Inside MLS season preview: Real Salt Lake
Last year in a nutshell: RSL shrugged off the talk of retooling by churning through the regular season and climbing within one penalty kick here or three of lifting MLS Cup at Sporting Park.
(as of March 3)
Incoming: MF: Jordan Allen (Virginia); Luke Mulholland (Tampa Bay Rowdies)
Outgoing: GK: Josh Saunders (unattached); DF: Brandon McDonald (unattached), Lovel Palmer (Chicago); MF: Yordany Álvarez (Orlando City), Khari Stephenson (unattached)
Key Player: The team well and truly is the star, but Kyle Beckerman serves as the fulcrum. His astute positioning covers the rearguard deftly and places him in a position to acquire and retain possession simply and effectively. His care and precision on the ball and his exhausting work rate makes the diamond midfield tick. Most importantly, his presence sets the tone for a veteran team with an innate feel of how to pace itself over the course of a season and prepare for the intensity of the playoffs.
Strengths: No team in the league operates more effectively as a unit, but the overall effectiveness of the side often obscures the individual talent within the ranks. Nick Rimando is one of the best goalkeepers to ever play in the league, a steady and often spectacular veteran poised to head to the World Cup this summer. The defense – intelligently marshaled by the seasoned Nat Borchers – combines strength and savvy with fullbacks Tony Beltran and Chris Wingert capable of bearing the load heaped upon them by a narrow midfield setup. Beckerman, Luis Gil, Ned Grabavoy and Javier Morales comprise the vaunted midfield diamond. The quartet forms a group predicated upon selflessness and tidiness. Morales absorbs most of the creative duties and presents a considerable threat opposing defenses with his willingness to move into awkward spaces to collect the ball. Álvaro Saborío is the league's top prototypical target player, a center forward capable of holding the ball up and finishing off moves with aplomb. Robbie Findley stretches defenses vertically, while Olmes Garcia, Joao Plata and Devon Sandoval produced in reserve roles a year ago to allow RSL to score 57 goals a year ago (second-best in MLS).
Weaknesses: Availability and durability represent the primary enemies for this veteran squad. Only two players – Gil and Grabavoy – played in 30 or more games last season. Beckerman mustered just 26 due to his club commitments and his tendency to pick up bookings (seven cautions a year ago). Those realities place considerable pressure on the reserves to contribute in a meaningful way. Some spots (forward) are deeper than others (defense). The usual admonishments about teams pulling apart the diamond with horizontal play through midfield and subsequently testing the fullbacks in two-versus-one situations still apply. Oh, and the prospect of entering the season without Jason Kreis on the bench injects a modest amount of uncertainty, too.
PROSPECTS FOR 2014
● Can Jeff Cassar handle the inevitable rough patches?: RSL opted for continuity over experience by naming Cassar as Kreis' replacement. The decision constituted a significant vote of confidence in the club's veteran core and placed significant pressure on Cassar to devise a way to produce similar results. Players speak highly of Cassar's ability to manage within the group, but the true test of his acumen will come when adversity eventually strikes.
● Is there a third center back in-house if Borchers or Schuler misses time?: RSL's central defensive duo functions particularly well in concert. Issues could arise, however, if either one of them drops out of the side through injury. One of the available options in reserve – Carlos Salcedo, Aaron Maund and Kwame Watson-Siriboe – must prove his credentials in order to provide Cassar with the necessary cover.
● Will the World Cup year exert a dangerous toll on Saborío?: The veteran Costa Rican striker faces yet another hectic set of commitments for club and country in the buildup to Brazil. His body – and those knees, in particular – ometimes shows the wear and tear of those exertions. RSL must manage minutes carefully during the busy portion of the calendar to ensure its leading striker is poised to perform as the regular season winds to a close.
Best case scenario: RSL once again shows its experience and its quality by navigating the regular season without depleting its players. This veteran side them finds a way to progress through the Western Conference gauntlet again and secure a second consecutive MLS Cup appearance. This journey ends with a second title and a permanent place in the history books for this wildly successful group.
Worst case scenario: The sturdy foundation finally starts to fissure with a new man in charge. RSL lurches through the regular season with key pieces missing time and potential replacements struggling to fill the ample voids left. Cassar relies on his veterans to steer the team into the postseason nevertheless, but the dreams of a return to MLS Cup die far earlier than expected.
2014 INSIDE MLS SEASON PREVIEWS
MARCH 4: Portland Timbers – Identity offers Real Salt Lake a touchstone amid change – Real Salt Lake