This season has been a hot mess of expectations, anticipation and disappointment, leaving entering the 2nd half of the season with some embarrassing numbers. 17 points from 18 matches, worst in MLS and -20 goal differential, also worst in MLS are the two that are most telling. Now fans will have very different places they put the blame, but the harsh reality is that beyond the coaching change, beyond injuries, beyond players coming and going and national team callups, something changed in the middle of last season. RSL went from a team that appeared to have it all going their way just before labor day, to a group who simply looked like they stopped caring and for the most part that has been the theme of this season.
Now before you jump all over me, I know that the players and staff care, I know they are passionate about the game, I know they hate losing more than the fans do, I know all of that. I also know what it looks like both live and on TV, we get glimpses that give us hope like a good performance vs Minnesota (a not so good team) and then we get duds like the match against San Jose (also a not so good team). I am not sure what changes are needed, I will leave that up to the folks running the team, but I know what I see on the pitch and in the standings and neither of them are close to what the level of expectations has been for Real Salt Lake.
Enter our only national TV appearance of the year, a pre-holiday weekend kick off match against a team with several familiar faces. It will be hard to see Jason coaching Orlando, he was such a huge part of RSL becoming a success (yes that is his name and number on the building, and yes it belongs there). It is always hard to see a guy with so much passion and who plays with the intensity that Will Johnson does in anything but Claret and Cobalt. Then there are the ones with so much potential still Luis Gil and Donny Toia, guys for whom leaving RSL may have been the best thing for them.
Neither side is happy with where they are right now, Orlando got off to a 6-1-0 start to their season, but in their last 10 they have just a single win. RSL is close to setting a record for most losses in a season at Rio Tinto or since moving to Rio Tinto with 11 losses so far and 3 home losses. So which team can find a spark to get their season on track?
So when you open the season on the road against the defending Supporter’s Shield champion, it isn’t an easy task. When you do so in an off-season that say you lose 3 All Star level players, plus all but one of your strikers, the task gets harder. Then if you factor in, losing 4 other starting players (Chris Wingert, Nat Borchers, Javier Morales, and Ned Grabavoy) for the match, yeah it almost becomes mission impossible. Yet that is exactly what happened to RSL on opening weekend, and the end result was a 2-0 victory over San Jose, and while there are plenty of areas for improvement, it was a very impressive win for a couple of factors.
First to me it showed something that sometimes has been missing over the last 18 months, it showed that old fight until the very finish mentality. Now don’t get me wrong, RSL scored a good number of late goals to get draws or win matches the last couple of seasons, I am talking about a mentality of believing you can win, of believing that you will get one more chance. Think back to 2009, the final match of the regular season and the unlikely goal from Yura Movsisyan that started the run to MLS Cup, or even of the comeback goal in MLS Cup by Robbie Findley, or the PK stops of Nick Rimando? There was something about that team that kept everyone, fans, staff, and players believing. Last year we heard the chant around the stadium, and I loved it, but on Sunday as I watched the work rate, the effort, and the heart of RSL on the pitch, I believed that we finally have gotten it back.
So the talk after last season for Real Salt Lake was the need to get cheaper (a million over the salary cap) get faster (something lacked since the departure of Robbie Findley) and to get younger (RSL had 9 players 29 or older in 2012), and how do we score goals in the big matches, so how did RSL do in the off season?
RSL traded Jamison Olave (expensive – $250K, old – 32, but very fast) and Fabian Espindola (not expensive – $125K but I believe was due a large raise for 2013, not so old – 27, and not fast but quick and very high energy) to the New York Red Bulls in exchange for a large chunk of allocation money. Then RSL traded Will Johnson to the Portland Timbers (expensive – $245K, young – 25, and like Fabi not fast but quick and very high energy) for allocation money. RSL also released a number of players like Kyle Reynish (expensive for a limited role back up GK – $75K & due a raise, age – 29, speed doesn’t matter much for GK’s), the team also released 3 strikers (Justin Braun, Paulo Jr. and Emiliano Bonfigli) all who were under 25, cheap, and varying speed.
