'Keeper performance key to Real deal
Last March, Salt Lake wasn't even in the expansion picture, but Dave Checketts stepped up and put his money where his mouth is and Real Salt Lake became a reality. With the team headed to face the MetroStars to kick off its inaugural season, the label expansion is added as an asterisk to nearly every discussion of the team's prospects.
"We are more of an expansion team for Salt Lake than we are for the league," Real Salt Lake striker Clint Mathis said. "I think people use (expansion) as an excuse to take time off."
And a quick look down the roster and you know Mathis isn't far from the mark when he says RSL, on paper, doesn't look like an expansion team. With players like Mathis, Eddie Pope, Andy Williams and Jason Kreis, the roster RSL has compiled is nothing short of impressive and will no doubt give opposing teams fits this year.
But, that roster has one big question mark: Does RSL have what it needs between the posts?
D.J. Countess, who will get the starting nod, has limited experience at the professional level. Coming off an injury in 2003, he saw his first real time while starting in the goal for Dallas and was named the team's defensive player of the year after accumulating 115 saves, though the team won just five games and drew four in his 24 starts.
The following year saw Countess shipped off to Chicago where he spent more time riding the pine than he did on the field as the primary backup to Henry Ring, seeing just 180 minutes of action in two starts. RSL may struggle at the 'keeper position as a result, but Real coach John Ellinger doesn't think that will be the case.
"There is no question that D.J. is key for us this year," Ellinger said. "But he has proven that he is capable of doing what we need. I expect him to have a breakout year this year."
Even if Countess lives up to Ellinger's expectations, who does RSL have if he goes down with an injury as he did during his sophomore campaign in 2002? RSL's No. 2 is rookie Jay Nolly.
Nolly has been successful, culminating his junior and senior seasons with back-to-back national championships at Indiana University. During his three years as a starter for the Hoosiers he developed a reputation for making clutch saves, which he punctuated by stopping the final two penalty kicks to lead his team to a shootout victory over UC-Santa Barbara in the 2004 College Cup final.
Nolly has all the tools to be successful, but even he admits it is a big step up to the professional level.
"At this level the game moves differently, faster," Nolly said. "It is a big transition from the college game."
Ellinger has a track record of getting the best out of his players and a knack for developing young talent. Both skills will be put to the test this year as Real Salt Lake breaks in a stable of young, unproven goalkeepers.
David Hale is a contributor to MLSnet.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.