MLSsoccer.com continues to take a look back at the 2012 season that was for all 19 clubs in Major League Soccer, starting with Toronto FC and ending with the Supporters' Shield-winning San Jose Earthquakes. You can find the schedule and comprehensive reviews for each team here.
2012 record: 17-11-6 (57 points); 46 GF / 35 GA (+11 GD)
2012 Real Salt Lake Average Position
It's not how you'd plot out the RSL's diamond midfield on the chalkboard, but you can certainly see Jason Kreis' preferred setup in the average position chart.
There's Kyle Beckerman (5) acting as the lone holding midfielder, with Ned Grabavoy (20) and Will Johnson (8) slightly ahead and pushed toward the sidelines. You can't quite see Javier Morales – he's covered up by Álvaro Saborío (15) – in his customary position just behind the forwards, but the shape is clear.
Don't expect that to change too much come 2013, either. Kreis has been building this thing since May 2007, and he's not likely to switch things up completely just because Fabián Espínodla (7), Jámison Olave (4) and Johnson are gone. Presumably, Luis Gil will slot in for Johnson, Morales will sign a new deal – or so RSL fans hope – and a new piece will slot in up top.
2012 Real Salt Lake Passing Matrix (Download HERE)
RSL have a reputation – earned, I might add – as MLS' premier passing side. They want to keep the ball on the ground if at all possible, and habitually missed connections are a sin Kreis isn't likely to forgive.
Their reputation stood up to those lofty expectations in 2012, as the club was third in the league in completed passes (13,119), first in passing accuracy (79.6 percent) and boasted MLS' second-most prolific passer behind Dax McCarty in Beckerman (1,737 completed). Four players – Beckerman, Morales (1,332), Tony Beltran (1,165) and Chris Wingert (1,225) – logged more than 1,000 successful passes and three more – Grabavoy (856), Johnson (880) and Nat Borchers (953) – completed more than 850. Heck, even Nick Rimando managed to scrape together 753.
Yes, in Espíndola, they lost a player who connected effortlessly with Morales and Saborío, but what's to say whoever Kreis and Garth Lagerway bring in won't be able to enjoy a similar relationship? And Johnson? He's a fine player a very astute pickup for Portland, but Gil was arguably better – or at least as good – at connecting with the attacking players that surrounded him.
1) Fabián Espíndola's time had come in Salt Lake
It was always a love/hate relationship between the RSL faithful and the Argentine. That is, until the moment he started squandering the kind of scoring opportunities he's paid to put away.
He just did a bit too much of that with RSL, and all his tireless running and playmaking couldn't quite make up for the rough spots in front of goal or his sizable cap hit. Among MLS players with at least 12 big-chance opportunities during the 2012 season, Espíndola (33.33 percent conversion) was one of just four who finished one-third or less of their opportunities. The others? Fredy Montero (30.8 percent), Ryan Johnson (23.1 percent) and Dominic Oduro (23.5 percent).
So while Espíndola was everything Kreis could have hoped for from a defensive and buildup perspective – and even scored nine goals to go along with seven assists last season, likely his best in MLS – it became imperative to find someone to take the pressure off Saborío in the box at a lower price point or with a better feel in front of goal. Could the 27-year-old have been that player? Perhaps, but it was high time RSL took a look at what else was out there.
2) Is Luis Gil ready to fulfill his destiny as the US' next great No. 10?
Well, that was a bit misleading, mostly because Gil isn't a No. 10 right now, nor is it a guarantee that's where his future lies.
As it stands, the 19-year-old is one of the best box-to-box midfield prospects in the league, if not the best. And that's the role he'll be asked to occupy regularly in '13 with a spot opened up after Johnson was traded to Portland. Can Gil provide a bit more creativity that his Canadian counterpart? Probably, but that's still part of his game that we're still waiting to see on a consistent basis.
Still, he created 23 chances last season – good for sixth on the team despite playing fewer minutes than everyone ahead of him – while Johnson contributed 14. He also attempted just five fewer tackles than his predecessor, but was well back in CBI (combined clearances, blocks and interceptions). So while he'll probably match or exceed Johnson's three goals and three assists, the true test will be whether or not he can provide enough bite to relieve some pressure on Beckerman alongside him.
3) Re-signing Morales should be priority No. 1 this offseason
Yes, RSL need forward help, and Kreis has already admitted as much, which wasn't some hidden agenda to be fair. But the reality is they probably need Morales back even more.
The Argentine came back from injury to start 23 games and contribute three goals and nine assists. Those weren't anywhere close to the form he displayed in 2008 (six goals, 15 assists), but they only tell part of the story.
After recovering from what many thought could be a career-ending injury, he understandably started the season slow, rounded into form in early May then reclaimed the creative mantel in a side that relied almost too heavily on his attacking influence.
To wit, Morales' 80 chances created were 47 more than Espindola behind him, and his 61 successful crosses were 44 better than his Argentine counterpart. So if RSL lose their string puller to Mexico or perhaps back to South America, where does it leave them? Certainly not in a pretty place, which is why re-signing Morales to a reasonable (key word) deal should be first on the to-do list.
Random nugget: Real Salt Lake received 13 yellow cards for dissent after being show just five in 2011.