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Mission accomplished? Early returns suggest Real Salt Lake's "reloading" is paying dividends

Devon Sandoval, Javier Morales and Joao Plata

Photo Credit: 
USA Today Sports

SANDY, Utah — Entering the 2013 MLS season, nobody in Real Salt Lake's front office wanted to say the team was "rebuilding." After 15 games, it appears they were right.

RSL are 7-5-3 with 24 points and currently sit in second place in the Western Conference, despite trading away three All-Star-caliber players (Fabián Espíndola, Will Johnson, Jámison Olave) in the offseason. And though the club is in a good position, general manager Garth Lagerwey feels it is a little early to say the "reloading" project is a success.

"I do think we are headed in the right direction," he said. "I do think we are making progress. But I think the thing we still have to do is to consistently beat good teams. … We haven't really played a lot of the top teams in the league yet. I was looking at the schedule and of the 19 games we have left, 10 of them are against what I would call the best six or seven teams.

"I guess what I'm saying is I don't know if there is enough evidence yet."

What evidence there is has been mostly positive. Except for a couple of blips, Real have played well, even if they haven't always earned a result, and the new mix of veterans and youngsters has been playing the type of eye-catching soccer the team has come to be known for.

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"I really like what our younger players are doing," Lagerwey said. "I really like what our veteran players have done to incorporate the younger players. I think we need to be more consistent at a couple of spots, which is to be expected with some younger players, but I think we have enough quality of a team that we can be a playoff team.

"Right now, we are on pace to get 50 points. We are on pace to extend our league-leading playoff streak, which would be a sixth year in a row. If you would have offered me those two things at the beginning of the year, I would have gladly accepted because I think this was a massive project."

Any time a club loses three core starters, things are going to be different. Some of the changes are gong to be good, while others may not work out. The good news is that a few additions have performed better than even Lagerwey could have imagined.

"Olmes García, I think, came [along] faster than we thought he might," said Lagerwey of a pleasant surprise. "It isn't to say he is a finished project by any means. We've got to get him healthy and consistently on the field. But man, that kid has so much potential.

"[Joao] Plata and [Devon] Sandoval both are better than we thought they were. That is not to say we didn't think they were very good, but they are even better than we thought. I think you have seen that with their contributions. To think [Sandoval is only] 20 and [Plata is] 22 and Olmes is 20. I would say that the No. 1 strategic objective was to get better in the attack, and I would say we've done that because we are scoring right now, and we are doing it without our No. 1 scorer [Álvaro Saborío] right now."

While the goalscoring has been a positive, an area Lagerwey would like to see more improvement is stopping goals.

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"I think statistically we are not as good defensively as we were last year," he said. "[Nick] Rimando is playing the best I've ever seen him play, I mean fantastic, but our backs maybe haven't played quite as well. But a lot of that is just getting time out there together. … At that position, there is no substitute for time."

With the halfway mark of the 2013 MLS regular season fast approaching, RSL are in good position. But with plenty of distractions still coming, and with 19 games still to be played, the jury is still out on if all the moves the club made have been a success.

"When you talk about how is the rebuild going, as long as you are always talking about potential instead of performance, it is hard to say because potential is fun to talk about — especially for GMs and journalists — but potential doesn't always win you games on Saturdays, and that is ultimately what we get judged on," Lagerwey concluded. "I really would say it is incomplete so far."