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Without a doubt, Real Salt Lake and its fans are still smarting from a 2013 filled with so much success, but so little hardware. But with that pain came experience: over the course of last season, RSL went from a team with low expectations to a top contender for each of the league’s trophies. And the chemistry forged from that unexpected success has the club primed for a big 2014.
In spite of the flurry of offseason activity from teams like Toronto, RSL’s offseason has been rather quiet. The team did bring in Luke Mulholland from the Tampa Bay Rowdies and signed Jordan Allen to a homegrown contract, but outside of those two moves and a couple picks in the MLS Superdraft, RSL’s only other offseason moves involved trading fan favorite Lovel Palmer to Chicago for allocation money while allowing other players’ contracts to expire. In other words, for RSL, consistency is the watchword.
Even though the players on the field in 2014 will be the same, RSL will have one “new” face: after head coach Jason Kreis moved on to NYCFC and its deep-pocketed owners across the pond, Real Salt Lake promoted assistant coach Jeff Cassar to lead the 2014 squad. The selection of Cassar sent a message to the team and its fans that the “Team Is the Star” culture created by Kreis will continue in his absence. Cassar appears likely to continue many of Kreis’s tactics and strategies this upcoming season.
So with that, what can we expect from the 2014 Claret-and-Cobalt?
Real Salt Lake returns all of its five primary forwards: Alvaro Saborio, Joao Plata, Robbie Findley, Devon Sandoval, and Olmes Garcia. The team received significant contributions last season from each of the five, and if Cassar can insert them into the lineup in the right combinations, Real Salt Lake should again be at or near the top of the league in scoring.
In the midfield, RSL will likely continue its now-ubiquitous diamond shape with Javier Morales providing the creative force behind the forwards. Morales is coming off one of his best seasons just two years after a devastating injury. On the wings, Cassar will likely continue to utilize Ned Grabavoy and Luis Gil, with Sebastian Velasquez coming off the bench to provide additional offense. RSL captain Kyle Beckerman will continue to provide defensive support and precision passing as the number 6.
Along the backline, Tony Beltran and Chris Wingert will continue to defend the wings while Nat Borchers and Chris Schuler will work from their center back positions. Schuler was in fine form in the MLS Playoffs after returning from a foot injury that sidelined him for four months, and offseason surgery should help keep him on the field this year.
And backstopping it all is Nick Rimando, a man who shockingly—SHOCKINGLY—has never won a Goalkeeper of the Year award. After a 2013 that saw him lead the U.S. Men’s National Team to a Gold Cup championship while registering nine shutouts in league play, Rimando only needs five clean sheets to take over the all-time MLS record for regular season shutouts (currently 112 by Kevin Hartman).
RSL will likely have to play without Rimando and Beckerman for some stretches in 2014, as both have been National Team regulars and may be called up frequently during the run-up to the World Cup. However, in spite of the absence of Rimando, Beckerman, and Beltran for stretches of the season last summer, RSL’s backups have proven themselves to be capable replacements.
In short, the pieces are in place for another excellent season. So let's make a few bold predictions, shall we?
RSL will return to the CONCACAF Champions League by winning the Western Conference. After last year's surprising second place finish in the West and finishing only three points out from winning the Supporters' Shield, there's little reason to think RSL can't replicate that success. It returns almost all its regular players, accounting for 55 of the teams 57 regular season goals. RSL will outpace its stylistic brother Portland for the top spot in the West, with Seattle close behind.
Luis Gil will have a breakout season. Gil has frequently shown flashes of greatness (and some excellent dance moves) but has yet to reach his full potential. But after his first USMNT senior team call-up, I think Gil starts to truly live up to expectations.
Nick Rimando will finally get his due. For Nick Rimando, consistency has been both a blessing and a curse. In spite of–or because of–his consistent performance in goal, Rimando's success just doesn't seem to impress enough Goalkeeper of the Year voters. I think that changes this year.
Nick Rimando and Kyle Beckerman are going to Brazil. Okay. This was low-hanging fruit. I think both are in a great position to find themselves on the U.S. World Cup team.
RSL will place two players in the MLS Best XI. Real Salt Lake has been locked out of the MLS Best XI since 2011, when Jamison Olave was named to the squad. In part, this is due to RSL's "Team-Is-the-Star" mantra. Looking at last year's Best XI forwards, all three were among the top 4 scorers in the league last year (with only Camilo Sanvezzo being left out). In contrast, Real Salt Lake's five forwards combined for 30 regular season goals, spread out fairly evenly after Saborio's 12. This year, I expect Kyle Beckerman and Nick Rimando to make their debut in the Best XI, while Chris Schuler competes for a spot, as well.
Regardless of how these predictions turn out, I expect Beckerman and Co. to make a splash in 2014.
(image courtesy of mlssoccer.com)