SANDY, Utah — When Real Salt Lake selected Ned Grabavoy in the 2009 MLS Waiver Draft, they obviously saw something in the midfielder that his previous clubs in LA, Columbus and San Jose had not. Because if any of those three clubs could have foreseen the level Grabavoy is now playing, there is no way any of them would have let him get away.
Grabavoy is either on pace or has already set career highs in goals scored, assists and minutes played. Those stats show just what everyone else within the club has seen, the 10th-year veteran has been all over the field making all kinds of plays in helping the team to the best record in MLS. So what has changed for the 30-year-old midfielder?
“I think part of it is with the departure of Will Johnson and that Ned knew he was going to have to take a bigger role," said RSL coach Jason Kreis. "Ned knew — I didn’t hesitate to tell him — he’s a lockdown in the starting lineup for us. I think some of that has just brought some more confidence out in him.
"He’s also had a change in his life with having children. The best year of my entire career was when I had my first child, so I think it changes you a little bit. It makes you become a little more intently focused on how to get the best you can out of the little time that you have to play professional soccer."
What does Grabavoy think of his coach's assertion that perhaps it was the birth of his children that helped make the change?
"Maybe, I am getting less sleep so I don't know if that helps," he joked to MLSsoccer.com. "Look, it probably took me a while longer to figure some things out off the field. Which maybe I wish I would have figured out before, but it is important. Diet, sleep, getting on the right schedule, not being out, all those things are important, what you put in your body. Now, those things are important to me.
"I don't want to play Saturday-Wednesday and then have Jason say, 'He can't play three games in seven days.' I can play three games in seven days. I don't want to be asked. I just want to see my name up on the board. At the end of the day, my only job is to make Jason's job, when he goes to write the lineup, I should make it so I'm the first name that he pencils in. I should be up there every game. That's my job, and if I'm up there, then I am doing my job."
With his off-the-field work, Grabavoy has become indispensible. It isn't often that a player actually attributes things physically to being improved once he gets older.
"I think I'm doing a lot of things the same, but I would like to think fitness wise I'm at the top that I've ever been," said Grabavoy. "It was a tough stretch there to play three games in eight days, but I was feeling pretty good there even toward the end the game. I think it probably is just that extra 10-percent fitness to be able to make three or four 40-, 50-yard sprints into the box to try to make a play. I find myself now getting one or two goal scoring opportunities a game, where as maybe in year's past, I didn't have that."
Perhaps another reason why Grabavoy has been able to put in those extra runs is something Kreis and the coaching staff have done this season.
"I feel really good, I feel healthy. It is probably a number of different things," said Grabavoy. "When I was younger — I'm not going to say I don't go 100 percent in training — but I think we have probably looked at some of the older guys and everyone's been smarter about the training staff, the coaching staff to not kill some of the guys that are playing major minutes for you in training every week so I can feel at the top of my game come game time."
Many people have said this is Grabavoy's career-best season simply because they look at the fact that he has scored five goals. But his teammate for the last five seasons Chris Wingert said that is unfair.
"Yes and no," said Wingert of this being Grabavoy's best season. "I get a little defensive about it because people put so much importance on goals, and clearly that's the name of the game, so for him to have five goals is big, but what people don't always realize is the amount of work it takes to play that position on our team is incredible.
"It's no surprise to see Will Johnson scoring more this year because he has more freedom. The amount of work that these guys do when they play in front of me, outside midfield, is incredible. It is such a demanding position the amount of running they do. It is just not physically possible to be in the box quite as much. Ned is not really an outside shooter, but he has done an incredible job of getting in positions in order to score goals this year, which we've needed."
Grabavoy echoed his teammates thoughts.
"It isn't easy in the diamond [midfield]," he said. "You have a lot of defensive responsibilities in the diamond. You are usually playing against a winger who is not tracking back to double like we do. It is difficult sometimes in that diamond."
Wingert said although it has been better this season, Grabavoy hasn't always received the type of recognition he probably deserves.
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"I'm glad he is finally getting his due because for me, it's a shame that he wasn't an All-Star this year, you could make the case he was the MVP of our team, and we were in first place at the time," said Wingert. "He has just been awesome and I'm just glad that people are starting to realize it."