Monday Postgame: A closer look at how Real Salt Lake turned a rebuilding year into a trip to MLS Cup

Everyone said this was supposed to be a rebuilding year for Real Salt Lake, and it was.

It’s just that the contractor – in perhaps an industry first – brought the job in under budget and ahead of schedule.

In fact, both teams that advanced to MLS Cup 2013 this past weekend did so after replacing major components on their roster.

Sporting Kansas City played most of this season without their leading scorer from 2012, Kei Kamara, and they played all of 2013 without a key cog from their 2012 midfield, Honduran international Roger Espinoza, now with Wigan in the English Championship.

Yet here they are – after dispatching the team that eliminated them from the postseason in each of the past two years, no less.

Real Salt Lake went one – at least one – better. The Claret-and-Cobalt off-loaded some key vertebrae from the spine of their team this past winter – trading top defender Jámison Olave, key midfielder Will Johnson, and second leading scorer Fabián Espíndola.

If they’d slipped a few places in the rugged Western Conference table, well, no one would’ve blamed them. Instead, here they are, one win away from the second MLS championship in franchise history

Let’s look at the blueprints for this impressive one-year renovation process:

Center back auditions

Olave was the 2010 MLS Defender of the Year, and a 2011 All-Star before injuries started cutting into his playing time in late 2011 and 2012. But when healthy, he remained RSL’s, and arguably the league’s, top defender, blending speed, power and size like no other center back in MLS.

The decision to trade him to New York couldn’t have been an easy one – and Olave had a strong season for the Red Bulls – but RSL made it work. They rotated Chris Schuler, Carlos Salcedo and Kwame Watson-Siriboe in Olave’s former spot alongside veteran Nat Borchers.

There were some rough patches – the team conceded 41 goals, RSL’s highest total since 2007 – but as Schuler settled into the job full-time down the stretch, RSL’s defense solidified.

They produced two shutouts in their last four regular-season games, and they’ve given up just three goals in four playoff games – and Schuler has scored two goals for his team this postseason.

On Sunday night, Schuler and Borchers outperformed their counterparts in Portland, Mamadou "Futty" Danso and Pa Modou Kah.

Midfield Solutions

To make up for the loss of Johnson – who hit career highs in goals (9) and assists (5) in Portland this season – and to a lesser extent Jonny Steele, who logged 28 appearances, two goals and two assists for RSL last year, Real Salt Lake turned to a handful of midfielders.

They’ve given more minutes to rising US youth international Luis Gil, and diamond-in-the-rough (the rough being Spartanburg Methodist junior college) Sebastian Velasquez, while also plugging in veteran Khari Stephenson on occasion.

This season also yielded increased minutes for defensive midfielder Yordany Álvarez, and the versatile Ned Grabavoy, who produced career highs of five goals and five assists.

Javier Morales also enjoyed a bounce-back season, bagging a career high in goals with eight while adding 10 assists.

Even reserve Cole Grossman, who battled concussion symptoms for much of the season, made important contributions in his four appearances and two starts: In August, with RSL down a man and down a goal to Portland, he scored a dramatic stoppage-time equalizer. At the time, he was the 16th player to score for the Claret-and-Cobalt in 2013, a good indication of the depth coach Jason Kreis cultivated this season.

Expanded Arsenal

Kreis took a similar approach to compensating for the loss of Espíndola, who left the franchise ranked second on RSL’s all-time goals list.

RSL brought back speedster and 2010 World Cup veteran Robbie Findley, acquired the quick and skillful Joao Plata, and signed 20-year-old Colombian Olmes García, a player blessed with good size (6-foot-1) and blinding speed. In the draft, they selected University of New Mexico target forward Devon Sandoval, who proved to be a spectacular find.

All four have pitched in during RSL’s MLS Cup run. Findley scored the back-breaking goal against Portland on Sunday night, and Sandoval has really emerged down the stretch, quietly pushing for Álvaro Saborío’s starting spot.

The many new weapons have borne fruit: RSL bagged a franchise-record 57 goals this season, 11 more than the club’s previous single-season high.

One More to Go

Real Salt Lake still have more work to do: They face the daunting task of trying to win their second MLS Cup at Sporting Park, where the raucous sellout crowd – and possibly the weather – will provide a stern challenge, to say nothing of battle-tested and hungry Sporting KC.

But no matter what happens on December 7, RSL’s revamp has been a remarkable success, and the club’s footing as an MLS contender is just as solid as it was before the roster overhaul – if not more so.