The 2013 season was supposed to be a transition year for Real Salt Lake. It went a lot better than that but left a dissatisfied feeling in Sandy, Utah as RSL were runner-ups in the MLS Cup and the U.S. Open Cup. It turns out that the real transition is now as Jason Kreis has left for NYCFC and Jeff Cassar has been handed the reigns.
Cassar has assembled a strong coaching staff and RSL has kept the core intact. The coaching shift is big news, but as the season wears on, the play on the field will be a familiar style and allow Real Salt Lake to repeat much of last year’s success.
Alvaro Saborio returns as the favored striker but will see time with his country in the World Cup and will miss the opening week match up after a call from Costa Rica. This could mean an increased role for Devon Sandoval. Joao Plata is the spark plug and will be used strategically to spur the attack. Robbie Findley and Olmes Garcia will also see their fair share of playing time.
If Cassar manages the game right each of these players will have an impact on the season. Garcia was erratic and showed poor judgment at times last year. Meanwhile, Sandoval proved he is ready for a heavier workload during RSL’s playoff run.
The roles in the midfield are clearly defined for RSL, and the diamond formation that is often employed works very well. Kyle Beckerman will continue to hold down the defensive position and has a chance to go to Brazil. Javier Morales was second on the team in goals last season, but it comes from his creativity. He is also the primary set-piece taker. Ned Grabavoy was re-energized in 2013 and seemed to know just when to make a run to the back post.
The wild card could be Luis Gil as he is being called on to inherit more responsibility and looks poised to take it on successfully. RSL management think Gil could be a franchise player and this should be his breakout year. Sebastian Velasquez will come in off the bench without his signature rat tail. Luke Mulholland has been the surprise of the preseason after signing from the Tampa Bay Rowdies. Not only is the RSL midfield solid, they also fit the system.
The back line is full of sizable veterans. Tony Beltran is the smallest of the all but provides good pace on the wing. Chris Wingert and Nat Borchers will continue to play a physical style. The biggest issue may be Chris Schuler‘s health as he showed how big of an impact he can make during the playoff run. Schuler needs to stay healthy and improve on his passing that has been poor in the preseason.
Nick Rimando will see the bulk of action in goal and sits at the top of our preseason goalkeeper power rankings. Jeff Attinella will have to fill in when Rimando departs for Brazil, but gained the respect of his teammates last season when he was called upon in Rimando’s Gold Cup absence.
With limited changes on the field from last year, RSL should be a contender in the Western Conference. The strength through the midfield will be a huge advantage in many of their match ups. Rimando can steal a game as well and he will be needed in the opening match against the Los Angeles Galaxy.
RSL should have good chemistry in the beginning but could have a tricky June and July with moving pieces in the lineup. Still, they should challenge for the Western Conference title but fall short in the playoffs by losing in the Conference Final. RSL should be around 57 points on the season with a 16-9-9 record.
Check back Wednesday to continue following our series previewing all 19 MLS squads’ seasons as first kick approaches on March 8 at CenturyLink Stadium. Also be sure check out the previous MLS previews.