Real Salt Lake: The big questions

who is coming off an ACL tear -- would certainly be welcome. The club has a few other strikers returning -- including U.S. Open Cup joint leading scorer Melvin Tarley, Clint Mathis and Jamie Watson -- but with Tarley and Watson both unproven in MLS competition and Mathis coming off the most trying year of his professional career, some help is probably needed.

WHAT WAS THE TEAM'S BEST MOMENT IN '05?

RSL's home opener against the Colorado Rapids on April 16 was a stunning spectacle and a coming-out party for soccer on the Wasatch Front, but it's the 3-0 drubbing of FC Dallas the weekend before the All-Star break that RSL believe was their shining moment this season.

Real came into the match on a 10-game winless streak and could have been expected to take one on the chin from the Hoops, who were leading the Western Conference at the time. But by the time half an hour had gone by, RSL were up 3-0 and able to cruise to a surprisingly easy win. Mathis had perhaps his best game of the season, swinging in a free kick for Brian Dunseth to finish in just the third minute, and then firing home a 40-yard free kick on the half-hour mark.

Said Williams: "That game, I think, we just came out on fire."

WHO MADE THE MOST IMPROVEMENT OVER THE COURSE OF THE SEASON?

A handful of players could lay claim to this honor, given the near-constant turnover in Real's lineup in 2005, but Chris Brown probably deserves the title most. Brown started out the season as a substitute midfielder, but as injuries took their toll, Ellinger called on him to be RSL's utility man, and he saw time up front before finishing out the season as a defender.

Another player who made great strides during the season was rookie midfielder Kenny Cutler, who quietly started more than half of the team's games.

"[Brown] played in midfield, he played up front, he played in the back. But I think he, by the end of the year, was consistently one of our best defenders," Ellinger said. "So I kind of feel he made a huge improvement.

"Then I also felt that two rookies in Jamie Watson and Kenny Cutler made tremendous gains," he added. "I would have never thought that Jamie would have played in 19 games this year. I never would have thought that Kenny Cutler would have played in 19 games and started 19 games. So I felt that those guys made huge gains for us. Kenny was forced into playing, but once he got his opportunity to play, he never really relinquished it."

WHAT RESERVES ARE MOST READY TO MOVE INTO THE TEAM?

Fan-favorite Watson, who made six starts in his 19 appearances and tallied two goals and one assist, is a prime candidate to see more time with the first team next year, but he's not the only one. Perhaps more surprisingly, midfielder Kevin Novak, who started the final two games of the season, could see more first-team action in '06.

Novak joined RSL after attending an open tryout in January, so to become part of Ellinger's first 11 by the end of the season is an impressive feat in itself. With Sequeira and Talley moving in and Williams and Mathis set to return, Novak could find himself as the odd man out, but Ellinger has liked what he's seen so far.

"Kevin, by the end of the year, started the last two regular season games and then started the Chivas [postseason exhibition] game," Ellinger said. "He's somebody who, if he just continues to progress, will be a consistent starter in this league."

WHAT AREA OF THE TEAM NEEDS THE MOST IMPROVEMENT?

Ellinger said it point blank: the midfield. And he's already started to do something about it.

"I think if we have an area where we had the most strength, it was probably with defenders," Ellinger said. "That being said we knew that we had to improve the quality of our midfield play. By picking up Carey and Douglas and even Christian, they've already given us additional strength in that area."

Talley is a veteran journeyman who has rarely stood out in his career but has been able to get the job done in stints with D.C. United, the Kansas City Wizards and FC Dallas. Both he and Sequeira are the kind of tough-minded characters whom Ellinger feels can lend maturity and the winning mentality RSL needs.

"Douglas Sequeira was certainly somebody who I felt had been a thorn in our side, that being a positive," Ellinger said. "In our games against Chivas, he was obviously the most competitive individual on the field. He's very technical, very composed on the ball, and he's somebody who we had earmarked as the kind of personality we need to get for our team."

In addition, they should be able to sort out the space in front of the back four, which was a problem area for RSL in 2005.

"I would think the midfield and the back line, first and foremost [need improvement]," said Williams. "I just think we need to try and get a good holding midfielder -- we got Douglas with the trade recently -- and probably one or two defenders to help back up for when Eddie and Douglas take off for the World Cup next year."

Jason Halpin is a contributor to MLSnet.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.


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