2013 record: 16-10-8 (56 points); 57 GF / 41 GA (+16 GD)
Real Salt Lake began the 2013 season in rebuilding mode. After trading away longtime stalwarts Will Johnson, Jamison Olave and Fabian Espindola to meet salary-cap concerns, the team's top management expected – hoped – to just barely make it into the playoffs.
Instead, the team vastly overachieved right up until the moments it underachieved, maybe three kicks away from what could have been a truly special season. Instead, it was a season of what-ifs.
RSL led the Western Conference and Supporters' Shield races for months, only to narrowly miss out on both. They had a clear path to the U.S. Open Cup title, with all of their games played on their home field at Rio Tinto Stadium, only to lose to a lowly D.C. United team in the final.
Then the Claret-and-Cobalt got hot in the playoffs and were poised to win the MLS Cup, only to see it slip from their grasp on a frozen field in Kansas City.
The team wasn't shut out, though. After a four-year drought, Salt Lake finally added a trophy to the case — the Western Conference title that came after eliminating Los Angeles and Portland in the playoffs.
And while RSL return the core of their team in 2014, for the first time since 2007 Jason Kreis won't be coaching them. He's gone to New York City FC, leaving former goalkeepers coach Jeff Cassar in charge.
Best Moment of the Year
The 102nd minute of the second leg of RSL's playoff series Nov. 7 against Los Angeles, when defender Chris Schuler – out much of the season with an injury – got on the end of a free kick from midfielder Javier Morales and volleyed the ball in from the right edge of the six. The goal gave Salt Lake a 2-1 victory on aggregate, eliminated the two-time defending champions Galaxy and exorcized an RSL demon.
After a long string of failures in big games at Rio Tinto Stadium – losses in the playoffs, in the CONCACAF Champions League final, in the U.S. Open Cup final – the Claret-and-Cobalt finally gave their fans something to go crazy about.
Worst Moment of the Year
It's a tie between two heartbreakers. The first came in the U.S. Open Cup final Oct. 1, watching the seconds tick away and realizing RSL was going to lose the match and the trophy to otherwise dreadful D.C. United. The second came in the MLS Cup final on Dec. 7, watching defender Lovel Palmer's kick – their 10th and final in the penalty shootout – hit the crossbar and bounce away, handing the title to Kansas City.
In a 3-1 home win over Portland on Aug. 30, forward Joao Plata served in a corner that Morales couldn't quite control on his first touch. But he more than made up for that by scoring on a spectacular overhead kick that beat goalkeeper Donovan Ricketts and kissed the far post on its way in.
You could argue goalkeeper Nick Rimando, who kept the team in games early in the season when defenders like Nat Borchers and Chris Wingert were injured. But the MVP has to go to Morales, the sparkplug who made Real Salt Lake's offense go. Forward Alvaro Saborio had more goals (13 to Morales' nine, including the postseason), but Morales led the team with 13 assists and, perhaps as importantly, mentored RSL's emerging younger players.
Bringing in Plata from Toronto, a deal general manager Garth Lagerwey finalized in a hotel bar in Indianapolis at 1:30 am. The diminutive forward went on to play in 29 games, starting 19, for the Claret-and-Cobalt, bringing offensive creativity and firepower; contributing four goals and eight assists in the regular season and another assist in the playoffs.
"It’s remarkable they got to so many finals. It’s unbelievable that this group has put themselves in so many positions to win things and, unfortunately, things for one reason or another haven’t gone our way. Very easy to look at it in a negative way, but I don’t think we should. ... I’m really proud of this group and I think it’s a fantastic soccer team." -- then-RSL head coach Jason Kreis, immediately after his team's loss in the MLS Cup final
1. Young players need to step up: Forwards Olmes Garcia, Plata and Devon Sandoval, as well as midfielders Luis Gil and Sebastian Velasquez, all showed moments of brilliance but lacked the consistency they needed to contribute on a regular basis. And other young players who never made it off the reserve squad need to show significant improvement. Now that the team has decided not to pick up Yordany Alvarez's option, Cole Grossman needs to prove he can be a strong backup to team captain Kyle Beckerman.
2. Outside backs: With Palmer – who contributed significantly to RSL's playoff run – traded to Chicago, RSL is somewhat thin at outside back. Between injuries (to Wingert) and suspensions (most notably Abdoulie Mansally), Salt Lake could use some help at that position.
3. Coaching staff: RSL needs to transition into the Cassar (pictured right) era. First order of business, re-establishing the coaching staff. The new head coach has been named, now he has to hire assistants and get set for the 2014 season – in a month.
4. Re-sign Lagerwey: A top priority has to be signing general manager Garth Lagerwey to a long-term contract. He's the architect who built the roster; his contract expires at the end of the 2014 season. Not re-signing him will leave the same sort of cloud of uncertainty that followed the team through most of 2013 once it became clear Kreis was considering the NYCFC offer.