In two consecutive matches without Alvaro Saborio, we've found ourselves lacking a strong forward to tow the line up front. During his absence, Fabian Espindola showed that he has some skill in hold-up play, in turning his back to goal and working out a little possession.
And while that was encouraging, it meant Real Salt Lake didn't get a chance to see him at his shining best — running channels, finding the spaces defenders have missed. On the last two run-outs, we've lacked that at various points in the match. It's one or the other from him at any given moment — he can't occupy multiple spaces at the same time, as he is, well, not literally magical or supernatural — and the balance was tipped ever-so-slightly.
During the match against Seattle Sounders, Espindola was paired with Emiliano Bonfigli, who was sadly hapless on the occasion. Bonfigli, who was brought into the match after Paulo Jr. was ruled out during warm-ups with an apparent foot injury, looked lost against Seattle's defensive ranks. Frankly, it wasn't for the first time, either.
It all brings to mind RSL's options up front. Beyond the two first-choice strikers at the club, only Paulo Jr. has been trusted with significant minutes. He's only played 848 minutes, the equivalent of just over nine matches, but has played in a total of 22.
Paulo is the sort of player that stretches defenses, even if he's not scoring goals. Paulo, though, has seen his form darting back and forth a bit, and he was sent on loan in July to Ft. Lauderdale Strikers, where he'd been handed his start in American soccer. Paulo returned in August and has missed only one match since — the Seattle match, which he missed through injury.
Bonfigli has been utilized even less, playing 288 minutes — equivalent to just over three full matches, but he's only started once and has been substituted on another nine times. Aside from his goal against FC Dallas, the kid hasn't been overly impressive. As an MLS newcomer, it may not be entirely surprising, but it is certainly a bit frustrating.
Then, we're apparently to the final spot on the forward depth chart. Occupying that role is SLC native Justin Braun, a tall, powerful young man with nearly five years of MLS experience. After having a rather off season with Montreal Impact, we brought him in to challenge for spots. Since his arrival at RSL in July, he's been put into a grand total of two matches — one of which he started.
This, despite the sometimes obvious need for a big, strong forward up top for those matches when we need somebody with aerial prowess. Without Alvaro Saborio in the side, we're left in a situation where winning headers in the box simply seems something we don't have a chance to do. It leaves RSL fans scratching their heads a bit: "Where's Justin?" is the thought.
It speaks volumes that when RSL played Herediano in CONCACAF Champions League play, Braun wasn't involved, and Emiliano Bonfigli was. It hardly spells good things for his long-term possibilities at Real Salt Lake, and it doesn't scupper the thought that he's somehow not rated.
RSL coach Jason Kreis is notorious for being a system man at RSL, and for demanding work not just on the pitch, but in training as well. Additionally, Kreis is always looking for technical ability on the ball — something he's publicly expressed that he isn't seeing from Braun.
Whether it's down to his on-the-ball ability or his training work, Justin Braun has looked less and less likely to see the pitch as RSL has been involved in matches of growing importance. There's no disputing that RSL's core group of players is more talented and more successful than his colleagues at Chivas USA were — there's a cohesion at the Rio Tinto that's hard to replicate.
That Justin Braun has gone from playing 20-plus games a season in Los Angeles to a handful at best in Utah will certainly have him thinking about his options. Whether that means accepting a smaller contract at RSL — he's sitting on a pretty penny for not playing, though the lion's share of his salary is being payed by former employers Montreal Impact — or plying his trade elsewhere remains to be seen.
It all does rather raise questions, though: What's Kreis going to do with Justin Braun? Could he play a role in 2013 and perhaps beyond? Will he depart in the offseason? Would he be content on the bench? Perhaps more prominently, was his signing a mistake?
It's clear no answers are soon forthcoming — so perhaps the waiting game is all that's left. What happens in the next two months will be telling as the Utah kid looks to make his mark on MLS.