We're starting today with key Real Salt Lake players — from those you know from the past five years of RSL success, to some of the newer additions to the team. The team might be the star, but these five players will be key to any playoff success RSL is hoping for.
Nick Rimando, goalkeeper extraordinaire
He's the best goalkeeper in MLS and one of the best in the league's history, but he's also never won the Goalkeeper of the Year award. If you were to classify his best goalkeeping attributes, they'd be threefold.
First: He pulls off amazing reflex saves basically very week. Here's one from the second week of the season, and this one is truly remarkable — but not unusual.
Second: He's great saving penalties. In regular season play, he's saved 35 percent of penalties he's faced. This season, he's saved 80 percent. It's remarkable.
Third: He's great in the air, particularly defending corners and set pieces. Even tall goalkeepers struggle in these situations, but Rimando routinely makes set pieces a non-issue.
Chris Schuler, towering defender
After having a good — if injury-strewn — regular season in 2013, RSL's tall, skillful center back Chris Schuler made his way back into regular contention in the final weeks of the season, then continued apace with a team-leading performance in the 2013 playoffs.
It's a little different this time around, though: Rather than missing the middle of the season, he was perhaps RSL's most consistent player through it. He missed the last three matches of the season after suffering a head collision with Nat Borchers that — one that was eventually described as a 'sinus fracture'. He's been fitted for a mask, and there's a chance he could play in the playoffs.
Kyle Beckerman, captain and defensive midfielder
He's Real Salt Lake's captain, the defensive midfield expert, and one-half of the player personnel reasons that RSL's midfield has remained not just consistent, but a force to be reckoned with. He's more than just a hard-tackling enforcer type, though. He's consistently one of the best passers in MLS, and 2014 has seen him add a more attacking element to his usual play.
Javier Morales, the talismanic playmaker
One of RSL's longest-tenured players alongside Beckerman, Rimando, and several others, Javier Morales plays the ever-important attacking midfield role with aplomb that belies his years. He ended the regular season with his second-highest assists count (12 from 30 games, three below his 15 from 29 in 2008) and scored more goals than ever before. He's done all this while adjusting his playing style to require fewer bursting runs, instead preferring to play deeper in the midfield.
Joao Plata, breakout star striker
He's 5'2" and has scored twice with his head. Need we say more?
Probably, but it feels so unnecessary, doesn't it? Plata has gone from a great distributor — his final ball was excellent in 2013 — to the somewhat-unlikely hero of the season. He led the club in goalscoring — 13 goals and six assists over the course of the regular season — and kept his play fresh even when his strike partner changed week-in, week-out.