Well we are just over 48 hours away from the start of the Real Salt Lake 2010 season, and the harsh reality check of being the defending MLS Cup Champions is going to settle in. When you win a championship you get a lot of glory, but RSL still doesn't get a lot of respect around the league or from the pundits. It is the fact that in the regular season we lost more games than we won. It is the fact that while almost unbeatable at home, RSL had just two road wins last season. It is the fact that for RSL they could only get players on the All Star team by the Comish picks and as replacement players, which could be caused by the fact that so few people outside of Utah have paid much attention to RSL.
Well folks, I have a feeling that some of that is going to change in 2010. You have to pay attention to the champions, no matter how they make it into the playoffs, but let's take a closer look at other things that I believe will change for RSL.
We knew that Yura Movsisyan would be leaving in the offseason, it shocked nobody that Chris Seitz was traded (he was too good to be a backup), and while many thought we would see Clint Mathis retire, instead he was traded to LA. For a championship team to only lose a one full time starter, a part time starter, and a backup keeper, means that RSL will likely be able to put 10 starters on the pitch opening day that were in the starting lineup in the MLS Cup match.
More after the Jump:
Many of us waited this off season with anticipation of who would RSL find to replace Yura, getting strikers in MLS is tough and as the season drew closer we only saw Abe Thompson added to the roster at that position. RSL went for an offensive minded midfielder in the MLS Draft choosing Collen Warner with their first pick. Then came news that US Soccer's Under 20 player of the year Luis Gil was going to be coming to MLS, but he only wanted to play for Seattle or RSL. A lottery was held and KC won, but in the end they traded Gil to RSL and while just 16 years old there is a lot of talk about this talented youngster and what he could provide to our offensive efforts. Neither seemed the answer for the missing striker, but RSL still had Pablo Campos who looked good in limited action last year, and of course there is Fabi, who if he could find his 2008 form, well RSL would be an offensive powerhouse in the league.
Then in the last couple weeks RSL won the Saborio sweepstakes and added the Costa Rican striker to their squad, and all of a sudden what might have been perceived as a weakness now potentially turns into one of the most lethal corps of strikers in MLS; Robbie Findley, a top 5 striker in 2009, Fabian Espindola, 7 goals and 2 assists in 16 starts over the last two seasons, Pablo Campos, 2 game winning goals and 3 assists in just 400 minutes of action in 2009, and now birthday boy Alvaro Saborio who had 95 goals in 149 matches with Saprissa in Costa Rica, 36 goals in 87 matches with FC Sion, and 22 goals in 55 matches for the Costa Rican National team.
The midfield will be one of the best in MLS, as Kyle Beckerman, Javier Morales, Will Johnson, Andy Williams, and Ned Grabavoy will all be back to anchor the group. Add in second year players likely to see more action like Jean Alexandre and Nelson Gonzalez, and rookies Luis Gil and Collen Warner and RSL clearly has one of the deepest midfields in all of MLS and they should be able to win the 50-50 battles, control possession of the ball, and set the pace of the match.
It will be interesting to see how the midfield starts off this year, last season it was Clint Mathis leading the way early with a number of big assists, at the end of the season it was Andy Williams filling the assist man role. I have a feeling that after solid playoff efforts and a good preseason that Ned Grabavoy will see a lot more playing time in 2010 and could be a starter as early as San Jose (his former team).
Expectations are always high for Kyle Beckerman, but perhaps never as high as they will be this year. His solid performance last year 3 goals and 2 assists, pure tenacity around the ball, and his high energy level on the pitch have earned him time with the USMNT. For RSL he is the captain and face of the team, in 2010 Kyle will have to be on his game more than ever before and could be a breakout star in the league before the season is over.
Javier Morales had an off year in 2009 with just 1 goal and 5 assists, down from his MVP like 6 goals and 15 assists of 2008. He will be recovering from surgery needed after his knee injury in the MLS Cup, but so far this preseason he seems like he has made a quick recovery, if we get the Javi of 2008 back, we can expect to see him get another All Star match opportunity.
I am not sure what you can say about Will Johnson that would do him justice, he simply is the energizer bunny of the MLS, he works hard every minute that he is on the pitch. He knows how to create offensive chances for himself and others, he is a bulldog on 50-50 balls, and can always be counted on to shut down the opponent when they try to counter attack. It will be interesting to see how 2010 will unfold for one of the unsung heroes of RSL.
In 2009 RSL gave up fewer goals than ever with just 35 allowed, I have to believe that number will drop even more in 2010. I match our backline up against anyone in the league: Wingert, Borchers, Olave, Beltran, Russell are simply one of the best units in all of MLS. Add in developing 3rd year player David Horst, waiver catch Rauwshan McKenszie, and what may be the surprise of the 2010 MLS draft Chris Schuler and RSL has added depth to go with their starting lineup.
I am going to make a very bold prediction concerning one of our defensive players, I believe after 10,441 minutes of MLS action without a goal, that 2010 will see Chris Wingert score his first goal in a MLS match. Wingert isn't flashy, but he has only missed one match in the last two years for RSL and in 2009 got his first USMNT cap.
Nat Borchers isn't just one of the nicest guys you will ever meet; he is one of the best unsung central defenders in MLS. Like Wingert, he isn't flashy on the pitch but he is Mr. Dependable, having missed just 11 minutes of action in 2009 and just a single match in 2008. I look for another year of nothing but solid play from RSL's Mr. Dependable Nat Borchers.
