would rather have in the d-mid position than Kyle. His leadership, energy, skill, and passion simply make him one of a kind and we can never thank the Colorado Rapids enough for gifting him to us. His offensive production was off in 2015, 1 goal & 2 assists, down from 3 & 3 in 2014 and 4 & 6 in 2013. I expect a big portion of this was the new formation which left him often spending more time on the defensive side of things. Kyle is a leader on and off the field, he sets the tone and his leadership with a lot of roster changes will be needed in the long season ahead.
So we are 40 days from RSL’s first action of the year, their Feb 24th Champions League match at Tigres. So with the first 2 rounds of the MLS draft done, lets take an updated look at the RSL roster as it sits:
Goalkeeper – The position RSL has the best depth has to be keeper
- Nick Rimando – RSL keeps one of the best keepers in MLS history in goal and should the defense in front of him improve from last year we should see another great year from Nick.
- Jeff Attinella – I expect there are probably a few teams who would be happy to have Jeff as their number one keeper, so RSL is lucky to have him as our number two. When called on, Jeff has provided a very solid replacement for Nick and with the season starting so soon, I expect Jeff will see plenty of action in 2016.
- Lalo Fernandez – The academy project spent most of 2015 with the Monarchs with 18 appearances, I expect those minutes will probably be similar in 2016 as he continues to progress as a keeper. Holding onto him as his development continues will be a challenge for RSL.
I think RSL probably has the best or one of the top 2 or 3 keeper combos in all of MLS, this is an area of real strength heading into 2016.
Forwards – To say that the pressure is on RSL to get more productivity out of their forwards has to be the biggest understatement of the 2016 preseason.
- Juan Manuel “Burrito” Martinez – While he was only with the club for a few months in 2015, I think all fans are excited by what we believe he will be able to provide. Clearly a player to watch in 2016 in MLS not just RSL.
- Joao Plata – Injuries ruined what should have been a huge year for Joao, who exploded to new levels in 2014 with 13 goals. He had just 4 goals in 19 appearances, now with more time to gain fitness and sharpness we should expect a return to his 2014 style and productivity.
The first MLS event of the new year is the MLS Draft, that will take place on Jan 14th in Baltimore and the questions for RSL heading is simple:
How to rebound from a disappointing 2015? The worst year for the team since 2007 left fans wondering what happened. In a single season RSL went from a +15 goal differential and finishing 3rd in the West and 4th place overall in MLS to a -10 and a 9th place finish in the West, 16th overall. Offense was down as RSL scored just 38 goals, our defense gave up 48 goals our highest number since 2006. Missing the playoff for the first time since the move to Rio Tinto in 2008, what was the longest streak in MLS. Also gone was the 5 year streak of 15 wins and 50 points, what I consider the new gold standard for MLS regular season success. The one positive (for most) in the 2015 season was qualifying for the knockout rounds of the CONCACAF Champions League tournament, which provides RSL with a bit more allocation money and pressure to try to once again make a run at being the first MLS team to win it all.
To recover from that disappointing season will require RSL to become dominant at home again, a 7-4-6 record at home is simply unacceptable. It will have to start with offense, just 22 goals scored by RSL at home which is down 11 from the 2014 season. RSL seems to have addressed this issue with the soon to be announced signing of Yura Movsisyan back to RSL. Also boosting the RSL offense should be a healthy Joao Plata who saw his 2015 minutes drop by over 500 from the 2014 season. Another boost should come from Juan Manuel “Burrito” Martinez having a full preseason with RSL, we saw the glimpses of what he could bring to the table, now we need him to deliver a full portion.