The 2014 season has officially come and gone. Not that it went quickly; Real Salt Lake kicked off its tenth regular season clear back on March 8, not to mention the preseason activities in Casa Grande, Irvine, Carson, and Tucson that stretched all the way back to January. Which is also one of the things I love about MLS: the offseason is mercifully short.
But before we look forward to 2015, let’s take a moment and look back at the season that was.
That Jersey Stripe
We here at Total MLS tipped off the new Real Salt Lake kit back in February, a red jersey with blue stripes and a…let’s call it “unique”…yellow stripe across the chest. Reaction to the jersey wasn’t exactly positive at first, but as the season commenced, fans were able to focus less on the aesthetics of the jerseys and more on the effort of the players wearing them. Whether RSL will update its jersey again next year is unclear, and change is not a sure thing: the 2012 and 2013 kits were exactly the same with the exception of a new type font.
That said, MAN would I love a cobalt third kit.
Real Salt Lake 2014 as “Ocean’s Eleven” Trilogy
You’ve probably seen the “Ocean’s Eleven” movies. A group of “good-guy” cons and thieves rip off the greedy casino owners of Las Vegas in heists so complex Rube Goldberg himself would blush. They are good movies. Except, perhaps, for “Ocean’s Twelve,” which departed from the scripts of “Ocean’s Eleven” and “Ocean’s Thirteen” by having the group go head-to-head with another thief in a plot so forgettable I can’t remember it well enough to explain here.
But when I say 2014 RSL is like the “Ocean’s Eleven” franchise, I’m not comparing plots. I’m comparing quality. “Ocean’s Eleven” (82% Rotten Tomatoes) is generally regarded as the best movie of the trilogy, its sequel “Ocean’s Twelve” (55% Rotten Tomatoes) was the stinker of the group, and “Ocean’s Thirteen” (70% Rotten Tomatoes) provided a reasonably successful conclusion. And that is how RSL’s 2014 season went: stellar opening, flat summer, serviceable finish.
Real Salt Lake’s opening stanza of 2014 featured a league record-tying 12-game unbeaten streak in which RSL took points against four eventual playoff teams (win and draw against LA Galaxy, draw against Sporting KC, draw against Vancouver Whitecaps, draw against FC Dallas), won in Houston for the first time in club history, handed newly star-studded Toronto FC its first drubbing of the season, and completed a gritty three-goal comeback win at Chicago in the final 20 minutes of that match.
But once summer came and the World Cup drew away Kyle Beckerman, Nick Rimando, and Alvaro Saborio, RSL was forced to change up the script. Injuries to Joao Plata (and subsequently to Saborio) further reduced the quality of the team’s attack, and the club managed only two goals in five matches to begin the summer session, drawing twice and losing three times. The sting of those losses was significant: a 4-0 loss in Seattle, a 3-1 home loss to Portland (RSL’s only home loss of the season), and a 1-0 failure at lowly Chivas USA. The club also suffered a first-round exit in the U.S. Open Cup in mid-June, falling 2-1 to the Atlanta Silverbacks of the NASL. The return of RSL’s national team players and the recovery of Joao Plata righted the ship somewhat, but the lack of an effective strike partnership plagued the team for months: Plata’s offensive work (13 goals, 6 assists) was prodigious, but with Saborio out with a foot injury, the other forwards contributed only 4 goals on the season, with 3 coming from Olmes Garcia.
But RSL adjusted and began racking up points again, starting on July 24 and continuing for a stretch in which RSL claimed 13 points in 5 matches. Although the club left points on the table in its final matches, it did enough to claim the third seed in the Western Conference and fourth-best record in MLS overall. During the home stretch, no goal was quite as welcome as Saborio’s 77th minute header against FC Dallas on September 6: the striker came back from injury to score barely 8 seconds into his return, giving RSL a critical win over a team that finished just 2 points back in the standings.
A solid regular season provided RSL with its seventh straight playoff berth, and the team started strong in its MLS Cup Playoffs showdown the LA Galaxy, peppering goalkeeper Jaime Penedo’s net in the first leg of the home-and-away series. But, unable to score at home, the squad had difficulty defending away, and ultimately dropped the second match in a 5-0 thrashing at the hands of the eventual champions.
Developing talent is hard. In small markets, keeping developed talent can be harder.
Offseason player losses have become a recurring theme for Real Salt Lake. Players grow and develop, and with that development comes greater market value. That greater market value places RSL in a difficult position: MLS’s salary cap structure places limits on a team’s overall payroll (with few exceptions), and RSL simply cannot hold on to all its players within that structure. When 2014’s cap restrictions were combined with a two-team expansion draft, RSL was certain to lose multiple players at season’s end. Here’s a look at RSL’s 2014 end-of-season losses:
· The first to go was Nat Borchers. After determining that re-signing Nat was an impossibility, RSL worked with him to send him to the location of his choice among interested teams. The result: Nat and his glorious beard will be reunited with Will Johnson in Portland.
· The expansion draft claimed two more RSL men, as Ned Grabavoy was taken as NYCFC’s first selection, and Chris Wingert was the final player taken by Jason Kreis’s new team.
· Creative midfielder/Rufio lookalike Sebastian Velasquez was also sent to NYCFC in exchange for allocation money. I think I’m noticing a theme here….
· RSL declined to pick up Robbie Findley’s option, and Findley was subsequently taken by Toronto FC in the first round of the league’s reentry draft.
· Perhaps the most stinging departure came to light this week. Club GM Garth Lagerwey will not be rejoining the club when his contract expires at the end of this month. Lagerwey appears to be headed to Seattle in a yet-to-be-disclosed capacity. Lagerwey has long been open about his desire to be a club president in the future, and a move to the Sounders will likely further (if not accomplish) that goal.