Jamison Olave, is simply a verb. What does that mean, it means he is action, it means that he is speed, quickness, size, strength, endurance, intimidation, and so much more. 2009 saw Olave go from a player with talent, to a leader and it happened in the strangest of circumstances. After several mental breakdowns that lead to Red Card ejections in matches, it was a straight Red for doing nothing but getting slapped in a friendly that may be the turning point in Olave's career. It was Chivas USA, and when RSL took the lead from them in the first half, they got nastier than nasty and when teammate Andy Williams was tackled late and hard it was a nearby Olave who stood up in defense of his teammate. He got slapped by some Chivas player who then ran and hid from the massive Olave, as the dust settled on the pitch two players were sent off just before halftime and Olave was one of them. From that moment on, Olave was simply different, he played with a level of passion and control that is rare and it showed as the RSL defense stepped up to every challenge it was given and in the end it was that type of play that lead us to the MLS Cup.
If RSL had a real breakout player in 2009, I would have to say it was Tony Beltran. It wasn't just the fact that he played almost double the number of minutes he did in 2008. It wasn't that his second year saw him catch the attention of the national soccer media, nope it was the fact that almost every match he played in saw him go one on one with some of the league's best offensive players and shut them down. In Seattle he played a bit too tentative and it cost him, but after that watching him do things like come from 10 yards behind Landon Donovan and not only catch him on a counter, but to take the ball away from him like it was nothing. That is why I think he was RSL's breakout player of 2009 and in just his 3rd year in MLS 2010 should be even better for Tony who continues to prove that he is "more than meets the eye".
If you had to select one second of the 2009 season to sum up everything good, bad, and even the ugly that happened to Real Salt Lake, well I would chose this moment:
See Robbie Russell wasn't a star, most of the year he wasn't even a starter all the time, but in the playoffs Robbie took over for an injured Beltran. I find the clip of Robbie talking about that shot in the "IT"S FOR REAL" DVD to be an amazing look at Robbie, in the middle of the biggest match in RSL history after 120 minutes of play and with your PK shootout shot up next, to look to a fellow player and ask "If I make this do we win?" is priceless. Robbie fills in where ever he is asked to, and then he does whatever he can to ensure that his performance is up to RSL standards, in the NBA they are called the 6th man, for RSL that is just Robbie Russell.
David Horst and the other young guns will be able to get some playing time with RSL's busy schedule in 2010, and they have some of the very best defenders in the league to learn from, the future is bright for the RSL defense.
While I may have upset Nick Rimando this offseason, I give credit where credit is due, and I can't think of another goalkeeper in MLS history who had such a huge impact in the playoffs as Nick did last year. It isn't the two shut outs, or the 0.64 GAA, that blows me away. It was the two shoot outs, it was bailing his teammates out after missed shots, it was making a one handed save to save the RSL season. Nick isn't the biggest keeper in the MLS, he probably isn't the most talented or technically sound, but nobody plays with a bigger heart than Nick Rimando and that has propelled him from DC United castoff, to RSL legend.
I expect his leadership will continue and I know that as our young backups in Kyle Reynish and newcomer Tim Melia watch and learn from Nick that the goal will be protected by people who play with passion and never give up.
I don't think RSL will be the best team in the West this year, I do think we will improve and our performance on the road is where that has to happen. We showed last year with road playoff wins over the top teams in the West, that we can play well and win on the road, but 2010 is going to be brutal. 4 of our first 5 matches are on the road, and 3 of our last 4 matches of the year are on the road. To only play at home once in the first and last months of the season means you better figure out how to win on the road early.
For 5 seasons RSL's first road win of the year has come in California, actually at the Home Depot Center, including last year's 2-0 win over the LA Galaxy in mid-June. I have to believe that RSL could win all three of their California road games this year, and if they do they would have more road wins by June 1st than they had last year. San Jose for the opener, then LA on April 17th, and May 22nd against Chivas and RSL won't have to head to Cali again for MLS action, well until a possible trip there for the playoffs.
Getting road wins against teams in the Western Conference will be important in 2010, last year we struggled with losses at: Seattle, Colorado, Chivas, San Jose, Houston, and FC Dallas. We did get a draw in one match at Houston. At home no Western Conference team could beat RSL.
I think Rio Tinto will once again be a fortress for Real Salt Lake, and they could go undefeated at home (they have only lost a single match at home each of the last two seasons). RSL will do what they have set out to do this year, prove that they are an elite MLS team. They will do so by securing their playoff spot before the final weekend of the season, they will do so with a solid 12-7-11 record and this year 47 points should be enough for them to end up in second place in the West just a couple points behind Seattle.
RSL will show well in CONCACAF, and could like Columbus make it out of the group stages and in to the knockout round. The US Open Cup, will present another chance for RSL to show they are a quality side, this year they need to qualify for the actual tournament.
The expectation of making the playoffs is loud and clear, including a 2010 playoff ticket with your season tickets sends a message to the fans, the media, the league, and to your players that anything else is unacceptable. I believe firmly that once the MLS playoffs start it is a wide open competition and when 8 teams quality any of them can win it. Do I believe that RSL can do what Columbus failed to do last year, can they repeat as MLS Cup Champions? Of course I do.
OFF MY SOAPBOX