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2011 Real Salt Lake Season Preview - The Defenders

You know when you have 2 defenders on the final MLS ballot for defender of the year, that you have a good backline. When you team only loses 4 matches in the regular season and allows just 20 goals to be scored against them that you have a great backline.  Well that is where RSL was in 2010, now the question is where will they be in 2011?

It is almost natural to expect a bit of a drop in performance this year, but with two hungry young central defenders fighting for their right to play with the first team you can expect the starters to perform at the highest level.  On the outside you have the rotation of three outside backs that worked so well last year and each of them have looked great in the preseason, and have a first round draft pick who may be looking to add his name to the mix.

When you talk about the RSL core of defenders you have to start with the 2010 MLS Defender of the year:

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Jamison Olave, who at 6'3" and over 200 lbs can easily be confused for a NFL linebacker, but trust me there is a lot more than meets the eye. When he joined RSL in 2008 many people thought he would be just another backline bruiser who would body players off the ball, and for two years that is all that many thought he brought to the pitch.  In 2010 however people realized that it was his incredible speed and presence on the ball that were his real strengths, and that combined with his playing with his emotions under control made him the best defender in MLS. The bar is high for him in 2011, and perhaps nothing will be more important than keeping him healthy, over the last couple years he has taken his fair share of hard hits and knocks.  If he stays healthy you should expect him to not only be among the top defenders again this year, but look for him to continue being a huge target on set pieces.  He has found the back of the net 3 times in each of the last two seasons.

more after the jump:

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The only way you get Nat off the pitch during a match is to get him bleeding, in 2010 he missed 27 minutes of action in MLS play for RSL.  Yes that is right in a season of 2,700 minutes he missed 1% of the available minutes, it is even more impressive when you consider that since joining the team in 2008 he has played 7,962 minutes of a possible 8,100 minutes.  He has also played every minute of every playoff match in RSL history.  Yes that is amazing for a hard working defender in this league, Nat has also provided the vocal leadership that RSL has needed on the pitch when things get tough.  Last year he also found the back of the net twice to lift his MLS career goal total to 5, in 2011 fans should expect more of the same from Nat.  I think one thing that has made him such a favorite at Rio Tinto is that after every match Nat takes time to pay respect to the fans, and for that they love him.

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Then we get to the outside backs and the rotation system that RSL used last year and will likely use once again in 2011.  First up is Chris Wingert, who in 2010 scored his first ever goal in a MLS match, and whom I wouldn't be surprised if he found the back of the net again this year.  I think Chris embodies what RSL is about, putting the team first and knowing that the whole is greater than any of the parts.  A solid defender, a good passer of the ball, nothing flashy but a guy who does what is needed and most often does it very well.  I expect we will see more of the same from Chris in 2011.

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The sign at Rio Tinto says it all about Tony Beltran "More than meets the eye", while he isn't the biggest defender on the pitch, you won't find many in MLS who work harder than Tony, always moving forward to start and support the attack and then making some amazing runs to get back in position to stop the opposing side.  No better example than that can be given than last year when LA came to Rio Tinto and several times Tony would come from behind to break up the counter attacks being lead by Landon Donovan.  A young player who just keeps getting better all the time, you have to believe that 2011 will see that development continue.

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I think this pre-season one of the biggest surprises around RSL is the new look Robbie Russell, not just the beard but the leaner and meaner look all around, as Robbie appears to be at peak fitness heading into the 2011 season. When Robbie joined RSL he added international experience, surprising speed and depth that has allowed RSL to use a rotation system to keep their outside backs rested and ready for the season.  I think one of the unsung heroes of the CCL win over Columbus would have to be Robbie who stepped in for suspended Tony Beltran and the team didn't miss a beat.  It is that quality to fill in where needed that makes Robbie such a valuable part of the roster.

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Then of course there are the guys who are backing up the best defense in the league, first up Rauwshan McKenzie

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At the start of the 2010 season, Rauwshan come to RSL from Kansas City, and while at the start of the year he looked a bit rusty (as most young defenders do), but by the end of the season he was filling in during important CCL and MLS matches both as a starter and off the bench.  Heading into the 2011 season RSL knows that they have a player who is showing improvement every match and is capable of stepping into the lineup as needed, he should continue to develop as the season progresses.

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The other backup central defender is Chris Schuler who looked good in limited minutes in 2010, which is surprising for a rookie in MLS.  A late season foot injury kept him sidelined as the season wound down but he has fully recovered and when asked to fill in for a suspended Nat Borchers in the 2nd leg of the recent Champions League match, he did so and showed fans and opponents alike that the depth RSL has at center back is perhaps the best in all of MLS.  I expect big things from Schuler in 2011.

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Then there is the latest addition to the RSL defensive lineup, 2011 MLS SuperDrafts #52 pick Jarad vanSchaik who played his college soccer at the University of Portland (same school as 2010 RSL draft pick Collen Warner).  It will be interesting to see if the rookie can fight his way into getting some minutes away from the solid rotation RSL has at outside back?

There you go, the RSL defenders and while there are some who would question the depth the team has at outside back, I think RSL has a number of midfielders who could move back (Will Johnson did that in 2010) and with how RSL leverages their outside backs a midfielder would be a perfect replacement if needed.  I think our 4 central defenders are simply the top of the heap when it comes to MLS, and that thought was echoed by WVHooligan.com who rates the RSL defense as #1:

1. Real Salt Lake - From top to bottom, I still view RSL as the best defense in the league. The biggest loss they suffered in the back this year however was the Robin Fraser bolting west to take over Chivas USA. Judging what we've seen out of this bunch already in preseason, there is little doubt in my mind that they will continue to be a dominant defensive side once again in 2011. Having two of the top defenders in Jamison Olave and Nat Borchers doesn't hurt but I think we'll see plenty of progression out of guys like Tony Beltran and second-year player Chris Schuler.

It will be hard for the RSL defense to maintain their blistering performance of 2010, but I would expect with the bar raised that each defender will do their very best to keep RSL in the hunt for multiple trophies in 2011.

OFF MY SOAPBOX