SANDY, Utah — The 2011 season will go down in the books as in the books as a year of struggle for Real Salt Lake who, for the first time since the 2007 season, failed to top the league in shots, shots on goal, or goals.
That could be due to injuries and absences from strikers Álvaro Saborío and Fabián Espíndola, or the failed emergence of Paulo Jr. – the man tabbed as a third forward to help fill the void Robbie Findley left with his departure – who also missed a significant number of games for health reasons.
However, the most likely cause was the absence of Javier Morales, who missed 23 games due to a broken ankle sustained in a match against Chivas USA on May 7.
Although other midfielders also missed various portions of the season due to international duty or injuries of their own, Morales' time away limited RSL’s ability to establish the tempo in many matches and kept them from playing their familiar brand of possession-based soccer.
“I, deep down, of course, believed that we were still capable of doing a lot of things,” head coach Jason Kreis told media on Wednesday about the absence of Morales. “I thought we could win a Supporters’ Shield without Javier, and I was saying it right until the dying day.”
RSL wound up a distant third behind eventual Shield winners LA Galaxy. Although they finished third in shots on goal, RSL finished a mere ninth in the league in shots and eighth in goals scored. Not bad numbers, but not the type that they’ve produced in previous seasons under Kreis.
“I also honestly think that when you lose players like Javier, you become a little more normal,” admitted Kreis. “You become a little bit more of an average team. You have one less player that [makes] absolutely special plays out there.”
On the defensive side of the ball, the team also fell back to Earth after a tremendous 2010 season in which they set a league record for fewest goals allowed with 20. This season, RSL’s back line conceded 36 goals, which tied them for second best in the league. And while there were four additional games on the schedule this season, the goals against average shot up from .67 per game a year ago to 1.06 this season.
That goal average was simply an indicator that the defense, while still very good, was not as dominant as it was a year ago.
Once again, the key reason was absences. The crucial ones seemed to be central defenders Nat Borchers and Jámison Olave — who was the 2010 MLS Defender of the Year — who both missed chunks of time.
Borchers did not play in four games this season, including sitting out two for red-card suspensions, and Olave missed 10 matches, mostly due to an injury suffered in the All-Star Game. All told, RSL registered a 10-4-8 record when both players started this season (including the playoffs), and went 6-9-0 record when one or both of them were absent.
While all of that may sound like a downer for the Claret-and-Cobalt this season, the real story is that despite all the absences and adversity, they continuously fought through them to reach the Western Conference Championship. And it’s that level of fight that is the biggest take-away for their coach this season.
“I think that, above all else, our team kept fighting and kept believing,” said Kreis. “And that means a lot to me.”