Entering their ninth season of existence after joining MLS as an expansion team in 2005, Real Salt Lake have been to the playoffs every year since 2008 but have failed to put together another postseason like their 2009 MLS Cup run. Last season saw Real reach the postseason as the second seed in the Western Conference, battling to a 0-0 draw in Seattle before falling 1-0 at home to the Sounders to crash out in the quarterfinals.
Jason Kreis, entering his seventh season as the manager in Salt Lake City, has gone 76-58-55 in his first six seasons. Traded from Dallas in 2005, the first player acquired in franchise history, Kreis took over as RSL head coach immediately upon his retirement in May 2007. A franchise icon, the manager has made the postseason every year after missing in that rookie coaching campaign.
The Western Conference presents an easier road than the East this season, meaning that merely reaching the postseason is not a goal in itself but merely a stepping-stone on the path. For Real Salt Lake to have a truly successful season, it will require a key bit of hardware hoisted at the end of the season. Can RSL return to the MLS Cup in 2013?PRESEASON PERFORMANCE
Real Salt Lake sojourned southwest for their training camp and preseason preparations. They squared off in their first scrimmage against the Danish U-20 national team in Arizona, losing 2-0 as Real conceded a penalty and an own goal. Heading west to the Home Depot Center, Salt Lake grabbed a 1-0 win over the Los Angeles Galaxy as midfielder Ned Grabavoy snagged a 27th-minute goal and the defense allowed the hosts little room to operate.
Returning to Arizona, Real took part in the Desert Diamond Cup in Tucson. Their first match began as well as one could possibly imagine, RSL nabbing a 2-0 lead less than five minutes into the first half as Joao Plata and Cole Grossman made the New York Red Bulls pay for defensive breakdowns. But New York settled down, slowly gaining the momentum and getting goals on either side of halftime to force a 2-2 draw. The Seattle Sounders knocked them off in the second Cup match, 2-1, as both teams waited until the final half hour to start lighting up the scoreboard.
The final match, between Salt Lake and the New England Revolution, would determine which side earned a rematch against the Sounders for the Desert Diamond Cup. Trialist Devon Sandoval put RSL up in the 22nd minute; the score would stay 1-0 at halftime. But the Revs hit goals in the 50th and 57th minutes, and even a draw would put New England through. Costa Rican international Alvaro Saborio leveled the match in the 88th minute, and Khari Stephenson nailed the game winner in stoppage time to flip a 2-1 loss into a 3-2 victory.
The rematch against the Sounders would prove as frustrating for Real as their previous friendly had been. Both sides started out defensively, scoreless at halftime. But Alex Caskey caught the Salt Lake defense sleeping as the second half began, punishing RSL in the 50th minute with the only goal of the match. The Desert Diamond Cup went back to Seattle instead of Salt Lake City this season, and RSL finished their preseason 2-3-1.ROSTER OUTLOOK FOR 2013
A position of strength for Real just got even stronger as they added two-time MLS Cup winner Josh Saunders to the four-deep stable of goalkeepers. Saunders, who was waived by Los Angeles after leading the club to a repeat championship, will push incumbent starter Nick Rimando and provides valuable insurance if/when Rimando gets called up for duty with the U.S. men’s national team this summer. The team also has Jeff Attinella, the top goalkeeper in the NASL last season with the champion Tampa Bay Rowdies, as well as Homegrown keeper Lalo Fernandez.
Kenny Mansally, the former New England striker, moved to Salt Lake last season and found a new role as a left fullback for the team, utilizing his pace along the flank to press forward and find teammates. He will take up the post once again, with Chris Wingert out until at least mid-April with a broken right metatarsal that happened in offseason training. Mansally will play opposite Tony Beltran, RSL’s 2008 first-round pick in the SuperDraft, who took over the right side with the departure of Robbie Russell to DC United and has proven to be a strong one-on-one marker. 19-year-old Carlos Salcedo adds depth on the right side as well as central defense. Between the fullbacks, that central defense is in a state of flux. Jamison Olave was traded to New York and Nat Borchers is recovering from offseason surgery on his left quadriceps. Chris Schuler, who was oft injured in 2012 with a stress reaction in his left foot, returns back to full health for the start of the season and needs to stay that way all season for Real. Alongside him, Kwame Watson-Siriboe filled in ably last season after his acquisition from the Chicago Fire bench and will once again become the starter until somebody returns or displaces him. The team also acquired Aaron Maund, Toronto FC’s first-round selection in the 2012 SuperDraft, in the offseason; the 22-year-old will find it harder to earn playing time, but landed in a better developmental situation to hone his talents without the pressure to perform at a first-team level immediately.
The midfield operates in a 1-2-1 diamond. At the back, team captain Kyle Beckerman plays the holding midfield role in front of the back four, controlling possession and starting counterattacks. Yordany Alvarez offers backup at the back, the Cuban already accustomed to giving Beckerman relief throughout the past two seasons, as does Uruguayan sophomore Enzo Martinez. On the wings will likely be Ned Grabavoy and former San Jose midfielder Khari Stephenson, though 21-year-old Frenchman David Viana could earn more time as well once he starts to better understand Kreis’ tactics. This year’s first-round SuperDraft pick, John Stertzer, could also press for relief roles on either edge. Cole Grossman is being trained on the flanks of the diamond after coming over from Columbus over the winter. All three could also sub in up front in the diamond, where Sebastian Velasquez received plenty of playing time in the preseason and impressed enough to look like a potential starter with Javier Morales recovering from surgery to repair a torn lateral meniscus in his knee. Also under consideration is 19-year-old Luis Gil, who has been building Kreis’ confidence over the past three years since being traded by Kansas City.
Robbie Findley returns to RSL after two years with Nottingham Forest in England, and will assume his comfortable starting spot up front. Alvaro Saborio, who hit 17 goals in 2012, will be playing alongside Findley — or whoever else earns the spot. Also in the mix is Joao Plata, the Ecuadorean who was traded from Toronto in the offseason and impressed throughout the friendly schedule. Olmes Garcia and Devon Sandoval are young prospects who could get garbage-time play.FINAL NOTES
Real Salt Lake is largely leaning on the same crew that put them above all but San Jose in the Western Conference standings in 2012. They were 15 points above the cutoff point between 5th and 6th place last year, so even with a swoon Real should still manage to make a playoff berth in the West. But whether RSL can do serious damage once they get to the playoffs is a question of how well a new-look central defense can approximate the performance from last season.