Three Big Questions

Three big questions following Real Salt Lake's 2021 season

An MLS Cup champion has been crowned, the 2021 season is officially over and focus shifts to 2022 for all 28 (!) clubs as Charlotte FC also enters MLS.

Here, we'll cover three questions for every team as the offseason begins in earnest. With clubs already announcing their roster decisions, the depth charts will look lighter than the first crop of 13. Think of it as an exit interview, if you will. Matt Doyle, as always, has you covered on his preeminent season-in-review for each club. Read that, too.

He has gifs. It’s tough to beat gifs.

The big picture

What. A. Rollercoaster.

Real Salt Lake entered 2021 with muted expectations: No owner, a low-key offseason (in no small part due to the ownership situation) and coming off a disappointing 2020. They were tabbed by us "experts" as more likely to finish bottom of the Western Conference than to challenge for the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs.

RSL did not fold. They hung around the playoff line all year long, even when head coach Freddy Juarez abruptly departed midseason to take a Seattle Sounders' assistant coaching role. Pablo Mastroeni stepped in as interim head coach and kept the team competitive. It took until the very last seconds of the season to clinch their playoff qualification, a last-gasp goal by Damir Kreilach deep into stoppage time on Decision Day got them over the playoff line, a big achievement given the circumstances.

Even then, they still wouldn't fold. RSL advanced past the Sounders in Round One after penalties despite not attempting a single shot in 120 minutes, then thoroughly deserved a 2-1 win over Sporting Kansas City in the Conference Semifinals before, finally, succumbing to the Portland Timbers in the Western Conference Final.

Sports, eh?

As the offseason hits full swing, and with Mastroeni's interim tag removed, there's plenty of feel-good energy around the club. Once again, the biggest question is getting a deal sorted with prospective candidates for new ownership. That is the most important area, full stop. But I'm not a business man and don't have a ton to add on that front.

What will it take to bring Rusnak back?

Albert Rusnak was integral for RSL yet again in 2021, recording perhaps his best season yet with the club. He started slow but came on strong as the year went on.

Rusnak started all 34 games, one of only five non-goalkeepers in MLS to do so. It was his best statistical season as well, with 11g/11a and finishing top five in the league in total distance covered. The only time he was unavailable all year was the club's first two playoff games, which he missed due to health & safety protocols.

Now he's out of contract. No deal is done yet.

“Yes, I want to stay with Real Salt Lake," Rusnak told before the playoffs. "I’ve told them many times. I spoke with the front office and said I’ve felt really good since day one and I’d love to stay. They’re aware of that, they’ve expressed they want to keep me. The official part [agreeing to terms] hasn’t been done yet.”

Given RSL's murky ownership situation, it is simultaneously more difficult to get this deal over the line as well as being incredibly important to do so. It is quite difficult to replace 11g/11a in general, but particularly so now with budget limitations during this transitional period.

What about Luiz and Julio?

Rusnak isn't the only key player RSL are trying to keep. Midfield destroyer Everton Luiz is out of contract, while the loan for winger Anderson Julio from Liga MX's San Luis has expired. However, the Claret & Cobalt remain in conversations with Luiz over a new deal and with San Luis for a new purchase agreement.

Again: These are more complicated given the murky ownership status.

Luiz, 33, has been a stalwart in RSL's midfield the past three seasons, making 66 appearances. The no-nonsense ball-winner brings a strong balance next to Pablo Ruiz at the heart of midfield. Julio, 25, was a sparkplug used mostly off the bench in 2021. He was still very productive, with eight goals and one assist in 1,016 minutes (spread across 30 appearances).

If either or both don't return, RSL will have big holes to fill.

What version of Mastroeni's RSL will we see in 2022?

Doyle covered this well in his season review for RSL, but here's the TL;DR: Mastroeni set the team up in a 3-5-2 with weird and fun little wrinkles, including Aaron Herrera as an underlapping RCB in the back-three before giving way for a more conservative, straightforward 4-4-1-1 which fueled the Decision Day win and playoff run.

It's easy for neutrals to hope for the 3-5-2 (or some new variation). It was wide open. It was fun. It was weird (in a good way when it comes to our viewing pleasure). But it led to a 6-1 loss to Portland and a 4-3 loss to San Jose, which was the ultimate just vibes game – and that's saying a lot for MLS and its condensed 2021 schedule.

One would assume some variation of the 4-4-1-1/4-2-3-1 returns, unless there's set to be drastic changes to the player personnel. General manager Elliot Fall and technical director Kurt Schmid were referenced by Mastroeni when discussing this topic.

“I really think it's about doubling down on everything, on the way we want to play, on the mentality, on the culture of this group,” Mastroeni said after officially getting the permanent gig. “In the four months that I took over, there was a mindset shift in one of acceptance into who we are and more importantly, the mentality that we wanted to play with.

"I think we were tactically flexible … now the focus is obviously working with Elliot and Kurt and making sure that we put a roster together, and getting guys back and continue to build on that foundation that we built in 2021.”

Depth chart as of Dec. 21
RSL Depth Chart Dec 21

Couple thoughts:

  • Lots of question marks at key spots.
  • The backline and GK group seem set at least.
  • How many starting-caliber additions will arrive? What positions will be targeted?