2011 Real Salt Lake preview: Unfinished business

The Tweet and Lowdown:

Consistency counts. Real Salt Lake hope to continue, and further, success from a season ago. Can they compete on MLS Cup and CCL fronts?

Setting the Scene:

Real Salt Lake did nearly everything right in 2010, having a breakout year for the emerging club. They came into last season with a chip on their shoulder, wanting to prove to everyone that their 2009 MLS Cup championship was no fluke. While competing with the LA Galaxy up until the final week of the season for the Supporters’ Shield, they earned respect around the league for their quality of play and attractive brand of soccer.

Along the way, the Royals managed to win their CONCACAF Champions League group by virtue of an impressive home victory over Cruz Azul. The team was unblemished at home for the season, pushing their consecutive unbeaten match streak at Rio Tinto in all competitions to 33 games.

[inline_node:327559]In the process, they set the standard for defensive prowess, with a league low record of 20 goals allowed for the season.

Unfortunately, the season ended in disappointing fashion as they lost to FC Dallas in the opening round of the MLS Cup Playoffs. Now, the team brings virtually the same cast of characters into what some have dubbed as “unfinished business” in the 2011 season as they look to avenge the early playoff exit and resume their CCL success.

Key Changes:

Players In: Arturo Alvarez (Portland), Jarad vanSchaik (Univ. of Portland), Cody Arnoux (Vancouver, USSF D-2)

Players out: Robbie Findley (Nottingham Forest, England), David Horst (Portland), Alex Nimo (waived), Pablo Campos (waived)

Coaching: Robin Fraser departed the RSL staff to take the head position with Chivas USA. He was replaced by C.J. Brown, fresh off of retiring as a Chicago Fire player.

Star Attraction: Alvaro Saborio

Although his Designated Player status is a technicality related to the buyout of his loan deal from Swiss club FC Sion, Saborío is perhaps the closest thing to a “star” as this RSL team has.

None of the other noteworthy players have quite the pedigree of the Costa Rican, who has participated in two CONCACAF Champions’ Cup finals with Saprissa, played at a high level in Europe and remains a key member of the Costa Rican national team.

He was Mr. Clutch in 2010, scoring five game winners in league action and another one in CCL. The only concern, perhaps, is how his knee holds up following offseason surgery.

[inline_node:322630]Unsung Hero: Nat Borchers

Borchers may be the epitome of unsung. He’s the guy that’s expected to always be there – nothing spectacular, but the steady eddie along the back line. He is the yin to teammate Jamison Olave’s yang. While the athletic Olave is chasing guys all over the final third, Borchers is the guy conservatively positioned centrally, venturing out only when absolutely required.

However, what most observers may not realize is that it’s Borchers who is orchestrating and organizing everything in the RSL defense. He’s the communicator and the signal caller of the defense that gave up an MLS low 20 goals in 2010.

Ready for Primetime: Paulo Jr.

The Brazilian youngster is the player that had the team abuzz in the preseason in Arizona. He had the fans similarly enthralled at the end of the 2010 season after joining the team on loan from second-division Miami FC (now Fort Lauderdale Strikers) in September.

The 22-year-old scored a couple of scintillating goals in the Champions League group stages last fall, which led to the team positioning him as a striker to see consistent time coming into this season. With the departure of Findley, there is an opportunity for Paulo Jr. to bring his dynamic game to the forefront in 2011.

WATCH: Who will step up for RSL in 2011?

Storylines to Watch:

The story out of Salt Lake this offseason is ... nothing has changed. The team re-signed Saborío, Will Johnson, Nick Rimando and Borchers to new deals and extended the loan of Paulo Jr. Although a seemingly “safe” move by the RSL brass, it comes with its own inherent risks. In professional sports, chemistry and quality can suddenly disappear even if personnel unchanged.

If all goes as planned, the team will carry on into 2011 without missing a beat. If that happens, the question becomes, what heights can the team reach? Some have suggested an MLS Cup and CCL double could be in the cards. Others have added the US Open Cup into the mix for a potential treble. And the really optimistic have thrown Supporters’ Shield into the mix, for the “quad.” That’s likely in the realm of fantasy, but RSL have a great deal of momentum. How far can they take it?

What He Said:

“I think it’s a good thing, and it could bode really well for us for the season because it could mean we’re really well prepared for the first four, five or six matches of the season.”

– Head coach Jason Kreis on how participating in the CCL could impact RSL’s season.

If Everything Goes Right:

It’s hard to imagine this team finishing anywhere except near the top in the West in this season. Although the Supporters’ Shield is not a stated goal for the club this season as it was a year ago, it’s likely they’ll challenge on that front, too. With a less congested late-season schedule than in 2010, expect this team to compete for the Western Conference crown again. From there, put them down to make a serious run at another MLS crown.

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