Team: Real Salt Lake
Coach: Jason Kreis
Last Year’s Finish: 15-11-4, 56 points. Western Conference: 2nd
In a sense, RSL’s season has already begun with a 4-1 aggregate victory over Columbus in the CONCACAF Champions League. In the second of those two matches, we’ve seen a team that looks like it’s picking up where it left off last season – dominant at home, stout on defense, and a threat to score at any time. Going into last season’s playoffs some people considered them a favorite to repeat, but RSL instead fell to a hot Dallas team.
This season, there are few changes for Real and, with some of the other Cup contenders losing key pieces, RSL has to be thought of as the favorites going into the season. In fact, the team seems to be in the middle of a dominant run – their cap situation is tenable and their key assets are still within their career primes. This season is key to Jason Kreis’s team to show if they can be a dynasty or just another very good club for a while.
Key Roster Additions: Real didn’t add much, but what they did add was quality depth. Their biggest acquisition was Arturo Alvarez, a midfield who can score a little. He’s both a veteran (played in MLS since 2003) and a youngster (only 25 years old) who has been capped for El Salvador after spending time in the U.S. youth system. He’s the kind of player who is starter material but is also the perfect option off the bench, someone who can come in without too much of a talent drop off. Real also picked up Cody Arnoux late in the offseason. Arnoux is an American collegiate who, after trying to catch on in Europe, has returned to the U.S. for playing time. He’s definitely talented and again provides RSL with depth at forward. Last week the club acquired Conor Chinn as well, another option at forward on the bench who played well for the Red Bulls in the Open Cup.
Key Roster Subtractions: I vacillate on how much the team will miss Robbie Findley. After a great 2009 that led to a call-up to the national team, Findley became a part-timer in 2010, not even starting Real’s two playoff matches. This offseason, after his rights were selected by Portland, he went overseas to play for Nottingham Forest. He certainly contributed to the Cup winning team and was a good option for Jason Kreis last season, but I think the team’s offseason pickups can help offset the loss of Findley.
Projected Starters: Nick Rimando is an amazing player who rightly got a call-up to Bob Bradley’s “Camp Cupcake” in January. He’s found a home in goal at Salt Lake City and continues to be one of, if not the best, keeper in MLS. In front of him is one of the best backlines in soccer with Borchers, Wingert, Olave, and Beltran trying to repeat an MLS best 20 goals allowed in 2010. And as Columbus discovered, the depth is good too with Robbie Russell and Chris Schuler filling in at times.
In midfield, stalwart Kyle Beckerman will return to provide leadership and defense. He is the face (or hair) of the franchise and as long as he is healthy, Real will be defensively tough. Atop the diamond is goal-scorer Javier Morales who knocked Columbus out of the CCL almost by himself. On the wings are Canadian Will Johnson and Andy Williams, interspersed with Ned Grabavoy. Alvarez again will provide depth for Morales as well as another scorer.
Up front are Fabian Espindola and Alvoro Saborio. The scary thing about this duo is they helped RSL not only lead the league in goals scored, but home goals scored with a crazy 31. These two chipped in 19 goals and 9 assists overall, so they form one of the best up front pairs in the game. And again, the newly acquired depth will only help keep up the scoring output.
Player to Watch: The best thing about this team is there is no one player the team needs to be healthy and performing. But if I think the player the need to be healthy and at his best most is Beckerman. Again, he is the captain and the linchpin of the midfield, and quite possibly the hardest player to replace in case of injury. He epitomizes what makes RSL as good as it is.
Predictions: Jason Kreis had a great MLS career as a player and is magnifying his reputation with the coaching job he has done so far with this team. Veteran, talented, and deep, there is no doubt this team is a playoff team. The key is setting the appropriate expectations. Can they win the Double (or Treble)? I think taking the MLS Cup and CCL are reasonable goals, and even winning just one should qualify as a good year. However, this club needs to add some hardware to their trophy case this year. Falling short would just be a waste of talent.
Prediction: 1st place, Western Conference
Note: Yes, we know Portland comes before Real in the alphabet. Worry not Timbers fans: your preview is coming.