Inside MLS season preview: Identity offers Real Salt Lake a touchstone through transition

Real Salt Lake relies on its core group of players to establish the tone and protect the identity cultivated over the past few years.

Russell Isabella/Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

Ask Thierry Henry about the power of money in MLS and the offseason acquisitions at Toronto FC and he’ll point you in another direction entirely.

Winning in MLS isn’t just about the money, Henry insists. There is no guaranteed correlation between outlay and success. Championships are determined by forming an identity and sticking to it. New York is in the process of establishing its underpinnings and made strides in that direction last season, he notes.

And then he reinforces his larger point by citing Real Salt Lake’s run to MLS Cup and its carefully crafted approach to the game.

“It says football is a funny old game,” Henry said last month during the MLS media and marketing tour. “It doesn’t always work because Salt Lake went to the final last year. And Salt Lake is the best team in the league in terms of playing and passing the ball. Kansas City won last year, but if you watched the game and you watched Salt Lake, they can play. They lost [Jámison] Olave, they lost [Fabian] Espindola, they lost Will Johnson. Everybody was like, hmm, they will struggle. They had an identity. They didn’t struggle. And you can say they were unfortunate to lose the final.”

RSL managed to survive several high-profile losses heading into last season to advance to MLS Cup based upon the leadership of players like Kyle Beckerman, Nat Borchers and Nick Rimando.

RSL reached that stage and nearly won a second title by relying on its core, its ethos, its system and its talent to remodel the squad in transit. The groundwork for succeeding without Espíndola, Johnson and Olave emerged from the blueprint designed well before RSL lifted MLS Cup in 2009. This team operates as a carefully tuned unit designed to obtain and retain possession while displaying sharpness and resolve. And they adhere to those directives in good times and bad.

The identity survived the defections of a year ago due in large part to the considerable infrastructure still in place, but it faces a stern test this year after the departure of Jason Kreis to New York City FC in December. Kreis’ diligence and tactical preparations placed his players in a position to thrive over the long haul. He tweaked the 4-4-2 diamond setup as necessary to fit his personnel and keep matters ticking over as expected.

Kreis’ exit leaves former RSL assistant Jeff Cassar and most of the core players – established performers like Kyle Beckerman, Nat Borchers, Javier Morales, Nick Rimando and Álvaro Saborío right down the spine of the team – to retain the structures developed over the course of time.

“For the most part, it’s been the same as years past,” Beckerman said. “Jeff had a big footprint on our team when Jason was there, even though he was an assistant. A lot of things are going just as they would with Jason there. Of course we’ll miss him. He brought a lot of good stuff for us. But if anybody can handle it and keep it going, it’s Jeff.”

Jason Kreis’ departure presents the biggest threat to RSL’s identity yet, but captain Kyle Beckerman expects the core players and new boss Jeff Cassar to keep RSL on track.

Cassar’s appointment constituted a sign of faith in the core players and a validation of the work over the past few years. The fate of this group rests in the hands of its players, a group of seasoned and wily veterans keenly aware of the burden placed upon their shoulders by the club. It is not a responsibility they take lightly, according to Beckerman.

“We’re going to hold each other accountable,” Beckerman said. “We’re going to make sure this thing keeps going and make sure it’s OK for Jeff. We all know that if we get off to a bad start or something, you guys are going to be questioning Jeff. What’s with that move? It’s really important – and we’re going to take a lot of responsibility as the core players – to try and hold it together and see if we can get off to a decent start at the beginning.”

The peculiar schedule – four of the first six and six of the first 10 matches are away from Rio Tinto Stadium – leaves little room for error. A stumble here or there might even prompt the responses Beckerman predicts, though they matter little to a team more focused on titles than chatter. The final accounting takes place in November and December, not April or May.

The window – propped open by astute personnel moves, but bound to shut at some point – to make an impact at that stage of the season still invites further achievement. The enduring presence of those core players and the system in place guarantees a determined run toward it. It is, after all, about identity. And this team still relies on its fundamental principles to chase after its ultimate objectives.


FEB. 24Chicago Fire – Mike Magee’s encore – Chivas USA

FEB. 25Colorado Rapids – Exploring the new vision in Columbus – Columbus Crew

FEB. 26D.C. United – Eddie Johnson steps into the spotlight again – FC Dallas

FEB. 27Houston Dynamo – Galaxy plots a return to the summit – LA Galaxy

FEB. 28Montréal Impact – Nesta shares his knowledge with Montréal – New England Revolution


MARCH 3New York Red Bulls – Supporters’ Shield triumph transforms New York  Philadelphia Union

MARCH 4Portland Timbers – Identity offers Real Salt Lake a touchstone amid change – Real Salt Lake

MARCH 5: San Jose Earthquakes – Seattle Sounders – Sporting Kansas City

MARCH 6: Toronto FC – Vancouver Whitecaps