So last Monday was perhaps the most active day for Real Salt Lake in roster moves since the team took part in the 2004 expansion draft with trades, releases, and signings all taking place on the first day of MLS rosters being un-frozen, but perhaps the most impactful change is still on the clock. Javier Morales is out of contract and Real Salt Lake has made him an offer to remain with the team, but teams in Mexico have also expressed interest in him as well. RSL has said that they expect an answer from Javi this week, and that answer will have a huge impact no matter what the choice is. So let’s take a look at three things, first what Javi’s history with RSL is, what a future with Javi could look like for RSL, and then what a future without Javi might look like.
So Javier Morales was signed by RSL in late 2007 and began making an impact, almost from day one, now at the end of 2012 he sits as a player who in MLS action has over 10,000 minutes for the Claret and Cobalt, 115 starts, 20 goals and 43 assists. His 2010 numbers had him in the mix for league MVP as RSL was the 2nd best team in MLS and he had 7 goals and 9 assists, and he was one of the best creative players in MLS. There aren’t many who would question what a Javier Morales at his best can do on the pitch, he simply makes those around him better both on and off the ball. How good is he, well every year you will find him on the list of the 10 most fouled players in the league. The “Hack-a-Javi” strategy is one that most teams now employ to try to deal with him.
Well anyone who didn’t see this coming, simply wasn’t paying attention or had their head buried in the sand, but after the 3rd straight season with 15 wins (only 3 teams in MLS history have done this) and no trophies to show for it, the time for change was at hand.
While it might seem as simple as the inability to score goals in the biggest of matches, when Alvaro Saborio would often be double or tripled teamed in coverage, the issues are larger than that. To a large extent Major League Soccer wants complete parity; they don’t want any one team being too good or too bad. Of course we know that is only partial true and one has only to look at how the league deals with allocation money to see what I mean. The worst teams in MLS, the ones who don’t make the playoffs get the larger portion of allocation money from the main pool of funds (the mysterious murky vault at MLS HQ). This seems perfectly in line with a salary cap league who wants parity, but the waters get a bit muddier when you consider the extra allocation money given to teams who make it into the CONCACAF Champions League, and even more money if they advance to the knockout rounds.
This rewarding of the successful seems counter to the parity ideals of MLS, but it is their strong desire to find a way to establish MLS as a respectable league regionally by winning the CCL. Something no MLS team has been able to do yet, the closest a team has come was the RSL run in 2010/11 version of the tournament when RSL made it to the finals. Often MLS teams find themselves facing opponents with team rosters much deeper than MLS’s and payrolls often 4-5 times the MLS salary cap or more. For Real Salt Lake making the playoffs in 2012 but not advancing to the knockout rounds of the CCL, and not qualifying for the next edition of the tournament means that allocation money wasn’t going to come from MLS’s vault.
For the 3rd straight match (2 MLS & 1 CCL) Real Salt Lake have had to settle for a 0-0 draw, and while head coach Jason Kreis addressed the fans after the match to say the team has been saving up goals for the playoffs, I am not sure everyone is buying it.
Like the last two matches RSL has played the team dominated every aspect of the match, except for the scoreboard. Saturday night it was 62.7% possession to 37.3%, it was 514 passes to 291, it was a 85% passing accuracy to 74%, it was 17 shots to 5, but only 3 shots on goal and none of them found the back of the net.
Heading into the playoffs there is no doubt that the RSL defense is up to the task, with just one goal allowed in the last 5 matches, and just 3 allowed in their last 10 matches. A stretch where RSL is 5-1-4, but if you take out the 4 goal performance against Chivas USA a month ago, RSL has scored just 6 goals in those last 10 matches. One of those is a good thing heading into the playoffs but the other not so much.