With the way Real Salt Lake finished their final 10 games last season, the need for a change couldn’t have been clearer, but that doesn't mean they will throw out continuity altogether heading into the 2017 season.
Nine of the 11 starters return, and that still feels like a fresh start.
“We have had to make some very difficult decisions, but decisions that put us into an optimistic outlook moving forward,” said RSL general manager Craig Waibel last week.
Longtime playmaker Javier Morales left for FC Dallas and Juan Manuel "Burrito" Martinez was let out of his contract to return to Argentina. Who will replace them in the attack – and in the locker room – are two big questions for 2017.
Morales’ absence after a decade as Salt Lake’s playmaker gives midfielder and captain Kyle Beckerman a new opportunity for leadership.
“He’s been reaching out to every player we have called in or signed,” said RSL head coach Jeff Cassar. “He’s going to be able to take on another level of leadership with our group.”
Part of it is the type of team RSL is wanting to be.
“This year you’re going to see a team that’s very high-pressing, a lot of energy, especially on the defensive end higher up the field,” Cassar said.
Beckerman has been a big part of RSL’s defensive mindset and will continue to be as Salt Lake look to get more defensive pressure from the midfield and forwards.
One of the struggles at the end of 2016 was a lack of defensive pressure before the opponent had broken into their defensive third. Having nearly two-thirds of a field to go before creating anything in the offensive third is a situation RSL hopes to avoid this season.
To help in the attack and fill Morales' role as creator, RSL signed 22-year-old attacking midfielder Albert Rusnak from FC Groningen in the offseason. Rusnak's addition is expected to be a transformative move for the team.
“[Albert] is a talented player. He’s a piece that’s going to be extremely key to how we play,” Cassar said. “We also want to play a style of soccer that suits him. It’s an up-tempo game.
“Can we win the ball higher up the field? Can we have more athleticism and energy up there? It’s going to suit everyone’s style and I know it’s going to suit Albert’s style as well.”
As much as the preseason will involve integrating Rusnak into the RSL locker room and on the field, it will also focus on teaching RSL how to play like Rusnak. That’s a lot of trust in a 22-year-old, but Salt Lake feels like they have the right mix to make that change.
With a few more signings to bolster RSL’s depth in the pipeline, Waibel said the team is ready to take on 2017 and put last year’s disappointing MLS Cup Playoffs knockout round finish out of everyone’s mind.
“We believe we have the right pieces, now it’s a matter of finding the right people that work together,” Waibel said.
“We’re in a position now to focus on players that continue our development and make us better as a team.”