The countdown clock to the 2015 MLS regular season is officially under a week, even if unofficially (with a possible strike in the offing) we could realistically still be a bit further out from the season’s kickoff. But that won’t stop us here at Total MLS from taking a look at the upcoming season. In this installment, we take preview Real Salt Lake.
With Jason Kreis’s departure for NYCFC, Real Salt Lake called on Jeff Cassar to take the reins. While Cassar’s promotion wasn’t exactly a glamorous move, it certainly showed RSL’s commitment to its carefully developed “The Team Is The Star” culture. The move paid off; RSL started the season with a 12-game unbeaten streak before injuries and World Cup call-ups left a short-handed squad fighting for points through the summer. But the squad stayed in the Supporters’ Shield conversation throughout the season, ultimately finishing fourth overall and third in the Western Conference.
The MLS Playoffs were a little less kind to the Claret-and-Cobalt. RSL’s spectacular first-leg performance against Los Angeles was overshadowed by an even-more-spectacular performance by Galaxy goalkeeper Jaime Penedo. The eventual champions asserted their dominance in the return leg with a 5-0 thrashing that sent RSL home for an offseason full of inevitable changes.
Real Salt Lake has always prided itself on its consistency, cohesiveness, and squad depth. This has generally meant limited turnover of the squad’s core, but the addition of expansion sides Orlando City SC and NYCFC all but assured that RSL would lose players in the MLS expansion draft. And lose players they did, as midfielder Ned Grabavoy and defender Chris Wingert were selected by NYCFC with the second pick and the final pick of the expansion draft, respectively.
RSL likewise said goodbye to center back Nat Borchers, whose salary could no longer be accommodated within the team’s salary cap; center back Carlos Salcedo, whose attitude could no longer be accommodated within the team’s patience; and midfielder Sebastian Velasquez, whose rat tail was simply too beautiful for this world. Also on the list of RSL’s dearly departed are Robbie Findley, Cole Grossman, Rich Balchan, and Benji Lopez.
But with the losses came new acquisitions. RSL reacquired center back Jamison Olave from the Red Bulls to plug in next to Chris Schuler. The squad also added two homegrown players, midfielder Sebastian Saucedo and defender Phanuel Kavita; drafted defender Boyd Okwuonu; and signed midfielder Wellington “Pecka” Paeckart from the Fort Lauderdale Strikers.
But perhaps equally important for team depth were the additions of Guatemalan national team defender Elias Vasquez and Jamaican national team defender Demar Phillips, who will likely jump into to Wingert’s now-vacant starting left back spot. Add in the return from injury of jack-of-all-trades Jordan Allen and RSL should be in good position.
Real Salt Lake has lived and breathed the 4-4-2 diamond since Jason Kreis’s early days as head coach, but times appear to be changing. While the 4-4-2 diamond will always remain an arrow in the Claret-and-Cobalt quiver, a shift to the more offensively aggressive 4-3-3 seems likely. The formation will allow RSL to put its three most dangerous strikers—Alvaro Saborio, Sebastian Jaime, and Joao Plata, once healthy—on the field at the same time. A more attack-minded formation certainly brings additional challenges—during the preseason, RSL occasionally got caught forward and turned over while in the 4-3-3, exposing the team to counterattacks—but with the added speed and physicality of Olave bolstering the back line, RSL should at least be well-positioned to handle quick counters.
RSL brings its new formation to transformed Western Conference. The 2015 season will see Sporting Kansas City and Houston Dynamo moving west and strengthening an already-strong conference, while the departure of Chivas USA eliminates one of MLS’s weakest teams. Luckily, RSL’s schedule, as difficult as it will be, has a few beneficial features:
- RSL faces SKC three times, but twice at home
- RSL faces LA Galaxy three times, but twice at home
- RSL faces Seattle Sounders only twice (home and away)
- RSL draws NYCFC and Orlando City at home
If RSL can perform as well at home this year as it has in the past, the team should be able to take points from critical matches against Western Conference foes.
The mixed blessing of CONCACAF Champions League competition will also add a wrinkle to RSL’s schedule. When combined with possible U.S. Open Cup play, RSL could be fighting on three fronts come the second half of the season. Can RSL rely on its depth to carry it through to the end of the season?
So what can we expect this season? Here are a few wild guesses:
- Alvaro Saborio will lead the team in goals. He’s certainly going to get a head start on Joao Plata, who will miss a few games to start the season with a broken bone in his foot. With more forwards on the field, Saborio may end up sharing the bounty of goals with his cohorts, but Sabo has a finishing ability few in MLS have. I’ll put the over/under for Saborio goals at 12.5.
- RSL will win 14 games and pull in 51 points for the year. This tally will be enough to secure third place in the Western Conference and fifth in the overall table. RSL will challenge for the top of the table all year, but this is a killer Western Conference. RSL will be in a five-team race at the top of the West with LA Galaxy, Seattle Sounders, FC Dallas, and Sporting Kansas City. I’ll give that last playoff spot to Vancouver Whitecaps. (Sorry, Portland.) I’m putting the odds of RSL making the playoffs at 85%.
- Javier Morales will lead the team in assists. As the guy gets older, he just gets craftier. Taking free kicks and corners will help Javi secure his spot as the team assist leader. I’ll put the over/under at 9.5 assists.
- Nick Rimando will once again do enough to win Goalkeeper of the Year, and he will once again be robbed of his reward by a lesser human. Having conducted a scientific study of MLS goalkeepers (i.e., I closed my eyes and pointed at a random goalkeeper’s name), I believe Chicago’s Sean Johnson will win the award. That may sound ridiculous, but MLS award voters work in mysterious and inscrutable ways. Who am I to question their all-knowing wisdom? Over/under for Rimando shutouts is 6.5, and for penalty kicks saved, I’ll say 2.5.
- The season’s first yellow card will go to Javier Morales. It’s an interesting world: Javi is not only RSL’s most consistently fouled player, he is also one of the team’s most consistent foulers.
- Over/under for Rio Tinto Stadium sellouts: 11.5 (accounting for a greater number of Sunday matches and midweek games, and not accounting for any Champions League play).
- Over/under for number of matches resulting in complaints about YSA chants at Rio Tinto Stadium: 3.5.
- Most likely to take on the mantle of best hair on the team: No one. No man dares ascend to the throne of Ned Grabavoy, and since Sebastian Jaime already cut his hair, I don’t think anyone is worthy.
Projected First Choice Lineup
Rimando, Beltran, Olave, Schuler, Phillips, Beckerman, Morales, Gil, Jaime, Saborio, Plata
(image courtesy of Trent Nelson/The Salt Lake Tribune)