2012 Real Salt Lake Preview: Aiming for the top
MLSsoccer.com is previewing each of the 19 teams in Major League Soccer, beginning with the clubs that brought up the bottom of the table in 2011 and ending with the league's newest addition, the Montreal Impact. This is part one of two previewing Real Salt Lake's 2012 season. You can find Part 2 here.
Setting the Scene
2011 was a season of highs and lows for Real Salt Lake. The highs all came at the front end of the year, as they made a high-profile run all the way to the CONCACAF Champions League finals before suffering a disappointing loss to Monterrey.
RSL react to heartbreaking loss in CCL final
Shortly after that, RSL began an agonizing, yet successful, 2011 season featuring numerous injuries and absences. Perhaps the most devastating was the broken ankle of midfielder Javier Morales in April that kept him out of the lineup until just before the end of the season.
Although they made some noise in the first round of the playoffs by besting the higher-seeded Seattle Sounders, their dream of a trophy fell short as they were knocked out by ultimate MLS Cup champs LA Galaxy.
For all of the quality that they have brought to the table over the past two seasons, the squad is focused on finally picking up some hardware for their efforts in 2012.
In and Out
IN: GK Eduardo “Lalo” Fernandez (Home Grown signing); M Enzo Martinez (SuperDraft/Generation Adidas/Univ. of North Carolina); M Sebastian Velasquez (SuperDraft/Spartanburg Methodist College); M Jonny Steele (Carolina RailHawks/NASL); D Leone Cruz (2011 SuperDraft selection by Seattle Sounders, acquired in exchange for rights to Supplemental Draft selection Andy Rose); D Diogo de Almeida (SuperDraft/SMU) D Terukazu Tanaka (Sagan Tosu/Japan); F Emiliano Bonfigli (Supplemental Draft)
OUT: G Tim Melia (11/23: waived); M Collen Warner (11/23: expansion draft); D Robbie Russell (11/29: trade to D.C.); M Jean Alexandre (12/1: trade to San Jose); M Arturo Alvarez (12/5: Re-Entry Stage 1/Chivas USA); M Andy Williams (12/5: retired); D Nelson González (12/12: option declined); D Rauwshan McKenzie (12/12: option declined); M Blake Wagner (12/12: option declined)
Star Attraction: Javier Morales
Javier Morales talks about his return from injury
As his absence proved last year, he’s an essential ingredient to the success of Real Salt Lake. In his role as the team’s No. 10, he’s clearly the engine that makes a very talented squad go. While the team did well trying to make up for this deficit, it’s apparent that they weren’t at their best without him.
The talented Argentine has that "wow" factor that few in the league can rival. His ability to create space and make exceptional plays, especially on set pieces, brings an extra dimension that can’t be replaced currently on this RSL roster.
Unsung Hero: Ned Grabavoy
It’s a bit hard to call many of the RSL starting XI unsung, but Grabavoy could fit the bill here. As a midfielder on a highly technical team, his skills on the ball are often underrated. He’s also developed as a strong two-way player since joining the Claret-and-Cobalt and his value in this role is often overlooked.
Along with teammate Fabián Espíndola, he was an offseason priority for general manager Garth Lagerwey to lock up for multiple years. His importance will likely be highlighted this season following the retirement of Andy Williams.
Ready for Primetime: Luis Gil
Gil had a breakout year in 2011. He not only saw his debut with the first team, but saw action in 25 games, starting in 14 of them. Perhaps the highlight for him came on August 6 against the New York Red Bulls, when he scored his first career goal.
The 18-year-old has been a fixture among the US youth national teams, and is poised to become a star in the league. Although head coach Jason Kreis refuses to put pressure on the youngster, there are big expectations for him in 2012. Gil is versatile and can play in a forward role, at the top of the diamond or on either side of the midfield.
Storylines to Watch
1. Can RSL stay relatively injury-free? The club missed many key components in many key games last season. They are likely to open the season without Álvaro Saborío (knee), central defender Nat Borchers (quad) and possibly Will Johnson (sports hernia).
2. How strong will the depth be on this squad? The bottom half of the roster has had a lot of turnover. The team has brought in some new players, but because of cap limitations, had little money to spend. Have they managed to identify some diamonds in the rough?
3. Will Rio Tinto once again become a fortress? Real Salt Lake lost 3 games in 17 outings at home last season after going nearly two full seasons without a loss. Still not a bad mark by any means, but Rio Tinto lost a bit of the intimidating edge that it once held. Can they return to the home field dominance that they once enjoyed?
What He Said
“Are we going to be able to out possess like we normally do? Are we going to be able to create chances? Are we going to defend well? I think those three things are our bread and butter.”
– Real Salt Lake defender Nat Borchers (pictured right)
If Everything Goes Right
Real Salt Lake have proven to be one of the best in the league over the past few seasons. The starting XI is still mostly intact, and if they can stay healthy and get contributions from some new additions, they should retain that status.
The team will be competing to get back into the CONCACAF knockout stages again next spring. However, the more immediate challenge for the squad will be to compete for Supporters' Shield, with the ultimate goal being a Dec. 1 date in MLS Cup. They appear to have the elements in place to do so, but can they put it all together?
WATCH: 2011 RSL Goals