For the first time since the Claret-and-Cobalt won the MLS Cup in 2009, the offseason seems to be an entirely different beast in the Wasatch Front. Difficult questions await the MLS gold standard of consistency after falling short of the coveted MLS Cup for two consecutive years.
Last Sunday's unexpected 5-0 throttling at the hands of the Los Angeles Galaxy simultaneously ended Real Salt Lake's tenth season in the league as well as raised questions about the club's foundational principles. It was clear that LA was clearly better and sharper than RSL that night, but RSL general manager Garth Lagerwey experienced a wakeup call: "The worst loss since I've been here at RSL . . . on a big stage like that, is disappointing."
Just as disturbing as RSL's abrupt post season exit, several key names are out of contract at the club. First, Garth Lagerwey, the fulcrum of the Claret-and-Cobalt's brain trust, is out of contact. Lagerwey's commitment to the club has been amazing as he has built a club from the bottom-up. Second, veterans Nat Borchers and Chris Wingert are also on the list with squad rotational players Cole Grossman and Abdoulie Mansally. Like Jason Kreis did a year ago - before departing to NYCFC, many of these guys will be considering their options going forward.
Not only are changes likely to happen from the inside of the club, but will also likely be imposed by outside circumstances. Within the next three months there will be 12 different drafts that will likely shape the rosters of MLS clubs - most daunting of these is the MLS Expansion Draft. Lagerwey echoed what many anticipated by suggesting RSL is expecting to lose two players to New York City FC and Orlando City in December.
In addition, the collective bargaining agreement within Major League Soccer is also set to expire, leaving a lot of people questioning how the ensuing talks will shape the salary cap and roster sizes starting next year - not to mention the number of DPs.
Still, Real Salt Lake is a great place to start the 2015 season. The Claret-and-Cobalt has amazing talent on the roster and still under contract. Furthermore, the new coaching staff has proven their worth and leadership skills. And let's not forget to mention the huge screen going up at Rio Tinto Stadium.
In 2014, Real Salt Lake had three players named to the MLS' 24 Under 24 list of the four RSL candidates on the 50 person shortlist. This list is used to determine the young players with the most potential in this league and Joao Plata, Luis Gil, and Olmes Garcia were on the 2014 list - tying Real Salt Lake for the second largest number of players on the list.
The young players at RSL are among the league's best. Plata's talent is obvious. Scoring 13 goals - 0.50 per match - to finish the year makes Plata the best among 24 year-old players or younger in the league. Joao has been a constant contributor as well recording six assists on the year and becoming the focal point for RSL's attack.
Gil, on the other hand, has struggled to find consistency on RSL's match days but has been a constant contributor to Tab Ramos's US U-20 team where he has stepped up and been the cog needed in vital situations. Still, Gil has controlled his own destiny as a technically gifted, soccer-smart player recording two goals and two assists.
Similarly, Carlos Salcedo has struggled to accumulate minutes behind veterans Nat Borchers and Chris Schuler but has also contributed to his national team in Mexico. Salcedo has, however, opened his professional scoring sheet and helped RSL capture five clean sheets in 2014. With Nat Borchers' future in question, could this be Salcedo's moment?
The Claret-and-Cobalt also have veterans ready to contribute even more. Record years for Nick Rimando and Kyle Beckerman could lead to more success. Beckerman was RSL's fifth leading scorer in 2014 and got a nod from the MLS brass with an honorary mention as one of the best defensive midfielders in the game. Rimando too did his part securing the MLS leading shutout record of 113 before adding two addition shutout before the regular season came to a close. With both of these players still under contract, they will continue to have a lot to contribute.
Another veteran worth mentioning is Alvaro Saborio. RSL's reigning lead scorer was expected to have a record year but fell short due to injury. While in his 30s, Saborio continues to score and drive RSL - look at his goal not five seconds in after being substituted in the September Dallas match. Could 2015 be his record year if he remains healthy?
With a lot of changes coming in the next few months, RSL fans should take hope from the talent that RSL has managed to find and polish during the 2014 campaign. RSL has continued to remain competitive in a league were money and world stars are becoming the basis of success. Still, RSL has managed to create its own diamonds and continue to be a force in the Western Conference and Major League Soccer, for that matter.
While in doubt after the horrific loss to the Galaxy, Real Salt Lake should take stock in their approach to the game knowing it is what has made them competitive. Sticking with the manta "The Team is The Star" will see them through the 2015 campaign and beyond.
What do you think RSL's strength is heading into this offseason? Will we see an all new RSL team and style of play in 2015 or does the foundation stay the same? Is it the talent that RSL has retained and produced that creates the results or is it the results that produces the talent of the team? What do you think? Share your opinions in the comments section below.