For all its losses, RSL greeted a number of new faces this year.
· Luke Mulholland came to Real Salt Lake last winter from the Tampa Bay Rowdies. He made an immediate impact on the team, coming on as a sub in RSL’s season opener (and being denied his first league goal by an AR’s awful decision) and starting the next match against San Jose. By mid-April he was a regular starter, with his performance forcing Luis Gil into a substitute role.
· 2014 also saw the emergence of “Super Joao.” Yes, Plata was with RSL in 2013, but his performance this season was a revelation. His potent partnership with Alvaro Saborio made RSL a consistent goal scoring threat when the two were on the field. Plata proved to be one of the best in the league at keeping shots on goal and converting shots into goals. His reward is a five-year contract, making him and RSL mainstay for the long term.
· With Saborio out for three months nursing a broken bone in his foot, and with limited offensive production from its forward corps (excepting Plata), RSL made a move to bring in a new designated player. That player was Sebastian Jaime, an Argentine striker previously playing for Union Espanola in Chile’s top division. Jaime signed in early August and, after acclimating for a month, made his first appearance at the end of RSL’s 2-1 win over FC Dallas on September 6. With a partial season under his belt and with additional time to adjust to MLS’s style of play, the 27 year old looks poised for a big 2015.
· As GM Garth Lagerwey prepares to depart the club, RSL has tapped one of its assistant coaches to take on a GM-esque role. Craig Waibel was announced as RSL’s new technical director on December 16. Waibel has an excellent playing pedigree (four MLS Cups, one U.S. Open Cup, one Supporters’ Shield) which, hopefully, will translate well into his new role.
· Real Salt Lake also welcomes into the RSL Family a gigantic new scoreboard! The new south goal video board was to be the largest video board in the league until a certain club that will not be named (rhymes with “jalaxy”) announced a newer, bigger board.
· RSL also prepares to welcome its new USL Pro affiliate, the Real Monarchs, for the 2015 season. The Monarchs will play in a stadium to be built at the Utah State Fairpark.
· U.S. Soccer had a respectable 2014 World Cup, logging a demon-exorcising win over Ghana and advancing from the “group of death” ahead of Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal before falling to Belgium in extra time in the Round of 16. Kyle Beckerman and Nick Rimando both made the World Cup roster, and Beckerman went 90 minutes in all three group stage games before ceding his spot to Geoff Cameron in the team’s lone knockout stage match against Belgium. Jurgen Klinsmann’s tactic was widely criticized after the fact, as Belgium pressured the U.S. backline all game long without Beckerman’s steadying presence in the defensive midfield. It was an interesting turn of events for Beckerman, who was criticized by much of the U.S. fan base in the run-up to the World Cup because of a perceived lack of athleticism; after the Belgium game, those same fans were asking why Klinsmann had left one of his key cogs on the bench.
· Nick Rimando is the man. Among goalkeepers with more than four games played, Rimando led the league in goals against average (1.04). He stopped an unthinkable 4 of 5 penalty kicks faced, single-handedly helping his team retain points in critical matches. He became the all-time league leader in shutouts. He’s a finalist for CONCACAF Goalkeeper of the Year. He went to Brazil, for crying out loud. But in the end, Rimando was snubbed again by the powers that be, as Bill Hamid was named MLS Goalkeeper of the Year and a Best XI selection. Ultimately, fans took the serial snubbing harder than Nick did. Besides, Nick has made it clear that the lack of recognition is a badge of honor.
· Last year, Real Salt Lake left the MLS Cup Final against Sporting KC believing it may have done enough to lock up a CONCACAF Champions League berth by participating in the final. Unfortunately, a rule change that had been in the works throughout the year transferred the CCL berth previously reserved for the MLS Cup runner-up to the team that finished atop its conference in the regular season without winning the Supporters’ Shield. As a result, the Portland Timbers went to CCL last year. This year, karma paid that particular debt to RSL, as the club received MLS’s final CONCACAF berth by virtue of having the fourth best record in the league, with all teams ahead of RSL in the standings having already qualified by other means. Thus, the rule change that harmed RSL last year benefitted the team this year.
Final Season Stats Leaders
· Goals: Joao Plata (13), Javier Morales (9), Alvaro Saborio (8)
· Goals per 90 Minutes (min. 500 minutes): Alvaro Saborio (0.63), Joao Plata (0.59), Javier Morales (0.31)
· Assists: Javier Morales (12), Luke Mulholland (7), Joao Plata (6)
· Assists per 90 Minutes (min. 500 minutes): Javier Morales (0.41), Luke Mulholland (0.32), Joao Plata (0.27)
· Shots on Goal as Percentage of Shots Taken (min. 15 shots): Joao Plata (57%), Kyle Beckerman (43%), Olmes Garcia (39%)
· Goals as a Percentage of Shots on Goal (min. 10 SOG): Javier Morales (47%), Luke Mulholland (46%), Alvaro Saborio (44%)
· Minutes: Nat Borchers (2,856), Ned Grabavoy (2,711), Javier Morales (2,645)
· Fouls Committed: Javier Morales (52), Tony Beltran (39), Kyle Beckerman (38)
· Fouls Suffered: Javier Morales (73), Luke Mulholland (49), Ned Grabavoy (45)
· Red Cards on the Season: Aaron Maund (1), Luke Mulholland (1), Nat Borchers (1), Tony Beltran (1)
(image courtesy of Tino Arana/Prost Amerika Soccer)