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17 Days 'til MLS: Can Sabo make Salt Lake go?

As the MLS season approaches, marks each passing day with a different statistic, observation or talking point, setting the stage for March 2.

17 – Goals for Álvaro Saborío in 2012

When Real Salt Lake shipped striker Fabián Espíndola to the New York Red Bulls in December, there were plenty of rumblings that the end of an era had finally come for the boys from the Beehive State.

But the heartiest RSL fans will tell you this: Have no fear. Sabo’s still here.

Indeed, Costa Rican import Álvaro Saborío is still chugging along just fine for RSL on the brink of his fourth season in the league, and he’s coming off a career year that asserted him as one of the premier goal scorers in Major League Soccer.

WATCH: Saborío hat trick sinks Timbers

Saborío put up 17 goals in 31 appearances last year (both MLS career highs), numbers that would have put him in the Golden Boot running or given him the crown outright in five of the past seven races. He rang up hat tricks against overmatched sides from Portland and Chivas USA and joined Chris Wondolowski, Robbie Keane and Kenny Cooper as the only players in the league to score at least twice in different games.

He was certainly more durable last year than his first two in the league, perhaps eased a bit by RSL’s abbreviated run in the CONCACAF Champions League or simply blessed with good luck. He finished sixth in the league in shots and, for the first time, cracked the top five on RSL’s roster for minutes played, outlasting traditional grinders Nat Borchers and Will Johnson. If he can stay as healthy as he was last year, there’s no arguing Saborío is a threat to score, game in and game out.

Critics, though, might point to Espíndola’s presence as a reason Saborío really took off, and there’s at least some credence to that. The Argentine forward had a bit of a career year of his own, notching nine goals and seven assists in a career-high 30 appearances, and finally put his stamp on the RSL offense the way most people have expected for years. Espíndola’s departure leaves Saborío without his traditional strike partner for the first time in two seasons, and means that if Saborío is going to enjoy the kind of success he’s had in the past, he’ll have to adjust to someone new up front.

WATCH: Saborío’s stunner vs. Sounders

Here’s where it gets interesting: That new face isn’t exactly that new. Robbie Findley is back with RSL after two ill-fated years abroad, and he appears refocused on finding the form that made him a starter for the US national team in the 2010 World Cup. Findley and Saborío combined for 17 goals the last time they played a full season together three years ago, and if they can spark up a new chemistry for 2013, there’s reason to think they could be one of the best strike partnerships in the league.

The one possible dent on Saborío’s record? The postseason. He scored three goals in three games during the 2011 playoffs (none better than a heel-flick against Seattle that was sublime) but he was silent over two games in 2010 and then again in 2012, when the Sounders exacted their revenge while shutting RSL down over 180 minutes.

Can Saborío help lift RSL back to the playoffs during a year of change?  It’s one of the biggest stories to watch in 2013.

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