2014 Real Salt Lake Preview: Once more unto the breach in Utah | Armchair Analyst
One more time: Javier Morales will go down as one of the all-time great playmakers in MLS, and for most of last season he was honestly as good as he's ever been. But he's now 34, and still a marked man, and suddenly "experience" might be "age." It's not a given that they'll have to cut down his minutes if they want him fresh come November ... but they'll probably have to cut down his minutes if they want him fresh come November.
One more goal: This is pretty much the same group that came up one goal short of three different titles: US Open Cup, the Supporters' Shield and the MLS Cup. That is a level of pain that would break most groups, but also represents an improvement over 2012. So the question is, "Can they take that improvement one step further this year, in any of the three competitions?"
Pretty much the same group: The biggest change this offseason is at the top, where longtime assistant Jeff Cassar replaces longtime boss Jason Kreis. This is a story that's been done to death this offseason, but it's worth repeating: Cassar is keeping the same tactics, and largely the same roster. It's about continuity, and the continuation of the whole "The Team is the Star" ethos in Sandy.
Star Attraction: Kyle Beckerman
Beckerman has never made an MLS Best XI. I find this to be ludicrous.
He is one of the best readers of the game the US has produced at any position, and maybe the biggest reason that RSL have been able to play that diamond midfield for the last six years with hardly a glitch. "He's in the right place at the right time" is the first bullet point on his resume, and there's no better trait for a d-mid.
But, quite obviously, Beckerman is more than just a typical d-mid. He's an organizer and a tempo-setter and an outlet passer and, when needs be, a playmaker as well (check the GIF – one-time, left-footed, no-look assist in MLS Cup. Ho hum). He ranks in the top 35 on the all-time MLS assist chart, and if he replicates what he did in 2013 he'll be comfortably into the top 30. Only one other d-mid in MLS history – the great Chris Armas – is even in the same stratosphere.
Beckerman will most likely lead the league in total number of passes this year, since RSL are a sure bet to once again be a dominant possession team, and everything they do runs through him. He'll complete those passes at about an 85 percent clip, again near the top of the league. And he'll find a way to make a good team so, so much better.
Probable Formation: 4-4-2 (diamond)
Major Acquisition: Luis Gil
I'm cheating here – obviously Gil isn't a new acquisition. As a matter of fact, he's entering his fifth year in the high desert, which means he's one of the longest-tenured players on the team. He's a stalwart.
But the thing about young players who get good coaching is that they're able to constantly add new facets, new wrinkles to what they do on the field. And Gil has mastered the art of mastering new arts, bringing new looks to his game every single season since siging on as a 16-year-old.
What's it going to be in 2014 from the "new" Luis Gil? Well, last season he brought a bit of extra goalscoring punch, banging home five from the narrow flanks of the diamond. While an improvement upon that number would be welcomed by the RSL faithful, to be sure, chances are that he's been focused on refining his playmaking this offseason. With Morales nearing his last lap, more and more of the creative duties are sure to fall to Gil.
Will he be ready for them? Maybe. And if he is, it'll be like having an entirely new player to rely on.
- SEE MORE: Transaction page
What He Said
“I think that when it comes to making moves, it doesn't have to be a big-name player. It just has to be somebody that helps us win games. I think we've done a great job with our value picks and working to integrate those players into our philosophy.”
Fantasy Pick: Joao Plata ($7.0m/ selected by 15.1 percent of teams) – Had four goals and nine assists in less than 1,700 minutes last year. With Robbie Findley and Devon Sandoval both sidelined with injuries to open the season, Plata will be a sure starter right out of the gate. And at $7.0m it'll be slim pickings finding another forward with this much bang for your buck.
The best-case scenario for RSL is that they do 2013 all over again, but hit the other side of the crossbar against D.C. United in the open cup; hang on against New York in the regular season; and ping the other side of the post against KC in the MLS Cup.
Does this team have enough gas in the tank to compete on three fronts again? They're already down some numbers as they'll have to start the season without Chris Schuler, Sandoval and Findley. All due respect to Sandoval and Findley, but Schuler is the huge loss of the bunch, and if they can get him back and healthy by April, then they'll be in good shape.
But maybe not great shape. The rest of the West has loaded up, and while RSL will compete (and win their fair share), it's an open question as to whether or not they have enough difference-makers in their prime. Morales, Beckerman, Saborío and Ned Grabavoy are all on the wrong side of 30. So are Nat Borchers and Chris Wingert on the backline. Add in Rimando in goal, and that's seven of 11 starters who are halfway to their AARP memberships.
There is youth and depth on this roster, but it's a big difference between being a change-of-pace sub and a guy who's counted on to win games. Gil is going to have to become a star, and the likes of Plata and Sebastian Velasquez will have to try on that second hat if RSL really are going to go once more unto the breach.
And if they can't? Then 2014 is probably the last act for this band of brothers.